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Memphis Design, pop culture, and the battle against ‘good taste’

The ‘80s design collective was a radical departure—and panned as a symbol of trend-chasing yuppies

The Saved by the Max pop-up restaurant, which opened in Chicago last summer.
Marc Much

In a decade known for indulgence, the designs that emerged from the Memphis Group defined the boundary-pushing postmodernism of the ’80s. The abstract and angular furniture and graphic patterns devised by this Italian-based collective were the antithesis of streamlined, midcentury style; one critic described a room of their work as a series of “flat disks, lozenges, and saw-toothed edges; some resemble slices of lemon, toothbrushes and imaginary animals.”

And the colors—pastel and punchy—were even more striking. Lester Dundes, the influential publisher of Interior Design magazine, said the radical design group’s debut was “a bolt out of the blue, red and yellow.”

But above all, Memphis, the short-lived design movement that entered the world in 1981 with the force of a runway show and faded out before the decade closed, was playful, an indifferent and insouciant break from tradition in line with the kind of Reagan-era rebellion seen on a nascent MTV.

A collective of international designers founded by Ettore Sottsass, whose career is the subject of an upcoming retrospective at New York’s Met Breuer opening this July, the brief movement was fashionable and fun. A then up-and-coming New York magazine fashion editor, Anna Wintour, said that furniture “wasn’t a whole lot of fun until 1981, when the Memphis design group, based in Milan, brought out its first collection ... a cheerful synthesis of historical allusion and rock ‘n’ roll.”

1982 New York magazine spread on Memphis design

Memphis moments

As distance and nostalgia gives this ’80s movement new respect and resonance, its cultural impact has grown. The upcoming Met exhibition arrives on the heels of other Memphis moments in recent pop culture: the Sotheby’s auction of David Bowie’s private collection of the collective’s outlandish furniture; an American Apparel collection featuring the world of Memphis designer Nathalie Du Pasquier; even the celebrated Saved by the Max pop-up, a recreation of the hangout from late ’80s TV staple Saved by the Bell.

Memphis design, merely by challenging orthodox ideas, is memorable. But the movement’s true impact on pop culture is as elusive and twisted as the squiggly lines found in Memphis-inspired patterns.

Sottsass and his followers found limited commercial success, shutting down production of new pieces in 1987 after difficulty translating hype into mainstream sales. But their colorful work became symbols that have been constantly revisited and reinterpreted, both a beacon of experimentation and edginess, as well as a sign of snottiness and upper-class cluelessness.

In its rejection of tradition, Memphis has become a playful part of pop culture, celebrated by today’s trendsetters as a symbol of the ’80s. But during its heyday, it also became a symbol of trend-chasing, upwardly mobile yuppies. Memphis, like anything, is what you make of it.

Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass standing next to his Carlton Bookcase
Vittoriano Rastelli/Corbis via Getty Images

“Good taste was the bad thing they were fighting against”

The origins of the Memphis group are fitting, considering the ways its has been interpreted over time. Sottsass, decades into a career that included working for both Olivetti and Alessi, convened an international group of designers at the dawn of the ’80s to create a new style that was to be called “The New Design.” The actual name originated during their first meeting, when a skipping Bob Dylan record constantly replayed the line “stuck in Mobile with the Memphis blues again.”

The group’s debut at Milan’s trendsetting furniture fair in 1981 was a revelation. While some of the inspiration came from the past, in true Postmodern fashion, the work’s rejection of established styles—and embrace of bold patterns and colors—was instantly noteworthy. Bucking tradition, the group displayed prototypes instead of production-ready designs, and the shocking, even impudent, work swept through fair with the energy of a fashion show. “Good taste was the bad thing they were fighting against,” said Vera Graaf, a design writer.

Memphis at the movies

The excitement generated in Milan slowly soon arrived on American shores. In 1982, more than 3,000 waited in line for Memphis at Midnight, the first U.S. show of the collective’s work, held in a Chelsea loft. As Wintour noted in her 1982 piece for New York magazine, the “witty message” of Memphis was being picked up by fashion and furniture designers.

By mid-decade, it had gone mainstream: Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s carried Memphis-inspired pieces in 1985, and objects and patterns were making it as far as a show at High Point, North Carolina, the nexus of the American furniture industry. Wildly patterned plastic laminate tables had, however briefly, established a beachhead in the U.S. capital of woodworking and craftsmanship.

Soon after Memphis collided with Middle America, the style’s pop culture imprint became significant, appearing in numerous movies and television shows. In many ways, Memphis at the movies may represent the styles more lasting impact. Actual sales were poor.

