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.

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

That Far Corner: Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles–A Free Online Documentary

From KCET (the public broadcaster serving SoCal) comes the documentary, That Far Corner: Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles. “During his time spent in Southern California in the late 1910s and early 1920s, Frank Lloyd Wright accelerated the search for L.A.’s authentic architecture that was suitable to the city’s culture and landscape. Writer/Director Chris Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, explores the houses the legendary architect built in Los Angeles. The documentary also delves into the critic’s provocative theory that these homes were also a means of artistic catharsis for Wright, who was recovering from a violent tragic episode in his life.” You can watch That Far Corner online. It will also be added to our list of Free Documentaries, a subset of collection 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

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Leonardo da Vinci Designs the Ideal City: See 3D Models of His Radical Design

Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd WrightRay Bradbury: they and other 20th-century notables all gave serious thought to the ideal city, what it would include and what it would exclude. To that extent we could describe them, in 21st-century parlance, as urbanists. But the roots of the discipline — or area of research, or profession, or obsession — we call urbanism run all the way back to the 15th century. At that time, early in the European Renaissance, thinkers were reconsidering a host of conditions taken for granted in the medieval period, from man’s place in the universe (and indeed the universe itself) to the disposal of his garbage. Few of these figures thought as far ahead, or across as many fields as Leonardo da Vinci.

In addition to his accomplishments in art, science, engineering, and architecture, the quintessential “Renaissance man” also tried his hand at urbanism. More specifically, he included in his notebooks designs for what he saw as an ideal city. “Leonardo was 30 when he moved to Milan in around 1482,” writes Engineering and Technology‘s Hilary Clarke.

“The city he found was a crowded medieval warren of buildings, with no sanitation. Soon after the young painter had arrived, it was hit by an outbreak of the bubonic plague that killed 50,000 people — more than a third of the city’s population at the time.” This could well have prompted him to draw up his plan, which dates between 1487 and 1490, for a cleaner and more efficient urban environment.

While it wouldn’t have been particularly hard to envision a less dirty and disordered setting than the late medieval European city, Leonardo, true to form, performed a thoroughgoing act of reimagination. “Drawing on the knowledge he had gained from studying Milan’s canals, Leonardo wanted to use water to connect the city like a circulatory system,” writes Clarke, who adds that Leonardo was also studying human anatomy at the time. “His ideal town-planning principle was to have a multi-tiered city, which also included an underground waterway to flush away effluent.” The top tier would have all the houses, squares and other public buildings; “the bottom tier was for the poor, goods and traffic — horses and carts — and ran on the same level as the canals and basins, so wagons could be easily offloaded.”

Though its ambition would have seemed fantastical in the 15th century, Leonardo’s city plan everywhere marshals his considerable engineering knowledge to address practical problems. He had a real location in mind — along the Ticino River, which runs through modern-day Italy and Switzerland — and planned details right down to the spiral staircases in every building. He insisted on spirals, Clarke notes, “because they lacked corners, making it harder for men to urinate,” but they also add an elegance to his vision of the vertical city, a notion that strikes us as obvious today but was unknown then. Of course, Leonardo was a man ahead of his time, and the 3D-rendered and physical models of his ideal city in these videos from the Ideal Spaces Working Group and Italy’s Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci make one wonder if his plan wouldn’t look both alluring and impossibly radical to urbanists even today.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Creation & Restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral, Animated

With The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Victor Hugo intended less to tell a story than to mount a defense of Gothic architecture, which in the early 19th century was being demolished in cities all across France. The book‘s original purpose is more clearly reflected by its original title, Notre-Dame de Paris. 1482, and the titular medieval cathedral’s importance to the capital for nearly two centuries now owes a great deal to the novelist’s advocacy. Hugo would no doubt be pleased by the effort that has gone into preserving Notre-Dame into the 21st century, share in the feelings of devastation that followed the fire of April 2019, and admire the spirit that motivated commencement of the restoration work immediately thereafter.

