Modern Memphis Movement

By Dora Dmitriev

In 1981 Memphis Milano or The Modern Memphis Movement began in Milan. A group of designers led by Ettore Sottsass gathered to start a revolution against serious and functional modernist design. The group was named after Bob Dylan’s song "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues" as it was believed that they listened to this song on repeat throughout their entire first meeting. Memphis Milano formed a very distinguishable style for the late 20th century. Influenced by Art Deco, Pop Art, Pop Culture and 50’s Kitsch, their style can be identified by loud patterns, block-like shapes and clashing colors. 

Room with Memphis Milano furniture 

'Lido' sofa by Michele de Lucchi 1982

The group preferred funny, radical, and outrageous design to "good taste" and were sick of the strict structured lines of mid-century-modern furniture. For them, form won over function. Not only did Memphis Milano "shake up" the design world, but they also changed the way design shows functioned.

Memphis Milano debuted their first collection in 1981 at the Salone del Mobile. The pieces they exhibited were prototypes, which at the time was uncommon. Prior to their exhibit, furniture presented at Art shows needed to be ready for mass production, causing manufacturers not to take risks with new designers. Memphis Milano used inexpensive materials like plastic laminate, bright primary colors, and surprising shapes such as spheres for couch legs. The Carlton Room Divider was one of the first pieces they presented at the 1981 show and it quickly became the unofficial icon for Memphis Milano.

Sottsass' iconic Carlton Room Divider/bookshelf

After the exhibition, the furniture was mostly commercially rejected. Only a small, unwavering group of fans were attracted to the style. This lasted a few years until Sottsass left the group in 1986. The style seemed to disappear until Sottsass' death in 2007 reignited it.

Peter Shire's 1982 Bel Air Armchair

The Met Breuer’s Ettore Sottsass exhibition just ended this fall and now many museums in Europe and the US are planning Memphis inspired exhibits. As of late, Memphis Milano appears to have re-surfaced among young designers who are incorporating the style to spice up the typical mid-century-modern style. Now, the style appears quite randomly in world-wide designs and is much less organized than it was in the 80’s. Many of the original patterns and shapes are making a come-back but the colors used are less intense with a lot of whites and grays being incorporated.