According to a New York Times account of the movement, the wildly colored and less-than-functional pieces were difficult to integrate into conventional homes, and limited production runs made the price of these contemporary pieces ($2,000 to $10,000) out of reach for many. Early distributors said interest was there, but that didn’t translate into profit, and Sottsass dissolved the group in 1988.

The steep price and limited availability perhaps helped the style become, for many production designers and art directors, a symbol for the elite. Look at the way Memphis design was depicted in films, beginning in 1986 with Ruthless People. Bette Midler’s character, an heiress, sits atop throne-like Memphis-inspired chairs, a symbol of a “trendy, tasteless” lifestyle. In National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the hapless Griswold clan, long symbols of a bumbling but lovable middle class, live next door to the Chester family, cunning social climbers with a postmodern interior as cold as their hearts.

In Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, when up-and-coming financial titan Bud Fox splurges on a penthouse, he hires his girlfriend to transform it into what can only be called an extended joke on the era’s conspicuous consumerism. As the camera pans over the PoMo pastiche inside, including a pasta maker at work in the kitchen, it captures a visual joke about the functionality (or lack thereof) in this style of furniture; Bud tries to place a plate on what he thinks is a glass table, but since it’s simply a design object sans a solid surface, it falls to the floor.

Perhaps the most striking is the modernist home in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, where a villainous New York couple—including an interior designer—come to the countryside and transform a home into a postmodern collage inspired by Richard Meier, Frank Gehry, and Memphis.

A movie review described the scene as a “surrealistic tomb” done in “post-mortemism,” filled with spiky steel chairs, Italian bar stools, a jagged-edge granite dining room table, squiggly dressers, and faux-granite everything else. The production designer, Bo Terry, said the idea was to take the trendiest architecture money could buy and create an interior that was “cold, dangerous, and unstable.”

Swimming in larger cultural currents

Memphis, contemporary design and, most importantly, those who enjoy it, do get typecast in this era (see also the treatment of modernist design and megavillains in Bond films for a similar confluence of contemporary design and evil intent).

But that didn’t mean the exuberant side of Memphis didn’t also get play. Memphis and postmodernism in general, also helped shape the pop culture landscape. The graphical architecture of Miami’s Arquitectonica makes plenty of cameos in the white suit-and-pastel world of Miami Vice, and it’s fair to say the cartoonish glee of Memphis graphic design also made its mark.

However, it’s also easy to conflate Memphis’s influence with many of the other design trends of the era, assigning causation when similar currents had already been shaping the art world.

Publicity still from 'Pee Wee's Playhouse,' CBS TV's comedy starring Paul Reubens and S Epatha Merkerson, 1986.
John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images

Many assume that the wild, often anthropomorphic look of Pee Wee’s Playhouse was strongly inspired by Memphis design. According to artist and designer Gary Panter, who created the elaborate and influential set, Memphis arrived at a moment of hybridism and retro design. He cites numerous artists and movements—Victor Moscoso's underground comics, Barbara Nessim and Push Pin Graphics, Cubism, hippie art, Richard Smith sculpture, Eduardo Paolozzi—as being big influences in the ’80s.

“Memphis was inevitable, to my thinking, because people all over were working on similar ideas before it arrived as a label,” he says. “I didn't like Memphis stuff much--impractical furniture, cliché pastel beach color palette.”

The future of a fad

Was Memphis a moment in time, a shorthand way to group together disparate ideas, or a trend to be gently mocked then celebrated à la I Love the 80s (it’s been called a “New Wave quirk” akin to the band Devo)? The movement itself always predicted its own demise. The catalog from the original 1981 show in Milan declared that “we are all sure that Memphis furniture will soon go out of style.”

Perhaps the true lesson of Memphis, and its influence on pop culture, is the malleability of trends and tradition. The once-radical design movement has become as inoffensive as a boldly colored Lisa Frank product (another of the myriad ‘80s references often tagged with the Memphis moniker). In the ping-pong between exuberance and minimalism, Memphis represents pastiche and more importantly, personality.

Sottsass himself felt Memphis had a higher purpose. He told T magazine that “we thought we were producing products that made people's lives better, society happier, which of course didn't happen.”

Perhaps the attempt, and the excitement it caused, were what really mattered. Numerous designers have noted the influence these oddly shaped pieces had on their career, from Philippe Starck to Ian Schrager. Perhaps British designer Jasper Morrison captures the mixed feelings about Memphis best: "It was the weirdest feeling—you were in one sense repulsed by the objects, but also freed by this sort of total rule-breaking.”