Issue Six | Walking in Memphis

Issue Six | Walking in Memphis

What's the difference between these photos in the header? Absolutely nothing.

The fixation with all things 80s and 90s goes beyond thrifted fashion and disposable camera clones. There has been a sudden fire of interest in some of these decades more decisive design styles, and there's no one to thank except Milennials with a lot of cash to blow.

Just for a second, let's re-examine the last issue on fast food restaurants. People who have walked into a McDonalds or Burger King or Taco Bell today can recall the stark difference in how they look against how they used to look some 20 or 30 years ago. It seemed like some places were trying to chase the high that was the cafeteria set from Saved By The Bell.

But where does it all hail from? Was the sudden onset of clashing colors and bold, simple geometry the product of pop culture, or was it something more methodical?

How it began

It starts on December 11, 1980. That's the day architect and designer Ettore Sottsass met with a group of younger designers to comptemplate what the future of design would look like.

For the past three decades, the world was ruled by post-war design. Modernism that rose up in the 1920s was set on specific rules of design that slowly but surely were growing stale by the late 70s. There wasn't a rush for avocado green kitchens or orange shag carpet anymore. And the midcentury moddern addiction many have today was, at the time, becoming less and less fashionable.

It was time for somehting new. Something... post-modern. This is what Ettore and the designers he gathered with sought to uncover.

It started with rejection and rebellion. The idea at the time was to create something that directly stood up against the contemporary designs of the time. Where things were muted and minimalist, the group wanted to create something bold and colorful. In the same light, it was meant to be loud and playful, where modern design was straight-laced and lacked emotion. It had to have pop, like a bitch slap across the face of Madison Avenue-types.

These ideas were formulated over the next couple of months until the then known "Memphis Group" (named after the Bob Dylan track) debuted their style.

Memphis is very polarizing

You either love it or you hate it. I don't think I've ever come across someone who stands in the middle of the road on the matter. But perhaps that's because Memphis — unlike other forms of design — is much more than just a manisfestion in furniture or décor.

It's an idea that is busy and loud, full of abstraction and satire. It wanted so bad to be the opposite of what was en vogue at the time and it largely succeeded. By the time the Memphis Group disbanded in 1987, what they had created defined what we think of today as 80s or 90s vibes. Bright colors, fake terrazzo and exagerated animal prints, plastic, neon, shapes piled on top of each other in a gravity and logic-defying way.

A lot of what they created or inspired looked like it was mass-producable and kiddish, though a lot of it came with a premium pricetag that would claim otherwise. Perhaps that's why it looked so fitting in Pee Wee's Playhouse. Pieces like the Bel Air Chair would fit perfectly in a kid's play room. But then you would have names like David Bowie and Karl Lagerfeld as major players in collecting Memphis items.

And then it kind of died down. By 1987, The Memphis Group was no more, designers moving on to individual projects and styles. It wasn't a bad breakup — the collective accomplished their goal and then moved on. What they created would endure as a style for years, die down for some years after, and then suddenly pop back up on the stage in the late 20-teens — for the late 20-somethings with sudden "adult money".

Post-mortem pop

After Memphis was allowed to die a peaceful death, its pop culture impact slowly faded with the times. But in 2015, it seemingly came back to life, thanks to the generation born at just the right time to catch the first wave of Memphis as they were growing up.

In a way, it makes a lot of sense. Memphis plays on shapes and colors that are appealing to basic senses. Some pieces seemed downright child-like, such as the Super. For Millennials born in the mid to late 80s, they witnessed a lot of the pop culture impact that resulted from Memphis style and became a surprising target demographic for what is currently evolving to be a long-term trend.

Stragely enough, Memphis' true audience wasn't the Miami Vice stans or the Karl Lagersfeilds of the world, nor was their audience the everyperson type (as notated by the pricetags of their many pieces). Their true audience just wasn't old enough to really enjoy it at the time.

Memphis today

But fast-forward: Millennials are obsessed with the past. The generation with the most money and influence in 2022 is so easily taken back by simple nostalgia — GameBoys, the iMac G3, neon, leg warmers, mullets and more — has now turned their attention to Memphis style with a strong passion.

Best of all, Memphis Milano, the spiritual sucessor to the OG Memphis Group, isn't the only player in the game right now. Other hit design houses like Birite Stuido, Yoox, and Beam Brooklyn have taken Memphis to a new level, appealing to a new generation of buyers and collectors.

The refreshed appeal of Memphis is so strong, every... motherfucking... corporation... is trying to ride along. And perhaps with good reason. While the revival of the style appeals to an audience of new money and old nostalgia, fintech startups and brands looking for a refreshed image are playing up the same bold colors and basic shapes that Memphis made iconic.

Like any cool trend, Memphis started to go stale the instant corporations caught wind of it. But the strange thing is — compared to other trends, anyway — Memphis might survive the power suits and 401Ks. The urge we have to escape to the comforts of nostalgia might be all the more reason to invest in that funky striped sofa or ear mirror you spotted on FB Marketplace.

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