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Memphis Design Movement – A Bold idea born in 1980s



Memphis Milano Movement

Ever Heard of the name Memphis? I am sure you might connect saying it is the name of a place. Yes, you are right it is the name of a place in the US as well. But here I am talking about the Memphis Design Movement. A movement began in the 1980s in Italy which changed the design sense by a storm. Let’s get to know more about the Design Movement.

What is the Memphis Design Movement?

In the 1980s a group of designers, architects and writers was formed in Milan, Italy which was led by the famous Italian designer Ettore Sottsass. The group even had young designers freshly passed out of the university. The group was formed to change or challenge the perception of modernism or a “Good design”. The Memphis design movement began as a response to the black & white, dull, humourless designs of the 1970s.

The Memphis design group worked on developing bold and brash colours & patterns in everything they developed. Mostly the group worked on innovative furniture, clothing and even clocks.

The group’s Memphis design shot to fame in September 1981 at one of the furniture exhibitions in Milan and soon became the trend worldwide. Some of the noticeable works were


Carlton Bookshelf, designed by Ettore Sottsass

Carlton Bookshelf, designed by Ettore Sottsass

But the group did not last long, it was disbanded in 1987. The members of the group continued to work individually on Memphis design.

Still curious,

How was the name Memphis derived?

In the very first meeting of the group on December 11, 1980, at Ettore Sottsass’s residence, the group was brainstorming on changing the concept of designing and in the background was Bob Dylan’s record playing “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”. This struck Sottsass’s mind and he could immediately connect Memphis to 2 things, ancient Egypt’s capital city & a city to which Elvis Presley belonged in Tennessee.

Immediately the name Memphis was chosen and collectively agreed upon. The Memphis Design group is also known as Memphis Milano since it was formed in Milan, Italy.

Then and Now of Memphis Design

Though the group lasted for a mere 6 years, they had already created a worldwide impact. Many from the group began working individually on the Memphis design. Ettore Sottsass crafted some great Memphis inspired architectural & furniture designs.

The Memphis designs were bold and colourful which were tagged as Bizarre. One of the critics described it as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”. The design was widely adapted in designing furniture, architecture, household items in the early 90s.

The design was slowly losing its charm in the late 90s but after the demise of Ettore Sottsass in 2007, it soon regained popularity and now we can see the adaptation of Memphis design in the graphic world too.

It is one of the most instantly recognizable styles due to the use of bright colours, design patterns and geometric shapes. While some appreciate the design style for its outlandish look, some simply call it a bad taste for the aesthetics. But one cannot deny the influence of Memphis design in the graphic designing industry or Interior designs in today’s world.

Creating your own Memphis designs is easy.

Memphis Milano Movement - Memphis Designed Lounge by Pallavi Fernandes

Memphis Milano Movement – Memphis Designed Lounge by Pallavi Fernandes

While furniture styling is not everyone’s cup of tea, you can refer to the work done by Ettore Sottsass to get inspired on designing your living room. But in the graphic designing world, these few ideas might help.

Choose a design pattern

The starting point would be to select shapes and create repetitive patterns with circles, squares, triangles, waves, lines, etc to give a Memphis look to the background.

Develop a colour Pallet

While the earlier colours were bold in Memphis design, you can look at softening your colour pallet to make it look fresh. You can still go on and use neon colours in combination with a wide range of pastel colours.

Give a bold impact to the Text

The new-age digital tools have a lot to offer. Memphis designs have minimal line usage for text effects, filling them with brash pastel colours. Check out this link on how to create a bold Text effect.

A new beginning to the end

We’ve read about the Design Movement, its impact on the world of designing and the contribution of the group. The design that was inspired by Art deco, Pop art and Kitsch has brought about a larger change in the way we look at art. I am sure, you’ll now be able to identify Memphis design around you.

In this article, I’d like to thank all the group members who’ve created this history Ettore Sottsass, Alessandro Mendini, Martine Bedin, Andrea Branzi, Shiro Kuromata, Aldo Cibic, Michele de Lucchi, Matteo Thun, Javier Mariscal, George Sowden, Marco Zanini, Nathalie du Pasquier, Michael Graves, Hans Hollein, Arata Isozaki, and the journalist Barbara Radice.

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