Art History Lab

Bold and Playful: The Legacy and Revival of Memphis Design

When it comes to design, there are countless styles and movements that have played a significant role in shaping the industry. One such movement, which gained traction in the 1980s, was the Memphis Design movement.

Known for its bold use of colors, playful forms, and unconventional design methods, the Memphis Design movement offered a breath of fresh air during a time when traditional design styles were dominant. In this article, we will explore the history, characteristics, and legacy of Memphis Design.

We will take a look at the group that started it all, the Memphis Group, and how they managed to influence the design world in a relatively short amount of time. We will also consider the criticisms and negative reviews that were leveled at Memphis Design, and why some people found it so polarizing.

and History of Memphis Design

The Memphis Design movement got its start in the early 1980s, in Milan, Italy. The movement was named after the Bob Dylan song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and its founders included

Ettore Sottsass, the group’s lead designer, and several other Italian designers and architects.

Characteristics of Memphis Design:

The Memphis Design movement was marked by several key characteristics that set it apart from other design styles of that time. These characteristics included:

– Vibrant colors: Memphis Design was known for its bright, bold colors.

Designers often used clashing colors and patterns to create a sense of playfulness and whimsy in their designs. – Dynamic forms: Memphis Design rejected traditional, geometric design principles in favor of asymmetrical, dynamic shapes.

This gave the designs a sense of movement and energy. – Recognizable style: Memphis Design was instantly recognizable due to its use of specific design elements, such as squiggles, stripes, and other playful shapes.

These elements were repeated across different designs, giving the movement a cohesive and recognizable aesthetic. Negative Reviews and Short Lifespan:

Despite its popularity among designers, Memphis Design received a lot of criticism from the general public and even some members of the design community.

The movement was often derided as being impractical, expensive, and simply ugly. Some people found the clashing colors and dynamic shapes to be overwhelming and garish, while others could not justify the high price tag associated with Memphis Design products.

Furthermore, the Memphis Design movement had a relatively short lifespan. By the mid-1980s, the group disbanded, and many designers moved on to other endeavors.

Because the movement was so closely associated with a specific time and place, it has struggled to maintain its relevance in the years since.

The Memphis Group

Formation and Members of the Memphis Group:

The Memphis Group was formed by

Ettore Sottsass and several other Italian designers and architects in the early 1980s. The group was interested in challenging traditional design principles and creating something new and exciting.

Sottsass himself was a well-known figure in the design world, having worked with the likes of Olivetti and designed several iconic architectural structures. Other members of the group included Michele De Lucchi, Aldo Cibic, Marco Zanini, and Barbara Radice.

These designers were united by their desire to reject the rigid design principles of the time and create something truly unique. Dissolution and Individual Pursuits:

Despite their initial success, the Memphis Group eventually began to unravel.

In the mid-1980s, the group disbanded, and many members went on to pursue their own projects and designs. While Memphis Design had a profound impact on the design world and inspired countless other designers, it is difficult to say what the legacy of the group will be in the long term.

One of the most significant events in the post-Memphis Design era was the death of

Ettore Sottsass, who remained a prominent figure in the design world until his passing in 2007. Sottsass’s legacy has been celebrated in many ways, including retrospective exhibitions and documentaries that highlight his contributions to the Memphis Design movement.


In conclusion, Memphis Design was a fascinating and influential movement in the design world. Its emphasis on bold colors, dynamic forms, and unconventional design principles inspired countless designers and pushed the boundaries of what was possible in the field.

While the movement was not without its flaws and criticisms, it remains an important part of design history and a source of inspiration for designers today.

Notable Memphis Designers

The Memphis Design movement was made up of a group of talented designers and architects who collaborated to develop a unique design style. While many of these designers may not be household names, their contributions to the Memphis Design movement are still celebrated today.

In this section, we will take a closer look at some of the most notable Memphis Designers.

Ettore Sottsass

Ettore Sottsass was the founder and lead designer of the Memphis Group. Before creating Memphis Design, Sottsass was already a well-known architect and designer with a distinct aesthetic.

His work often featured bold colors and unique shapes, and he was well-respected in the design community. One of Sottsass’s most famous contributions to Memphis Design was the Tahiti Lamp.