Or rather, the commencement of the stabilization work immediately thereafter: given the extent of the damage, the then-674-year-old structure had first to be made safe to restore. The AFP News Agency video above explains and visualizes that process, a complex and difficult one in itself. The first priority was to protect the exposed areas of the cathedral from the elements and shore up their flying buttresses (a signature structural element of Gothic architecture) to prevent collapse.

Melted together by the fire, sections of scaffolding that had been set up for previous restoration work also posed considerable difficulties to remove without harming the building. As for the rubble heaped inside, sorting through it required conducting a 3D scan, then bringing in remote-controlled robots and a team of archaeologists.

“I saw the disaster unfolding before me,” says one such archaeologist, Olivier Puaux, in the Radio France Internationale video just above. “It was so sad that I went home before the spire fell.” But just a month later he returned to work on the ambitious restoration project, several of whose workers appear to share their experience with its challenges, dangers, and perhaps unexpected learning opportunities. Removing and sorting through all the fallen wood, stone, and other materials — some of which came through the blaze in re-usable condition — has provided new insights into the cathedral’s construction. Even its very nails, says Puaux, turn out on close inspection to be “very large, very well forged.” As distressed as Victor Hugo may have felt about Notre-Dame’s future, its original builders were surely confident that they were creating a survivor.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Incredible Engineering of Antonio Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, the World’s Oldest Construction Project

When (or if) it is finally finished in 2026, a full 100 years after its architect Antoni Gaudí’s death, the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia will be the largest church in the world — making it, on the one hand, a distinctly 19th century phenomenon much like other structures designed in the late 1800s. The Brooklyn Bridge, for instance, became the longest suspension bridge in the world in 1883, the same year Gaudí took over the Sagrada Familia project; the Eiffel Tower took the honor of tallest structure in the world when it opened six years later. Biggest was in the briefs for major industrial building projects of the age.

Most other monumental construction projects of the time, however, excelled in one category Gaudí rejected: speed. While the Brooklyn Bridge took 14 years to build, cost many lives, including its chief architect’s, and suffered several setbacks, its construction was still quite a contrast to the medieval architecture from which its designs drew. Prague’s 14th century Charles Bridge took 45 years to finish. Half a century was standard for gothic cathedrals in the Middle Ages. (Notre-Dame was under construction for hundreds of years.) Their original architects hardly ever lived to see their projects to completion.

Gaudí’s enormous modernist cathedral was as much a personal labor of love as a gift to Barcelona, but unlike his contemporaries, he had no personal need to see it done. He was “unfazed by its glacial progress,” notes Atlas Obscura. The architect himself said, “There is no reason to regret that I cannot finish the church. I will grow old but others will come after me. What must always be conserved is the spirit of the work, but its life has to depend on the generations it is handed down to and with whom it lives and is incarnated.”

Perhaps even Gaudí could not have foreseen Sagrada Familia would take over 130 years, its cranes and scaffolding dominating the city’s skyline, decade after decade. A few things — the Spanish Civil War, inevitable funding issues — got in the way. But it’s also the case that Sagrada Familia is unlike anything else ever built. Gaudí “found much of his inspiration and meaning in architecture,” the Real Engineering video above notes, “by following the patterns of nature, using the beauty that he saw as a gift from God as the ultimate blueprint to the world.”

Learn above what sets Sagrada Familia apart — its creator was not only a master architect and artist, he was also a master engineer who understood how the strange, organic shapes of his designs “impacted the structural integrity of the building. Rather than fight against the laws of nature, he worked with them.” And nature, we know, likes to take its time.

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

Watch the Building of the Eiffel Tower in Timelapse Animation

“They didn’t want it but he built it anyway” — The Pixies, “Alec Eiffel

When the Eiffel Tower — gateway to the Paris World’s Fair and centennial marker of the Revolution — was first designed and built, it was far from beloved. Its creator, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, an engineer known for building bridges, faced widespread condemnation, both from the city’s creative class and in the popular press. French writer Guy de Maupassant summed up the prevailing sentiment when he called Eiffel “a boilermaker with delusions of grandeur.”

