The classic 80's interior design style is popping up everywhere in spring 2019--yet another reactionary trend arising in opposition to the minimalist palette. In the 1980's the Memphis Design style dominated everything from fashion to contemporary art and architecture. 1980s home decor featured bright primary colors and geometric shapes, all against a clean white canvas.
Elle Décor designer Carolyn Pressly is quoted in saying “The Memphis movement is overtaking midcentury modern as the furnishing and color selection du jour. Primary colors and graphic shapes haven’t seen this much action since the eighties. Also in our space planning, we are turning away from straight, rigid furniture lines and choosing enveloping tub chairs and Vladimir Kagan-esque curved sofas.”
Classic Memphis design elements are still found in architecture. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani
The stark contrast of black and white tiles paints a picture so specific and so nostalgic that we’re all just a little tickled at seeing these trends emerge once again. The design style came to represent the 1980s interior design, as well as set the tone for the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
Millennials grew up in a world made of Laminate and Terrazzo materials. Pastel pink and primary red; Crayola yellow and royal blue. Geometric shapes and shockingly-repetitive patterns.These most basic colors painted the walls, the furniture, the bus stop, the front of the drug store—anything and everything was a canvas to be adorned with the spirit of Memphis.
Those fond memories have current designers looking back with professional respect for the elements that worked best—finding ways to incorporate these nostalgic design principles into the prevailing Minimallist, Maximalist and Nordic practices.
Left: classic 80s interior design style elements. Right: A shot of Derek Blasberg's bedroom, decorated with classic Memphis Design elements. Photo courtesy of Architectural Digest
Born under the direction of Ettore Sottsass in the 1980's, the Memphis Design Group coined the style which would eventually become an outright design revolution. The goal was to be “radical, funny, and outrageous" in stark contrast to the very serious and disciplined Mid Century style. Memphis Design boldly intruded into the mainstream, forcing new perspectives and shifts in focus both visually and culturally.
Instead of strict Mid Century furniture made of dark teak wood and moody palettes of sea green and maroon, they opted for something entirely different in form and function. Bright red Pop Art colors; the lines and curves of Art Deco and the cheesy camp of the 1950’s. The signature elements were in such bad taste that they were actually good. In short, Memphis Design was an indulgence.
An original chair designed by the Memphis Design Group
In a world where maximalism is now overtaking minimalism, the key to mixing Memphis-inspired pieces into a more contemporary decor scheme is strategy and self control. It's easy to get swept away and make your space look overdone with colors and patterns, checkered subway tiles and pop art pieces.
It’s hard to say why the people of the time were so quick to accept the design style, even clinging to it tightly throughout the early 1990’s. Perhaps the playfulness of it all and the surrealism of the art stimulated the imagination beyond the monotony of every day life. Like many other creative moments though, Memphis was a flash in the pan.
Left: An original bathroom designed by the Memphis Design Group. Right: More modern examples of Memphis-inspired decor
Dadaism, Cubism, Surrealism--the Memphis world was no different. But however short-lived, these schools of thought continue to shape the modern world of what we know today, and the bright legacy of the Memphis Design Group continues to thrive. Artists and designers are left to weave the threads of history into an entirely new tapestry.