This lamp, which was designed in 1981, features a bright red base with a curvy black shade. It was one of the earliest examples of Memphis Design and helped to set the tone for the movement as a whole.

In addition to his work with Memphis Design, Sottsass continued to create important architectural structures and designs throughout his career. He was a truly multidisciplinary designer, and his contributions to the design world are still celebrated today.

Martine Bedin

Martine Bedin is a French designer who was part of the Memphis Group. Bedin’s work focused on creating playful, Memphis-style lighting designs that were both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

One of Bedin’s most famous designs is the Super Lamp, which was created in 1981. This lamp features a bright yellow base with a white lampshade that curves and twists in unexpected ways.

Like many Memphis Design pieces, the Super Lamp is playful and whimsical while still being functional. Bedin’s work has been featured in many exhibitions and retrospectives over the years, and her contributions to the Memphis Design movement are still celebrated today.

Nathalie Du Pasquier

Nathalie Du Pasquier is a Belgian-born designer and artist who was part of the Memphis Group. While she initially worked as a textile designer, her role in the Memphis Design movement allowed her to explore new design principles and techniques.

In recent years, Du Pasquier has become something of a Memphis revivalist. She has continued to create new designs that are inspired by the movement, even as it has become less popular in mainstream design circles.

One of her most recent designs is the Royal Sofa, which features bold, geometric shapes and bright colors. Du Pasquier’s dedication to Memphis Design and her continued contributions to the movement have helped to keep its spirit alive, even as other designers have moved on to new styles and aesthetics.

Inspiration for Memphis Design

While the Memphis Design movement is often seen as a radical departure from traditional design styles, it was also influenced by a variety of historical and cultural movements. In this section, we will take a closer look at some of the inspirations for Memphis Design.

Pop Art and Kitsch

One of the most significant inspirations for Memphis Design was the Pop Art movement of the 1960s. Pop Art was known for its use of bright colors and its incorporation of popular culture references into art and design.

Memphis Design was also heavily influenced by kitsch, a style that celebrates the tacky, the tasteless, and the gaudy. Kitsch often features bright colors, playful shapes, and a tongue-in-cheek approach to design.

Many Memphis Design pieces could be considered kitschy, with their playful shapes and bold use of color.

Cubism and De Stijl

Another major influence on Memphis Design was the Cubist and De Stijl movements of the early 20th century. These movements were characterized by their use of geometric shapes, horizontal and vertical lines, and a rejection of traditional perspectives.

In Memphis Design, these principles were taken to the extreme, with designers using asymmetrical shapes and bold colors to create dynamic and energetic designs.

Art Deco

Finally, the

Art Deco movement of the 1920s and 1930s was also a significant inspiration for Memphis Design.

Art Deco was known for its flashy, decorative designs, and its focus on luxury and opulence.

While Memphis Design was not as focused on luxury as

Art Deco, it did incorporate many elements of the movement, such as bold colors, dynamic shapes, and a focus on visual impact. In many ways, Memphis Design can be seen as a modern reinterpretation of

Art Deco, with a focus on playfulness and whimsy rather than opulence and luxury.


The Memphis Design movement was influenced by a wide range of historical and cultural movements, from Pop Art and kitsch to

Art Deco and the De Stijl movement. The designers who were part of the Memphis Group brought their own unique perspectives and philosophies to the movement, creating a style that was both bold and playful.

While the Memphis Design movement may have been short-lived, its legacy continues to inspire designers today.

Characteristics of Memphis Design

The Memphis Design movement was known for its bold and unconventional aesthetic. The movement rejected traditional design principles and instead focused on creating playful, dynamic designs that incorporated bright colors, unusual shapes, and unexpected materials.

In this section, we will take a closer look at some of the key characteristics of Memphis Design.

Bold Colors and Graphics

One of the defining characteristics of Memphis Design was its use of bold colors and graphics. Designers in the movement were not afraid to use clashing hues, primary and pastel colors, and geometric shapes to create visually striking designs.

Many designs also featured squiggles and lines that added a sense of playfulness and whimsy. Memphis Designers often used graphic patterns, such as stripes and dots, to create a sense of movement and energy in their designs.

