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My 80s Memphis Design Inspirations

Matthew Baines

80s Memphis Design Pattern & Me

As a teenager of the 1980s I had a lot of exposure, without really knowing it, to 80s Memphis-inspired design and kitsch that influenced me on a regular basis. I remember pop videos (like Witney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody with its graffiti-inspired sets and bold colorful screens), the jaunty fonts used on the Top of the Pops show, the neon, day-glow makeup and accessories folks wore on the street. My bedroom wallpaper was a series of squiggles in a red, white and blue flat pattern design that matched my duvet cover. These primary colors and flat geometric shapes were remarkable and tattooed themselves onto my brain as a huge signifier of the 1980s aesthetic.

Everything was exaggerated, the hair, the shoulder pads, the money. To me, it was a decade of remarkable bad taste, and for years I wondered why that characteristic had always been applied to the Seventies rather than the Eighties.

When I investigate it further, it seems even more odd, as the Memphis Group, who came up with a lot of the Memphis pattern design kitsch, were not a huge success during their lifetime, not commercially at least. The group was formed in 1981 in Milan by Ettore Sottsass who brought together a group of similar thinkers to come up with a new Memphis design interior, consisting of radical furniture design, that was not bound by the rules of Modernism. During that first meeting, the song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” was played on repeat, and from that the name Memphis was born. Little did the group know, back in 1981, how their own 80s Memphis design pattern aesthetic would itself eventually stick and help define the aesthetic of the 1980s.

Thirty or so years later, with their design aesthetic very much stuck inside our minds, it is, much to the amusement of Generation X (and to my subsequent delight), being recycled to the modern age.

Let's, for a moment, take a look at where 80s Memphis design style originated from. Bauhaus Modernism is probably a main contender, but more as an opposing movement than as a complimentary evolutionary precursor.

Bauhaus Influence on 80s Memphis Design

The origins of Memphis go back quite some way. Some might call Memphis “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price” where the philosophy of Bauhaus Modernism was merged with plastics, bold, brash colors, playful shapes and a sense of fun. With Memphis style, the very opposite of Modernism applies, where function follows form, rather than the reverse, as the products created tended to not be very practical because of their outlandish design aesthetic. For this reason I would argue that Bauhaus provided a reaction, rather than an influence, to Memphis.

Interestingly though, the Bauhaus emblem, if we can call it that, was quite close to Memphis in its use of rectangles and circles and with a throwback to a previous age, in this case, is that De Vinci’s Mona Lisa that we see there?

Both 80s Memphis design and Bauhaus were disruptors. Like Memphis, Bauhaus wanted to break through the hierarchies of the creative arts and democratise design. Sottsass also saw that. Interviewed in 2006 by the New York times, he said "After my first trip to America, I realized that industrial civilization was coming, and that the lacquer of an automobile could be as beautiful as an abstract painting."

For 80s Memphis design, its premise was also as a reaction to the formalism and minimalism of the post war period and Mid-Century-Modern movement that dominated the design establishment, where there had been a need for structure and simplicity as a foil against the chaos of the war. It was time for some color and fun in our everyday lives that was no longer constrained by status quo design rules. Sottsass had already played around with form over function in everyday objects with his beautiful Olivetti Valentine typewriter in 1968, which was revolutionary. Now he would develop this premise further.

Sottsass Olivetti Valentine typewriter 1968

Eclectic Bad Taste of Memphis Style

By the 1980s Sottsass was looking for something new, and so the group developed designs that turned formalism on its head and used abstraction, anarchical patterns, and eclectic bad taste as their guiding principles.

Drawing on earlier design movements, in true Postmodern sense, they were inspired by the Art Deco and Pop Art periods, stripped down to the basics, and fused together with irregular geometric forms (triangles, wavy lines, circles in jaunty, haphazard positions), plastic laminates, minimal lines, kitsch, humorous patterns, terrazzo tiling, monochrome stripes, brash, garish and clashing neon, primary and pastel colors, all as a flat design. It is not surprising that their furniture did not sell at first, as it was not very practical. It was also mocked for being rather expensive given its use of plastics and other cheap materials. 

Take the obvious example, the Carlton room divider, or is it a bookcase, or a dresser? It is probably none of these and is best just kept as a design piece and admired from afar rather than used. It is also huge, measuring about two meters square. Made primarily of laminated material, its form is far more important than its function. That said, these days the Carlton Room Divider can be purchased from the Memphis Milano website for over 14,000 euros.

The group was primarily about furniture design, making their first collection at the 1981 furniture fair, Salone del Mobile of Milan. Whilst it drew crowds of fascinating onlookers, the exhibition was not a commercial success for the group. Despite this, Karl Lagerfeld was a huge fan and bought up a lot of the works. David Bowie too, amassed a huge amount of Memphis design during his lifetime. For the time being, however, 80s Memphis design did not become mainstream. Sottsass left the group in 1985, and Memphis disbanded in 1988, not having ventured much beyond their furniture designs.

