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.