These graphics were often used in unexpected ways, such as on furniture and household items, and helped to establish the Memphis Design movement as a truly unique aesthetic.

Terrazzo and Laminate

Another key characteristic of Memphis Design was its use of unconventional materials like terrazzo and laminate. Terrazzo, a material made of marble chips set in concrete, was often used in Memphis Design furniture pieces.

The material was colorful and playful, and designers would often create patterns and shapes by mixing different colors together. Laminate was another frequently used material in Memphis Design.

Cheap, durable, and readily available, laminate was often used in furniture and household items. Designers would choose laminates with bold colors and patterns, adding to the overall sense of playfulness and whimsy in their designs.

Unconventional Geometric Shapes and Colors

Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of Memphis Design was its use of unconventional geometric shapes and colors. Designers in the movement were not beholden to traditional shapes, instead favoring assemblages of asymmetric triangles, clashing hues, and pastels that were as surprising as they were delightful.

In Memphis Design, shapes were often used in unexpected ways, such as in the Carlton Room Divider by

Ettore Sottsass, where shelves and triangles were arranged in an off-kilter pattern that was both eye-catching and functional.

Examples of Memphis Design

The Memphis Design movement produced some truly stunning and memorable pieces of art, furniture, and architecture. In this section, we will look at some of the most notable examples of Memphis Design across a range of categories.

Furniture (The Carlton by

Ettore Sottsass)

The Carlton room divider by

Ettore Sottsass was one of the most famous pieces of Memphis Design furniture. The piece, which was created in 1981, featured a series of asymmetric triangles in bold colors, arranged in a seemingly haphazard fashion.

However, upon closer inspection, one can see that the shelves and triangles were arranged in a way that maximized storage space while still looking visually interesting. Other notable Memphis Design furniture pieces include your typical pieces like dressers, bookcases, and seating designed by the likes of

Martine Bedin, George Sowden, and Marco Zanini.

Architecture (Dream Come True Building)

The Dream Come True Building, located in Japan, is an excellent example of Memphis Design in architecture. The building features a mix of bold, bright colors and black and white stripes, arranged in a pattern that is both playful and visually striking.

The building stands out from its surroundings and is a testament to the boldness and creativity of Memphis Design. Interior Design (Kartell’s Flagship Store)

Kartell’s flagship store in Milan is a great example of Memphis-inspired interior design.

The store features black and white stripes, bold patterns, and vibrant colors, all arranged in a way that is eye-catching and whimsical. The design of the store serves as a reminder that Memphis Design can be just as effective and impactful in interior design as it is in furniture or architecture.

Sports (Supreme Skateboards)

Even the world of skateboarding has been touched by the Memphis Design movement. Supreme Skateboards, a popular maker of skateboard decks, has released several Memphis-style patterns over the years, featuring bold shapes and playful colors.

These designs are a testament to the versatility of Memphis Design, showing that it can be incorporated into almost any aesthetic.

Vehicles (Memphis BMWs)

In 2017, BMW collaborated with artist Esther Mahlangu to create a series of Memphis-inspired designs for several of their cars. These designs featured bold color block patterns and geometric shapes and were a unique take on the traditional BMW aesthetic.

Product Design (1995 Apple Watch)

Even the world of technology has been touched by Memphis Design. The 1995 Apple Watch, which was designed by Marc Newson, featured bold colors and geometric shapes.

While the design proved too radical for most consumers, it is yet another example of the range of places Memphis Design can be found.

Fashion (Christian Dior 2011 Fall Collection)

Fashion has also been influenced by the Memphis Design movement. The Christian Dior 2011 Fall Collection featured graphic stripes, bold patterns, and vibrant colors, all in a style reminiscent of the Memphis aesthetic.

The collection was a unique take on traditional fashion and showed that Memphis Design could be incorporated into almost any genre. Conclusion:

The examples of Memphis Design shown in this article demonstrate the versatility and creativity of the movement.

From furniture to architecture, interior design to fashion, Memphis Design has left a lasting impact on design and aesthetics as we know it. Its bold colors and unconventional shapes continue to inspire generations of designers to explore new and unique ways of creating beauty and functionality in design.

