Chances are you are familiar with the Memphis style of design, even if you don’t know the name. Think Saved by the Bell or Pee Wee’s Playhouse. It’s a style characterized by colorful and asymmetrical shapes, bold patterning and contrasting colors, often using plastic laminate as a core material. The Memphis Group was an Italian design and architecture collective, founded by Ettore Sottsass in Milan in the early 80’s (big surprise). The name doesn’t refer to the city, but to the Bob Dylan song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” that was playing the night the group first came together to brainstorm. At the first Memphis show in 1981, the design world was turned upside down by this colorful, whack-a-doodle affront to the design status quo. One designer, Jasper Morrison, who attended the first show, told the Guardian, “It was the weirdest feeling- you were in one sense repulsed but the objects, but also freed by this sort of total rule-breaking.”
While it looks tasteless and a bit ridiculous now, it rocked the design world at the time. It was a shot of colorful postmodernism that shook up the slick, minimal design aesthetic of the time. And within the last few years, Memphis has reared it’s head again, influencing and inspiring a whole new generation of artists that grew up in the 80s heyday of this style. Or maybe more accurately, they are being influenced by Memphis’s pop-culture touch-points, like Pee Wee’s Playhouse and the interior decor in Beetlejuice. Which is about the most postmodern form of flattery possible. Whether you love it or hate it, Memphis style continues to playfully provoke, even 36 years after it splashed onto the design scene.
The current Met Breuer show Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical is a great place to start if you are interested in learning more about the godfather of this style. The show runs through October 8th in NYC.