What Are the Characteristics of Memphis Design?

The Memphis design movement, which began in Milan, Italy, during the early 1980s, focused on creating bright, colorful and innovative lighting, furniture and textiles. The products designed by members of the Memphis Group were unconventional and often sacrificed functionality in favor of artistic impact. The focus on aesthetic elements represents the key design factor, with unusual choices of colors, textures and materials.

The Memphis design movement took its inspiration from pop art, Art Deco and 1950s kitsch. Many design-watchers of the time found the movement’s product designs tasteless, but the items were also considered groundbreaking. They were in stark contrast to what was viewed at the time as representative of “good design.” The Memphis movement was a reaction to 1970s minimalist design concepts, which were seen by the group as humorless, colorless and devoid of individualism and personality. In contrast to the prevailing design concept, the group designed products that were colorful, bright and often shocking. Many of the designs alluded to earlier or exotic styles and were based on asymmetrical shapes.

Founded by Ettore Sottsass between 1980 and 1981, the inspiration for the American-sounding name of the Italian design movement came from the Bob Dylan song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” The song was played repeatedly during the group’s first organized meeting in December of 1980.