Memphis Design Today

While the heyday of the Memphis Design movement may have been in the 1980s, its influence is still felt in various industries today. In this section, we will explore the revival and influence of Memphis Design in the fashion industry, the characteristics of modern Memphis Design, and the reasons for the decline of the original movement.

Revival and Influence in the Fashion Industry

Memphis Design has experienced a revival in the fashion industry in recent years. Designers such as Missoni, Karl Lagerfeld, and Christian Dior have all been influenced by the bold and playful aesthetic of Memphis Design.

Missoni, known for their colorful and patterned knitwear, has incorporated Memphis-style patterns and shapes into their collections. The use of bold colors and geometric shapes in Missoni’s designs gives a nod to the Memphis aesthetic while still displaying their own unique style.

Karl Lagerfeld, a legendary fashion designer, drew inspiration from Memphis Design in his Spring/Summer 2011 collection for Chanel. Lagerfeld incorporated vibrant colors, graphic patterns, and unconventional shapes into his designs, creating a playful and imaginative collection that paid homage to the Memphis movement.

Christian Dior has also been influenced by Memphis Design. The 2011 Fall Collection showcased graphic stripes, bold patterns, and vibrant colors, reminiscent of the Memphis aesthetic.

These designs demonstrated the lasting impact of Memphis Design on the fashion industry and its ability to transcend time and trends.

Modern Memphis Design

In recent years, a modern interpretation of Memphis Design has emerged. While still influenced by the original movement, this modern Memphis Design often incorporates chaotic and unorganized elements, with subtle nods to the bold colors and playful shapes of the past.

Designers and artists today are inspired by the sense of freedom and creativity that Memphis Design represents. The incorporation of unexpected elements, vibrant colors, and unconventional shapes is seen as a way to break free from traditional design norms and explore new possibilities.

Modern Memphis Design can be found in various creative fields, including graphic design, interior design, and product design. The chaotic and unorganized nature of modern Memphis Design allows for a range of interpretations and applications, making it a versatile style that can suit different tastes and aesthetics.

Reasons for Decline of Original Memphis Design

While Memphis Design may have been influential during its time, the movement eventually declined. There were several reasons for this decline.

One reason was the negative reviews and criticism that the movement received. Many people found the bold colors, clashing patterns, and unconventional shapes of Memphis Design to be overwhelming and visually disorienting.

Critics were quick to label the movement as impractical, expensive, and even “ugly.”

Additionally, some viewed Memphis Design as a political statement rather than a design movement. Its rejection of traditional design principles and embrace of bold, unconventional aesthetics was seen as a rebellion against the status quo.

This political aspect of Memphis Design may have alienated some potential followers and led to its decline in popularity. Lastly, like many design movements, Memphis Design simply experienced a decline in interest over time.

As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s and beyond, new design trends emerged, capturing the attention of designers and the public. Memphis Design was no longer at the forefront of design discourse, and interest in the movement waned.


While Memphis Design may have lost its momentum after the 1980s, its influence can still be seen in various industries today. The fashion industry, in particular, has embraced the bold and playful aesthetic of Memphis Design, with designers such as Missoni, Karl Lagerfeld, and Christian Dior incorporating its elements into their collections.

Additionally, a modern interpretation of Memphis Design has emerged, characterized by chaotic and unorganized elements that still pay homage to the movement’s bold colors and unconventional shapes. Despite its decline, the impact of the original Memphis Design movement remains significant.

Its ability to challenge traditional design principles and embrace bold and vibrant aesthetics continues to inspire designers and artists across different creative fields. In conclusion, Memphis Design was a bold and influential movement in the design world, characterized by its vibrant colors, unconventional shapes, and playful aesthetics.

Despite facing criticism and a relatively short lifespan, Memphis Design continues to have a lasting impact, with its revival in the fashion industry and modern interpretations keeping its spirit alive. The movement’s influence can be seen in various creative fields, showcasing the enduring power of its bold and unconventional approach.

Memphis Design reminds us to embrace creativity, challenge traditional norms, and explore new possibilities in design.

Popular Posts