Before construction began, Maupaussant joined a commission of 300 artists, architects, and prominent citizens who opposed in a letter what they imagined as “a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack…. [A]ll of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream.” One critic wrote of it as a “hideous column with railings, this infundibuliform chicken wire, glory to the wire and the slab, arrow of Notre-Dame of bric-a-brac….”

To these objections, Eiffel cooly replied it made no sense to judge a building solely from its plans. He also repeated his promise: the tower, he said, would symbolize “not only the art of the modern engineer, but also the century of industry and science in which we are living.” His “unapologetically industrial language,” writes Architizer, “did not please all.” But Eiffel did not boast in vain. When completed, the tower stood almost twice as high as the Washington Monument, then the tallest building in the world at 555 feet.

Not only extremely tall for its time, the Eiffel Tower was also very intricate. It would be made of 18,000 wrought iron pieces held together with 2.5 million rivets, with four curved iron piers connected by a lattice of girders. After careful calculations, the tower’s curves were designed to offer the maximum amount of efficient wind resistance. 

In the video just above, you can see the tower’s incredible construction from August 1887 to March 1889, modeled in an animated timelapse animation. Its design has far outlasted its originally short lifespan. Slated to be torn down after 20 years, the tower stands as tall as ever, though it’s been dwarfed several times over by structures that would appall the signatories against Gustave Eiffel in 1887.

Indeed, it is impossible now to imagine Paris without Eiffel’s creation. Maupassant, however, spent his life trying to do just that. He reportedly had his lunch in the tower’s restaurant every day, since it was the only place in Paris one could not see it.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness

The Surprising Reason Why Chinatowns Worldwide Share the Same Aesthetic, and How It All Started with the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Anti-Chinese racism runs deep in American culture and law, beginning in the 19th century as competition intensified in California gold and land rushes. Chinese immigrants were pushed into teeming cities, then denigrated for surviving in overcrowded slums. To get a sense of the scope of the prejudice, we need only consider the 1882 law known as the Chinese Exclusion Act — the only legislation passed to explicitly restrict immigration by one ethnic or national group. The law actually goes back to 1875, when the Page Act banned Chinese women from immigrating. It was only repealed in 1943.

Although routinely evaded, the severe restrictions and outright bans on Chinese immigration under the Exclusion Act drove and were driven by racist ideas still visible today in tropes of dangerous, exoticized “dragon ladies” or sexually submissive concubines: roles given in early Hollywood films to the first Chinese-American movie star, Anna May Wong, who, after 1909 — despite being the most recognizable Chinese-American in the world — had to carry identification at all times to prove her legal status.

Wong was born in Los Angeles, a city that — like every other major metropolis — became home to its own Chinatown, and a famous one at that. But the most famous of the segregated urban areas originated in San Francisco, after the 1906 earthquake that nearly leveled the city and “came on the heels of decades of violence and racist laws targeting Chinese communities in the US,” notes Vox. “The earthquake devastated Chinatown. But in the destruction, San Francisco’s Chinese businessmen had an idea for a fresh start” that would define the look of Chinatowns worldwide.

The new Chinatown was more than a new start; it was survival. As often happens after disasters, proposals for relocating the unpopular immigrant neighborhood appeared “before the dust had settled and smoke cleared,” notes 99 Percent Invisible. “The city’s mayor commissioned architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham to draw up plans aligned with the City Beautiful movement.” Feeling they had to cater to white American stereotypes to gain acceptance, Chinese-American business leaders “hired architect T. Paterson Ross and engineer A.W. Burgren to rebuild—even though neither man had been to China.”

The architects “relied on centuries-old images, primarily of religious vernacular, to develop the look of the new Chinatown,” and the result was to create a genuine tourist attraction — an “iconic look,” the Vox Missing Chapter video explains, that bears little resemblance to actual Chinese cities. The Chinese immigrant community in San Francisco “kept their culture alive by inventing a new one,” a deliberate co-optation of Orientalist stereotypes for a city, its merchants decided, that would be built of “veritable fairy palaces.”

