Memphis Design has a colorful aesthetic, a turbulent mix of elegance, kitsch, and subverted the industrial production of the time, a postmodern design approach that plays with irrational shapes, creating a cultural movement that stands until today. 

Memphis-Milano was born in a living room gathering in 1980. A talented group of young designers and architects, led by architect Ettore Sottsass, were listening to “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” by Bob Dylan playing over and over again, and the legend was born. The Memphis name was an homage to Elvis Presley’s and Aretha Franklin’s roots in Tennessee and the pharaohs’ city. 

Their first collection of 55 products under Sottsass and Artistic Director Barbara Radice, was presented in Milan back in 1981 at the Arc ’74 showroom of Brunella and Mario Godani at number 2 Corso Europa. It was an instant hit, because of its particular new language, and the use of plastic laminates with unexpected patterns simulating noble materials. 

The first Memphis-Milano period with designers such as Ettore Sottsass, Aldo Cibic, Matteo Thun, Marco Zanini, Martine Bedin, Michele De Lucchi, Nathalie Du Pasquier, and George Sowden, changed the way people perceived objects and furniture, gathering international attention by an avid clientele and the press.

Andrea Branzi, Alessandro Mendini, Michael Graves, Hans Hollein, Shirō Kuramata, Peter Shire, Masanori Umeda, Arata Isozaki, Terry Jones, Javier Mariscal, Paola Navone, Luigi Serafini, and Bruno Gregori from Studio Alchimia also displayed in this legendary debut. 

An Interior Design Legend: Why Memphis Is Still a Source for Inspiration

Forty years later, some of their pieces are still produced in unlimited series in the belief that “design should be understood as a means of communication and not as an expression of elitist art”. 

The late fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld was one of the main enthusiasts of the collective. It is well-known that back in 1983, Lagerfeld’s private apartment in Monaco was fully decorated with Memphis group pieces such as the iconic large boxing-ring by Japanese designer Masanori Umeda, as well as desks, chairs, and contemporary furniture of primary colors that he described as “Frankfurt hotel concierge furniture” according to author Alicia Drake in The Beautiful Fall

Memphis Milano continues to influence the global conversation and feeds, to some degree, references of pop culture, from fashion to television and music; a place of inspiration where all fashion designers, architects, interior designers, or industrial designers can always return to due its importance and its relevance. 

The group was, in a way, pioneering some current topics of forty years ago, such as the social function of design and furnishing, the production value chain and its economic impact, and the playful limits of aesthetics to celebrate the banal and common objects conceptually questioning “the good taste”, a term that was also attributed to Yves Saint Laurent in the 1970s for disturbing the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie.

From May 19 to June 23, Creative Director Anthony Vaccarello hosted an exposition in both Saint Laurent Rive Droite stores in Paris and Los Angeles, showcasing the history and works of Memphis. The brand displayed a large selection of books, homeware pieces, ceramic objects, and textile accessories (ashtrays, vases, plates, glasses, decorations, and textile accessories including pouches and scarves), paying it a tribute.

Memphis Group: Interior Design Innovators

The design group’s aim was “to overcome the dictates of functionalism…and its design philosophy was influenced by the emergence of the information society” 

Memphis: 40 Years of Kitsch and Elegance, is the ultimate exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum Gallery celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the group’s foundation through its creations, presenting furniture, lamps, bowls, drawings, sketches, and photographs that give insight into the world of Memphis. The exhibition will be open until 23 January 2022 in Weil am Rhein, Germany, and it is curated by Dr. Mateo Kries. 

Similarly to television and computers, Memphis objects were meant to communicate with the viewer and tell their own unique story. As the initial  comic book, they created a new look and set new standards in which popular culture, advertising aesthetics, and postmodernism merged in a crazy medley. 

“Memphis was started with the idea of changing the face of international design, and it chose the most effective, direct, and hazardous way to do so”, stated Barbara Radice, Founder, Design Critic, and Publisher of several books around the contribution of Memphis group. She always wanted to show the group had an intellectual basis whose energy and creative drive had lost none of their fascinations. 

Memphis-Milano, a definitive inspiration for the current and the future interior designer generation.