Product Design

The Italian Design Group Behind the Bright, Whimsical Look You're Seeing Everywhere

April  5, 2016

It’s hard to think of an artist more influential than Bob Dylan—he inspired generations with his lyrics and guitar, and those dark glasses over a curly mop of hair. Dylan‘s classic ballad, "Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again)," even found it’s way into the realm of design, playing repeatedly on Milan-based architect Ettore Sottsass’ record player throughout the 70's. Ultimately, the song inspiring Sottsass to rename his design movement—formerly "The New Design"—to "Memphis" in 1980.

Photo by Anders Sune Berg (via Glossom)

Considering Dylan’s down-to-earth aesthetic, you might think the designs that emerged from the Memphis Group would consist of only black and white, with natural materials taking stage. But in reality, its aesthetic couldn't be farther from minimalist ideals. The name may bring to mind the blues, but the Memphis movement was Postmodern—with footing in a wide range of influences from Art Deco and Pop Art, to futurism and kitsch.

Rallying together Milan’s most creative up-and-coming architects and designers, Sottsass (in his sixties at the time) lead the group, which included members such as Martine Bedin, Aldo Cibic, Michele De Lucchi, Matteo Thun, and Marco Zanini. The complete Memphis design collective consisted of over 20 members, who would together challenge the established limitations of architecture and design. Each contributor brought his own (or her own, in the case of member Barbara Radice) unique vision and practice to the group, while also sharing in the collective’s mindset of liberating design from the constricting limitations known as "good taste."

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More: Our lightweight, nonstick pots are also designed by Matteo Thun.

Photo by Tom Mannion (via T Magazine)

A few months (and over a hundred sketches later), the Memphis Group was ready to take their ideas into three dimension. Calling upon a range of unconventional materials such as laminates, plastics, neon, and sheet metal—in all kinds of design fields from furniture to architecture—the designers boldly commented on consumer culture, gearing their work towards the idea of "living not lasting." They experimented with historical forms, flashy finishes, and outlandish prints—all in bright colorways that would make anyone stop and take notice.

Causing a great divide among designers of the time, the Memphis movement made clear the divide between designers stuck in the past and younger, more open-minded creatives ready for a change. Not simply architectural, the group took on lighting, ceramics, furniture, and more with a kitschy exuberance that scoffed in the face of stuffy sophistication; the look was young, vibrant, and edgy with an inherent sense of humor. The zig-zagged prints and bright blocky furniture that it brought about found their places in history, and though the group disbanded in 1988, the prismatic style still finds relevance in the design world of today.

Photo by Wikipedia

Though a color-blocked couch or snakeskin-print cabinet may seem a little unrealistic for your current interior, there are many ways to incorporate the artistic aesthetic of the Memphis Group while still remaining true to you and your home’s feel. You don’t have to look far to find the movement’s colorful, geometric ideals worked into a number of more accessible items: Try adding asymmetrical bookends to your shelf display for a playful dose of practicality, while sheets and pillows in a graphic, red and white print could be just the update needed to turn your uninspiring bedscape into a museum-worthy work of interior art.

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Jessica is a Los Angeles based designer and art director whose work aims to balance subtlety, grace, and quiet sophistication. She founded her design studio in 2012, which specializes in refined visuals for emerging lifestyle brands. Building off of her formal interior design training, Jessica imparts her eye for detail and appreciation for simplicity into all facets of her work, including The Elysian Edit, which she launched in 2016 as a way of showcasing the people, places and practices she finds inspiring.