The New Chinatown was “not quite Chinese, not quite American”; safe for middle-class tourism and consumption and safer for Chinese businesses to flourish. The model spread rapidly. Now, in whatever major city we might might visit — outside of China, that is — the Chinatown we encounter is both a unique cultural hybrid and a marketing triumph that offered a measure of protection to beleaguered Chinese immigrant communities around the world.

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

The Utopian, Socialist Designs of Soviet Cities

Modernist architecture transformed the modern city in the 20th century, for good and ill. Nowhere is this transformation more evident than the former Soviet Union and its former republics. There, we find truth in the western stereotypes of the Soviet city as cold, faceless, and soul-crushingly nondescript — so much so that the plot of a 1975 Russian TV film called The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!, hinges on a man drunkenly traveling to Leningrad by mistake and falling asleep in a stranger’s apartment, thinking it’s his own place in Moscow. Russians found the joke so relatable, they began a tradition of watching the film each year on Christmas, as the City Beautiful above video on Soviet urban architecture points out.

Once it had eliminated private property, the experiment of the Soviet Union began with good intentions, architecturally-speaking. Constructivism, the first form of distinctly Soviet architecture, was developed first as an art movement by Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko. Constructivists sought to balance the nation’s need to build tons of new housing under harsh economic conditions with “ambition for using the built environment to engineer societal changes and instill the avant-garde in everyday life,” points out the Designing Buildings Wiki. Drawing from Bauhaus and Futurism, the movement only lasted into the 1930s. Many of its finest designs went unrealized, but it left a significant mark on subsequent architectural movements like Brutalism.

The synthesis of beauty and utility would fall apart, however, under the massive collectivizing drives of Stalin. When his reign ended, public housing blocks known as “Krushchyovkas” sprang up, named after the premier “who initiated their mass production in the late 1950s,” writes Mark Byrnes at Bloomberg CityLab. This was “a distinctly banal architectural type” built quickly and cheaply when Moscow “had twice the population its housing stock could accommodate. Five-story Krushchoyvkas popped up in newly planned microdistricts.” These, as you’ll see in the explainer video, could be added on to existing cities indefinitely for maximal urban sprawl “in hopes of alleviating the severe housing crisis exacerbated under Joseph Stalin.”

As the popularity of The Irony of Fate demonstrates, Krushchoyvkas introduced serious problems of their own, including their grimly comic sameness. The film begins with an animated history lesson on Soviet urban planning. “The urban design was not flexible,” author Philipp Meuser tells Byrnes. “This was the first critique of them dating back to the early ‘60s.” Later versions built under Brezhnev and called “Brezhnevkis” introduced different shapes and sizes to break up the monotony. All of the housing blocks were built to last 20 to 25 years and were not well-maintained, if they were maintained at all. The earliest began deteriorating in the ‘70s.

At their height, however, Krushchoyvkas “were popular because it was revolutionary for housing politics.” One U.S. official put it in 1967: “What the Russians have done is to develop the only technology in the world to produce acceptable, low-cost housing on a large scale.” Cities around the world followed suit in buildings like the Japanese danchi, for example, and the infamously awful American public housing projects of the 60s and 70s, built along similar lines as the Krushchyovkas and the misguided urban design theories of Swiss architect Le Corbusier, another modernist who, like the Constructivists, reimagined city space according to a model of mass production.

The original Constructivist manifesto, published in 1923, promised art and building “of no discernible ‘style’ but simply a product of an industrial order like a car, an aeroplane and such like.” The reality of Constructivist designs — like the designs of cars and aeroplanes — involved a great deal of imagination and creativity. But the architectural legacy of what Constructivists touted as “technical mastery and organization of materials” — under the massively centralized bureaucracy of the fully realized one-party Communist state — created something entirely different than the idealistic avant-gardists had once intended for the modern city.

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

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