Once referred to as a “shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price,” the uniquely colorful (and unmistakably ‘80s) Memphis design movement has been polarizing from the very beginning. Mention Memphis in casual conversation to this day, in fact, and you’re likely to receive one of three responses: reverence, repulsion, or complete confusion. (For those whose reaction falls into the third group, you’re not alone. Many assume the movement’s name refers to its place of origin; in fact, it was founded in Milan in 1981 by a group of designers listening to Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”.)
Known for employing asymmetry, clashing colors, unusual materials, and wild patchworks of prints and patterns, Memphis remains, even now, a symbol of the purposeful (and playful) rejection of established design rules. And more than thirty years after its debut — to the surprise of many — it’s made a comeback, inspiring modern-day makers and vintage collectors alike.
From Verónica de Arriba’s vividly patterned screen prints to Laura Vaquero’s squiggle-covered sweats to Julie Moon’s geometric glazed porcelain jewelry, contemporary designers worldwide are putting a fresh spin on the movement’s groundbreaking postmodern philosophy. And in recent years, founding member Nathalie du Pasquier has even lent a hand to produce Memphis-inspired collaborations with both American Apparel and furniture makers Hay.
What’s more, there’s a new generation of fans scouring the market for original relics from the movement’s heyday — whether they’re looking for signature products designed by the era’s biggest icons or just period pieces with authentic flair. To start uncovering some eye-popping old-school finds of your own, try searching for the names of Memphis visionaries such as Ettore Sottsass, Nathalie du Pasquier, and Mattheo Thun — then click through our 20 Etsy examples of Memphis and Memphis-inspired style.
Clothing and Accessories
This cotton top (LoelaLoela, $71), made to order in Manchester, features a jumble of statement-making scribbles — matching shorts sold separately.
Laurs Kemp’s seafoam-green crop top (laurskemp, $118) pays homage to Memphis with a trio of colorful geometric appliqués.
Oelwein’s contemporary carryall (oelwein, $40) bears a rune-like mix of semicircles, dashes, and stair-step designs that would have fit right in at the time of the movement’s debut.
Boxy, loud, and straight out of the ’80s: vintage cotton drawstring shorts (NeonStockyards, $60) in a dazzling — and dizzying — array of colors.
Vibrant streaks and bright, bold circles make these enamel studs (myknickknackstore, $15) a period-perfect addition to any costume jewelry collection.
From Detroit’s Goldeluxe come handmade brass stud earrings (goldeluxe, from $18) shaped like tiny curves and curls; it’s Memphis minimalism (if there ever was such a thing).
This porcelain bangle (LuckyPatina, $75) links a hodgepodge of shapes and patterns, from crisscrossed lines to a gilded leopard print.
Furniture and Decor
With their angled shape and swerving yellow base, these steel-and-vinyl seats (Mottervintage, $949) nearly double as sculpture.
The pink curve in this limited-edition print (littleprintpress, $156) may seem simple, but its vivid hue and unusual silhouette are unmistakably Memphis.
Built on a mind-bending slant, this funhouse-inspired bookcase is equal parts wonky and whimsical (RehabVintageLA, $375).
Crafted of organic cotton twill, this cushion cover (depeapa, $39) is printed with sharp-angled shapes that converge to form a sunrise. The combination of patterns, solids, and slanting lines calls to mind Sottsass’s Tahiti lamp, designed in 1981 to resemble a bird.
Add extra flair to a flower arrangement with zigzag-edged porcelain vases (mascarajones, $149) trimmed in red, yellow, and black.
The ’80s meet Alice in Wonderland with this storybook set of Cupola Strada serving pieces (Regarding, from $32), perfect for dinner — or for display.
For java with an extra jolt: a pink-and-purple Lagostina coffee pot (FultonLane, $95), made in the ’80s and still serving up a caffeinated kick.
This vintage creamer (ARCHIVO, $15) — with its primary colors, rounded handle, and prominent center spiral — is Memphis design to a tee (or, shall we say, tea).
Memphis cofounder Matteo Thun dreamed up this multicolored treasure (Vintageplaza, $69) as part of a line he called Fantasia — and it’s just as effective today at bringing some magic to the mundane.
Lead image: Depeapa cushion cover, $39