Memphis: Then and Now
The radical design movement that defined the look of the ‘80s and how it is still very much alive and well.
Written by Craig Berry
Designer & Writer
During my studies learning about design, the iconic design movements of the late 19th and 20th century were one of the first and most important things that I learnt. From Arts and Crafts to Art Nouveau, Bauhaus to Space Age and Surrealism to Minimalism; I studied them all and gained my own educated opinion on each. Several of these design movements stuck with me throughout my later studies and at times directed my work, including possibly the most iconic and easily recognisable: Memphis.
Memphis was born in Milan Italy in the 1980's and founded by the artist Ettore Sottsass, together with other designers and artists who opposed the conformist approach at the time; they disliked the minimalist design of typewriters, buildings, cameras, cars, and furniture. At the time these were all visually similar and devoid of personality and individualism, in the eyes of the Memphis group members.
As iconic and recognisable as Memphis is now, it was very controversial at the time. For some people, it celebrated the use of bright colours, vibrant patterns and bold graphic forms and for other people, it was offensive, distasteful and famously was referred to as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”.
Memphis, named after Bob Dylan’s song Stuck Inside the Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, which was playing when the group first met. Their first collection was launched at Milan’s Salone del Mobile in 1981 at the Arc ’74 showroom. The show was critically acclaimed for its innovation and unique look; the show included designs for clocks, lighting, furniture, and ceramics created by internationally famous architects and designers.
The work of the Memphis Group was also described as ornamental and was conceived to be a fad which would eventually come to an end. Officially it did when Sottsass dismantled the group in 1988 but, Memphis lives on today; many artists, designers and illustrators have taken its use of bright colours, vibrant patterns and bold graphic forms and through the use of new methods, techniques and ideas given Memphis a new life whether they are aware or not.
London based artist, Camille Walala creates site-specific street murals and installations using a limited colour palette and bold graphic forms which have an inherent relationship with Memphis through their imposing energy.
Supermundane aka Rob Lowe is a London based graphic artist whose playful work using geometric shapes, pattern and colour combined with typography and illustration bring a new sense of humour to Memphis style through his quirky faces and empowering messages.
Amsterdam based Karan Singh is an illustrator whose work uses Memphis style shapes combined with op-art minimalism, with a great eye for colour his work is both striking and hypnotic.
Illustrator, Morag Myerscough’s work can be described as being somewhat Memphis for its use of vibrant colour and energetic shapes. The colours are less primary and more fluorescent which only increases the vibrancy.
Kate Moross, a graphic designer and illustrator has a style which feels Memphis-like through her use of pattern and typography and how they work together. Here it feels nicely handmade and not too polished.
These artists all work with similar shapes, patterns and colours but each in a unique and contemporary way, much like the original Memphis artists who took a design approach and applied it in their own way; these artists aren’t afraid to create work that people might dislike. However, whether it is due to the 1980s nostalgia-inducing feeling of Memphis or that people are just beginning to appreciate the style, Memphis inspired design is very popular today with the likes of Apple, American Express, IBM, BMW, Adidas, Supreme and Adobe using it for their communication and products.