80s Memphis design remained obsolete until 2006 when the LACMA in Los Angeles held an exhibition of Sottsass’s designs. The New York Times article on the exhibition quoted Max Palevsky, the co-founder of Intel, with a theory behind Sottsass’ limited success until then:

"The Museum of Modern Art [of New York] has several pieces by Ettore in its collection," Mr. Palevsky said. "But for years they refused to do a show. Memphis clearly doesn't fit with their history of midcentury design or the Bauhaus idea that form follows function." 

Development of the 80s Memphis Design Interior and other forms

The LA exhibition marked a turning point for Memphis style, as gradually, new and more practical forms, such as apparel (eg founding Memphis member Nathalie du Pasquier for American Apparel).

 Other forms followed, such as ceramics, homewares (Dusen Dusen New York store) and even skateboards by the brand Supreme (Alessandro Mendini designs) began to emerge. 

This re-use of the 80s Memphis design concept as practical everyday items, used as surface patterns, created using modern graphic design methods, meant that what had been mostly only a concept design in impractical furniture could now be a usable commodity. 80s Memphis Design patterns were here to stay and enter the contemporary mainstream. Not only that, furniture was not left behind when it came to Memphis as this reinterpretation of the Memphis style meant that more useful items could be developed using modern technological methods. The Memphis movement revival was here.

Contemporary Memphis Pattern Design

Camille Walala Memphis-inspired building in Shoreditch

Camille Walala, a Brighton University 2006 graduate, has pushed Memphis design in a huge way with both her public artifacts and design surface patterns, to create an inspiring Memphis background to the public space. The Dream Come True building in Shoreditch (2015) is completely Memphis in its use of color and shapes painted onto the façade of, actually, an otherwise rather unremarkable building.

Likewise the Southwark Street pedestrian crossing in South London, with the application of a flat surface pattern, transforms a generic urban street into an inspiring art installation. I absolutely love this crossing as I think it really brings the street to life.

For me, Walala is more purist in her interpretation of 80s Memphis design, but has been successful in finding the zeitgeist of the last few years with her use of mixed up bright colors and bold shapes, just like in the 80s.

Generally, the contemporary reinterpretation of the Memphis palette is a little more muted than it was in the 1980s, with mellow teals and soft pinks, blended with greys as well as the trademark stark black-and-white patterns. The style is sometimes mixed back with earlier patterns and color palettes such as from the 1970s, or more organic shapes. Fonts tend to be more sans serif and less zany.

For example, Dusen Dusen combines a wonderful color palette with the spirit of bold 80s Memphis design prints, as you can see in the pin below.

Broen Design is an interesting design company, producing products such as the Squiggle Lamp which draws on 80s Memphis design principles, whilst being functional.

BillingtonPix 80s Memphis Surface Patterns

80s Memphis inspired patterns

My own personal style has obviously developed from these influences. I've always been interested in the retro style. Initally I explored Mid Century Modernism (MCM) but my real hit came from Memphis which I have developed into my own personal interpretation. Lately, I've been creating surface patterns using 80s Memphis-inspired shapes and colors. Take for example my latest Splattered Donuts collection. This cartoon-like design, is taken directly from the flat designs of Memphis surface patterns.

 To me, it looks like Memphis Design is now endemic in our contemporary aesthetic. Coming from an experimental period of the 1980s when it was mocked for being expensive, cheaply made and not very practical, it has morphed into something that can lift a room, or a public space, if not the spirit.

For more details on our take on 80s Memphis Design head over to our dedicated page on the Memphis design pattern and our corresponding Memphis products for sale. Alternatively, you can also view our entire pattern catalog.

My 80s Memphis inspirations - phone cases by BillingtonPix

I hope I have inspired you somewhat with the history of 80s Memphis Design and that you might now also feel inclined to keep the principle of free design without formulaic constraints alive! I have so much fun designing Memphis style that it brings me incredible pleasure to share this with you.

One of my favorite products to design 80s Memphis surface patterns for are phone cases. These personal pieces of art that we keep in our pockets and handbags are such as expression of our individuality that I feel its so important that we express ourselves that way!

Who knew that the teenager of the 1980s with that retro wallpaper on his bedroom wall, would take such a shine to such a rebellious design movement that is Memphis!

If you've enjoyed reading this blog, please consider sharing it, either on Pinterest, Facebook or Whatsapp via the social media links on this page.

Finally, just to keep this page nice and fresh, here is a direct view into my 80s Memphis design product catalog. 



80s interior design memphis retro

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