Design Styles

Mad for Memphis Design: The ’80s Style that Pushes the Envelope

Who would have guessed that the design style which inspired the fantastical children’s television show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the iconic 1980s teen sitcom Saved by the Bell would be back in vogue? But, trends, even outrageous ones, are cyclical and often seem to find their way back into our design loving hearts years, even decades, later. The Memphis Design Movement is a perfect example.


What is Memphis Design?

Memphis is a postmodern design movement that began in the early 1980s and nowhere near Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, the playful, eclectic style was born when iconic architect and industrial designer Ettore Sottsass met with a group of international designers in his small apartment in Milan, Italy, to create what was to be called “The New Design,” an exuberant and colorful reaction to 1950s/60s mid-century modern style and 1970s minimalism. Design legend has it that the group changed the name to “Memphis” when the Bob Dylan song “Stuck Inside Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” played repeatedly during the group’s first meeting.

Photo by Matt Blease | The Cut

The original Memphis Group members lounging in Japanese designer Masanori Umeda’s “boxing ring bed.”

Jonathan Adler and Kelly Wearstler, two of my favorite designers, use many elements of Memphis style in their work. And as someone who loves color and appreciates quirky, eclectic décor, I really enjoy incorporating a bit of the Memphis style into my designs, too. A little can go a long way, though. For some people, Memphis is a “dip your toe into the water” kind of style but for others, they’re all in.

Designer Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan’s glitzy living room with its vivid colors, fun shapes and geometric patterns is inspired by Memphis Design.

Design by Jonathan Adler | Photo by Douglas Friedman | Elle Decor


Design by Jonathan Adler | Photo by Douglas Friedman | Elle Decor


A gutsy and creative interior designer, Kelly Wearstler is inspired by both Bauhaus and Memphis Design. This Los Angeles dining room certainly packs a high-octane punch. Wearstler designed the one of a kind standout dining table from bleached and ebonized oak.

Design by Kelly Wearstler | Photo by Francois Dischinger | Architectural Digest


So, have I peaked your interest? Today’s post will give you a quick overview of The Memphis Design Movement and show you how you can bring this kinda campy, kinda outrageous, kinda fantastic and most definitely attention-grabbing style into your home today. Ready to start singing the Memphis Blues again? Let’s go!

You know it’s Memphis when….

Inspired by Art Deco, Pop Art, science fiction and 1950’s kitsch, Memphis Design  has a very unique, bold and recognizable aesthetic. The designs are loud, colorful, geometric and often whimsical enough to be considered childlike. Think birthday party meets Miami Vice. In fact, retail consultant Bertrand Pellegrin once described Memphis Design as a “shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price in a piece for the San Francisco Gate.

Alrighty then.


Here are a few of the defining features of Memphis Design:

Bright colors, wacky geometry + graphic patterns rule.

Like Art Deco? Love Pop Art? Don’t mind a little well-intentioned kitsch? Then Memphis Design might strike a colorful chord with you. Think geometric patterns, especially circles and triangles, wild graphic prints and a riot of bold, bright colors mixed with stark black and white. The modern revival of Memphis Design includes softer, more muted shades, such as teal, pink and grey but still pairs fun with function.

Design by Morag Meyers + Luke Morgan | Creative Boom


Design by Renesa Architecture Design Interiors Studio | Arch Daily



The colors remind you of Sesame Street.

Bold, primary reds, blues, greens and yellow reign supreme with Memphis Style. And the colors can be a mashup, often clashing. A sofa could have green arms, a blue back and yellow cushions. It’s all about individuality and standing out, not blending in. As I said earlier, however, more muted tones of these primary hues are finding their way into the modern version of Memphis. Millennial pink anyone?

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Design by Peter Shire
Design by Peter Shire


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Photo by Jacques Schumacher | We Heart



There are squiggles everywhere.

Squiggles, doo dads, cake sprinkles, whatever you call them, they are an iconic and defining element of Memphis Design. The black and white “Bacterio” print designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1978 is the Memphis Design Movement’s trademark pattern. The squiggle, however, has taken many forms. Here are just a few.

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The “Bacterio” print designed by Ettore Sottsass


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“Casablanca” sideboard by Ettore Sottsass


Laminate and Terrazzo are major players.

When designers like Mies van der Rohe and Milo Baughman were making furniture with chilly chrome and expensive leather, Memphis designers had an affection for terrazzo and laminates, materials often found on the floor and in a mishmash of shapes and colors. Then an upcoming editor of New York magazine, fashion editor Anna Wintour, said that furniture “wasn’t a whole lot of fun until 1981, when the Memphis Design Group, based in Milan, brought out its first collection … a cheerful synthesis of historical allusion and rock ‘n’ roll.”

1st Dibs

Ettore Sottsass’s iconic Carlton bookcase and room divider


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So…what do you think of The Memphis Design Movement? Yassss! Or no way? You don’t have to go all in to bring a little of this funky, artistic vibe to your home. Like I said, a little goes a long way. If you’re looking to add some of the real deal to your home, however, most of the original Memphis pieces from the ’80s are still in production. We can help you find the perfect addition. Give us a call at 314.395.1114 or CLICK HERE to send us an email.

And remember, we don’t have to come to your house to help you make design decisions. We’re still fully functioning and can totally get your project off the ground while we’re all social distancing. In fact, right now, for a one-time, flat hourly fee, we can do a virtual consultation with you over Zoom, Skype or FaceTime. Call us at 314.395.1114 for more information about our new SIMPLY THE BEST VIRTUAL DESIGN SERVICES.

Stay safe and healthy everyone!

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P.P.S. CLICK HERE to check out our portfolio. We recently uploaded several new projects that we’re super excited about.


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