Memphis Movement

by Ettore Sottsass

The keen eye must have noticed that the design of has been heavily influenced by the Memphis movement. Now it has become almost mainstream to think in colors, dots, curves and rectangle forms, it is time to give some background info on the movement.
Originally dubbed The New Design, the project was rechristened Memphis after the Bob Dylan lyric Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again) stuck repeatedly at Memphis Blues Again on Sottsass’ record player. Memphis dominated the early 1980s design scene with its post-modernist style.

The rule-breaking had begun in December 1980 when Ettore Sottsass, one of Italy’s architectural grandees, met with a group of younger architects in his apartment on Milan’s Via San Galdino. He was in his 60s and his collaborators - Martine Bedin, Aldo Cibic, Michele De Lucchi, Matteo Thun and Marco Zanini – were in their 20s. With them was the writer, Barbara Radice. They were there to discuss Sottsass’ plans to produce a line of furniture with an old friend, Renzo Brugola, owner of a carpentry workshop.

Ground breaking

That was the point. After decades of modernist doctrine, Sottsass and his collaborators longed to be liberated from the tyranny of smart, but soulless ‘good taste’ in design. Their solution was to continue the experiments with uncoventional materials, historic forms, kitsch motifs and gaudy colours begun by Studio Alchymia, the radical late 1970s Italian design group to which Sottsass and De Lucchi had belonged. When the young Jasper Morrison and a couple of thousand others crowded into Arc ’74 on 18 September 1981 they discovered furniture made from the flashily coloured plastic laminates emblazoned with kitsch geometric and leopard-skin patterns usually found in 1950s comic books or cheap cafés. Other pieces of furniture and lights were made from industrial materials – printed glass, celluloids, fireflake finishes, neon tubes and zinc-plated sheet-metals – jazzed up with flamboyant colours and patterns, spangles and glitter.


Recently the typical typo, shapes and design of Memphis is finding second air with many young designers. Whether it is NiceNiceNice from Germany or the American label DusenDusen, Memphis is back. This time, however, it can be found in graphic design, jewellery and even bedding sets.

Like Miles Davis and even Radiohead, who resolutely refuse to replay old music or particular songs, throughout his long career, Sottsass always insisted on moving forward rather than reliving past glories. For him, quitting Memphis at the height of its fame was the only logical course of action.


Having broken free from Memphis, Sottsass concentrated his energies on his own architectural practise, Sottsass Associati, where he continued to work with many of his young collaborators, including Branzi, Cibic and De Lucchi. "I am a designer and I want to design things," Sottsass had written a few years before founding Memphis. "What else would I do? Go fishing?"