Who Designed the 1980s Aesthetic?: Meet the Memphis Group, the Designers Who Created the 80s Iconic Look

For those who remem­ber the 1980s, it can feel like they nev­er left, so deeply ingrained have their designs become in the 21st cen­tu­ry. But where did those designs them­selves orig­i­nate? Vibrant, clash­ing col­ors and pat­terns, bub­bly shapes; “the geo­met­ric fig­ures of Art Deco,” writes Sara Barnes at My Mod­ern Met, “the col­or palette of Pop Art, and the 1950s kitsch” that inspired design­ers of all kinds came from a move­ment of artists who called them­selves the Mem­phis Group, after Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Mem­phis Blues Again,” a song “played on repeat dur­ing their first meet­ing” in a tiny Milan apart­ment. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to think of any oth­er design phe­nom­e­non that can be locat­ed as specif­i­cal­ly to a group of peo­ple,” says Yale Cen­ter of British Art’s Glenn Adam­son in the Vox explain­er above,

Found­ed in Decem­ber 1980 by design­er Ettore Sottsass — known for his red Olivet­ti Valen­tine type­writer — and sev­er­al like-mind­ed col­leagues, the move­ment made a delib­er­ate attempt to dis­rupt the aus­tere, clean lines of the 70s with work they described as “rad­i­cal, fun­ny, and out­ra­geous.” They flaunt­ed what had been con­sid­ered “good taste” with aban­don. Mem­phis design shows Bauhaus influ­ences — though it reject­ed the “strict, straight lines of mod­ernism,” notes Curbed. It taps the anar­chic spir­it of Dada, with­out the edgy, anar­chist pol­i­tics that drove that move­ment. It is main­ly char­ac­ter­ized by its use of lam­i­nate floor­ing mate­ri­als on tables and lamps and the “Bac­te­rio print,” the squig­gle design which Sottsass cre­at­ed in 1978 and which became “Memphis’s trade­mark pat­tern.”

Mem­phis design shared with mod­ernism anoth­er qual­i­ty ear­ly mod­ernists them­selves ful­ly embraced: “Noth­ing was com­mer­cial­ly suc­cess­ful at the time,” says Bar­bara Radice, Sottsass’s wid­ow and Mem­phis group his­to­ri­an. But David Bowie and Karl Lager­field were ear­ly adopters, and the group’s 80s work even­tu­al­ly made them stars. “We came from being nobod­ies,” says design­er Mar­tine Bedin. By 1984, they were cel­e­brat­ed by the city of Mem­phis, Ten­nessee and giv­en the key to the city. “They were wait­ing for us at the air­port with a band,” Bedin remem­bers. “It was com­plete­ly crazy.” The Mem­phis Group had offi­cial­ly changed the world of art, archi­tec­ture, and design. The fol­low­ing year, Sottsass left the group, and it for­mal­ly dis­band­ed in 1987, hav­ing left its mark for decades to come.

By the end of the 80s, Mem­phis’ look had become pop cul­ture wall­pa­per, inform­ing the sets, titles, and fash­ions of TV sta­ples like Saved by the Bell, which debuted in 1989. “Although their designs didn’t end up in people’s homes,” notes Vox — or at least not right away — “they inspired many design­ers work­ing in dif­fer­ent medi­ums.” Find out above how “every­thing from fash­ion to music videos became influ­enced” by the loud, play­ful visu­al vocab­u­lary of the Mem­phis Group artists, and learn more about the design­ers of “David Bowie’s favorite fur­ni­ture” here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Meet the Mem­phis Group, the Bob Dylan-Inspired Design­ers of David Bowie’s Favorite Fur­ni­ture

The Ulti­mate 80s Med­ley: A Nos­tal­gia-Induc­ing Per­for­mance of A‑Ha, Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode, Peter Gabriel, Van Halen & More

Watch Bri­an Eno’s “Video Paint­ings,” Where 1980s TV Tech­nol­o­gy Meets Visu­al Art

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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