The 1980s set the trend for bright colours, graphic patterns, and geometric shapes. But is it possible to point to a specific person, or moment in time, that birthed the aesthetic? 

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to locate another design phenomenon that could be pinpointed so exactly to a specific group of people. The Memphis Group – an Italian design collective led by architect Ettore Sottsass – had a huge impact on the postmodern designs of the 1980s.

A lot of the design vocabulary of the 1980s came out of a long tradition of radical design in Italy, which began in the 1960s in reaction to the practical elements of modernism, which dominated the design scene at the time. The Memphis Group were proponents of radical design, which moved away from functionality and practicality and towards distortion and irony. 

In 1981, the group showed their work for the first time at the Milan Design Fair. Every item they exhibited was named after a luxury hotel. The juxtaposition between this, and their use of cheap wood and plastic reflected the group’s interest in a faux chic aesthetic. The exhibit was mobbed, and the New York Times said it has ‘put everyone attending the fair in a state of high excitement.’ 

It is notable that this design movement happened almost simultaneously with MTV, which also launched in 1981. In looking at the MTV logo, we can clearly see the influence of Memphis design in the bold colours and patterns, and even in the font. MTV and this aesthetic combined to dominate the cultural landscape of the 1980s. 

Due to its lack of practicality, Memphis furniture was never mass produced, but a number of famous people, including Karl Lagerfeld and David Bowie held private collections, and the group held its last exhibition in 1987. 

Originally created and published by Vox

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