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The Style That Defined a Decade – 1980s

Every decade seems to have it’s own distinct artistic style. When you think about the 1950s, many of us imagine Space Age/Atomic styles characterized by “boomerang” shapes, teal blues, pinks, and yellows.

Atomic Design

The 70s were characterized by warm hues like orange, yellow, and brown. You need only to glance at the original Pong packaging to know it was released in the early 1970s.

Pong – released in 1972

But while these styles are wonderful and still influence modern art and design today, that’s not what we’re here to talk about. I’m here to talk about a style that you’ve probably seen on clothes in thrift stores and illustrated on TV, but never thought about where it came from or who created it. This style challenged the status quo and protested the popular minimalist design of it’s time.

Memphis Style

This style was born from a collective of designers and architects who called themselves the Memphis Design Group. The Memphis Design Group was established in 1980 by Italian designer, Ettore Sottsass. I know you’re likely thinking, “they’re probably from Memphis, Tennessee.” But you’re wrong. They’re from Italy. They just really liked listening to the Bob Dylan song, Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.

The Memphis Group’s wild, bright, postmodern style defined the 1980s. They debuted their unique creations in 1981 at a renowned furniture fair- Salone del Mobile of Milan. The style was immediately rejected by mainstream culture, but instead garnered a cult following. While this rebellious group of designers didn’t achieve mainstream success, their cult following boasted members such as David Bowie and iconic fashion designer, Karl Lagerfeld.

A Memphis Group sofa from David Bowie’s personal collection

Characterized by laminate and Terrazzo materials, “squiggles” (aka Bacterio print), and bright, multi-colored objects, they rejected typical use of materials and shapes. Laminate and Terrazzo were common flooring materials, but were now used for tabletops and lamps. Chair legs were no longer rectangular or cylindrical, but instead spherical and triangular. The Memphis Design Group reimagined and reinvented everyday items using non traditional materials and shapes. The results were eye-catching, regardless of one’s own opinions of the style.

End Tables and Lamp designed by the Memphis Design Group

The Memphis Group stayed within the furniture realm until their disbandment in 1988. However, their creations inspired artists and designers far and wide. You can see inspiration drawn from the Memphis Group in television shows like Saved By The Bell.

Memphis Style-inspired illustration

Colorful patterns inspired by the Memphis Group’s work became popular for use on items such as clothes, notebooks, and more.

Memphis Style-inspired pattern

Inventive. Brave. New. Bold. These are words you could use not only to describe Memphis Style design, but also to describe a decade of change and innovation. A time when the world was taking its first major steps into the digital era. The internet was invented and began connecting us all in ways we never previously imagined. Life on earth was evolving, and so was the way we view it. Memphis Style represents bold new beginnings, taking chances, and trying new things. It is the style that defines the decade of the 80s.


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