The Memphis Design movement is one of unlikeliest success stories in the history of design. Like so many artistic reactions, it began as an outlet for its creators, a way to rail against and confound elite sensibilities. The result was a style that was revolutionary in its time and whose spirit is a continual source of inspiration to this day.
As popular and influential as Memphis Design has been over the years, it can sometimes get a bad rap. It is a loud, colorful style that is hard to separate from its era. And when implemented without care, it can make some design projects feel antiquated. On the other hand, a good designer can turn these sins into virtues: obnoxious retro becoming lively nostalgia.
With that in mind, we’re going to give you tips on how to leverage this classic style to your benefit by walking you through the history of Memphis Design and its modern incarnations.
What is Memphis Design?
Memphis Design is a 1980s design aesthetic characterized by scattered, brightly colored shapes and lines. It typically combines circles and triangles with black-and-white graphic patterns such as polka dots and squiggly lines.
Today, Memphis Design is remembered as the defining look for the 80s, and the context of the era that birthed it is necessary to fully understand it. Let’s take a look back at the history of Memphis Design and the people and influences who created the movement.
The history of the Memphis Design movement
Imagine you’re at a party, and you’re bored. You’ve been bored for a while—years, it feels like. You wonder how a party, something that is supposed to be fun, can feel like it’s draining the life out of your very soul. As you look around the yawning faces of the guests, you realize it’s going to take drastic measures to salvage any excitement out of this long night. So you sneak a desperate gulp of your drink, slip on your tinted sunglasses and leap atop of the sofa. You’ve sacrificed yourself to karaoke.
The birth of Memphis Design was a lot like this, starting with a gathering of architects and industrial designers in Milan, Italy in 1981. But it wasn’t the party that bored the guests. It was the general state of design—how creativity had stagnated to become corporate and uniform.
Long before all this, there had been a number of fine art and design movements that precipitated Memphis Design, and these were likely on the guests’ minds as they traced where it all had gone wrong.
These include the abstract shapes and colors of Cubism, De Stijl and Harlem Renaissance art. Also the Pop Art movement of the 60s, which challenged highbrow taste by incorporating elements of popular “low” culture.
But no style was more influential on Memphis Design than modern minimalism. “Form follows function,” the classic Bauhaus mantra, had been twisted to deem any aesthetic flair unnecessary. WWII further escalated this sentiment as shortages in materials led to largely sparse, utilitarian styles that carried over as the decades marched on.
The response of the Milan party, later dubbed the Memphis Group, was a bold style that would disrupt the status quo. An exposition followed thereafter in which they showcased outlandishly gaudy pieces. The furniture was colorful, asymmetrical, often uncomfortable, constructed of cheap materials and—in a cheeky parody of high class culture—all named after luxury hotels.
Predictably, this exposition caused a stir in the design community, and soon enough, even its haters found it difficult to avoid the trend. The Memphis Design movement, named after lyrics from the Bob Dylan album Blonde on Blonde that had christened the event, was everywhere.
Although it began with furniture, the style proved popular enough to extend to general art, graphic design and fashion. The intentional “bad taste” fit in neatly with the decade that saw the rise of glam metal, shoulder pads and parachute pants, Mohawks and big hair perms. In short, the 80s were over-the-top and not afraid to flaunt it.
Memphis Design found a particular home in US youth culture, standing in sharp contrast to the austerity of the Reagan administration. This was capped by the emerging MTV channel adopting the aesthetic for its logo.
Though it was an act of rebellion, anger was never the point. The spirit of Memphis Design was one of liberation and joy, emphasized by the multitude of colors and the explosive geometry. But like the bright star that it was, it was doomed to burn out fast. The style was, after all, made to oppose practicality, and it could not sustain itself in practical, everyday settings. In 1987, in the wake of Black Monday’s recession, The Memphis Group officially closed its doors.
But unlike most flash-in-the-pan fads, the underlying appeal of Memphis Design was just too strong to vanish completely. That’s why you can see iterations of the style persisting on into the 90s in the fashion and set design of Saved by the Bell or the widely distributed Jazz Design on disposable cups. And in the next section, we’ll talk about how the Memphis Movement is still with us today.
Examples of how to use Memphis Design today
Memphis Design is intentionally theatrical, for better or worse, and that alone can make it daunting to work with. It is also one of those styles that is inexorably intertwined with its time period, making the line between fashionably retro and dated a thin one to tread. But in spite of these obstacles, designers around the world are proving that the style can be more versatile than you might expect. Let’s go over a few of the modern iterations of Memphis Design.
Background Memphis Design
Using a Memphis Design pattern as part of the background is one of the most common ways you’ll see this style employed. Although Memphis was originally made to draw attention to itself, the colors and chaotic shapes can also make foreground elements pop through sheer contrast.
A common technique is to leave a space among the Memphis Design graphics for the subject of the composition in a kind of frame. Alternatively, scattered shapes can be placed directly behind the subject, creating a backing explosion of abstract color.
Miniature Memphis Design
Memphis Design has always been about making a strong impression. It is so strong in fact that, like a hot sauce, sometimes a small dose is enough to give your project the kick it needs.
This is why many designers these days have opted to use miniature, scattered shapes and lines in order to hint at Memphis Design rather than give their project over completely to flashy graphics. Doing so allows them to capture some of the jubilant energy that Memphis evokes without all the provocative spectacle.
Textured Memphis Design
Although classic Memphis Design tends to involve flat colors and simple black-and-white graphic patterns, many contemporary designers have been shaking up the style with more varied textures.
These can include watercolor and acrylic paints, overlaid sketch illustration, rough paper cut-out edges, and gradients. The effect is not to only create shading that mitigates the intensity of Memphis Design, it adds a touch of 3D realism to a style that was already leaping off the page.
Memphis Design lettering
Letterforms provide excellent, predictable shapes in which to contain the madness of Memphis Design. Like a star, steadfast letters can provide a focal point in order to reign in and center the surrounding graphic elements.
More commonly, you will see Memphis design overlaid onto the letters themselves. This can be especially useful with 3D lettering, which gives the designer even more surface planes on which to apply Memphis patterns. This style usually works best on creative wordmarks or hand-lettering projects, which can afford to be creative and colorful at the potential expense of legibility.
Organic Memphis Design
Although originally Memphis Design emphasized rigid geometry, a popular reinterpretation has been to work flowing, oblong organic forms back into the composition. Rather than a radical departure, these are a natural evolution of the squiggly lines and circular shapes that were popular with the original Memphis.
While for some this may stretch the bounds of traditional Memphis Design, tradition was never the point. Memphis was all about breaking the rules, and it seems fitting that it would inevitably break a few of its own.
The Memphis movement marches on
Memphis Design was much more than a shot in the dark or a prank by bored designers. It was a spark that defined a decade and inspired a generation. Its energy, freedom and joyful colors are just as relevant today, which is why so many people continue to find the style irresistible. But it is also a style that can be polarizing in its daring. If you want to leverage Memphis Design to excite your audience in the right way, make sure you’re working with a professional designer who knows their “bad taste.”