Aesthetics Wiki
Advertisement

Memphis Design is an aesthetic that was prevalent in popular culture from roughly 1984 to 1997. It involves bright neon colors, pure geometric shapes, and zig-zagged and squiggly lines. It was created in 1980 by the Italian Memphis Group. The Memphis era was also one of the main inspirations for Vaporwave, Synthwave, and Future Funk.

History[]

Memphis Design was created in 1980 by the design group Memphis Milano from Milan, Italy. They took their name from the song "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" by Bob Dylan, which was playing during a meeting. The group designed furniture, with their first Memphis show and catalog both being in 1981. The group disbanded in 1987 due to the initial hype of their movement fading.

Although the look for this aesthetic was initially used for furniture, it also expanded into visual art and architecture as well. The Early 1980s had leftover 1970s aesthetics focusing on "Earth tones" like brown, beige, and orange, or in the UK where the New Romantic was the dominant aesthetic, but by 1984–85 the Memphis pastels had begun to influence pop culture more widely with the premiere of Miami Vice. However, it was clear that Memphis Design failed to spread beyond piecemeal uses, and the Memphis Group themselves disbanded formally in 1987 due to the lack of commercial interest.

Memphis group did however launch interests in multiple directions (e.g. Wacky Pomo, Factory Pomo), especially as it diversified from its original architecture and interior design focus. These various strands eventually coalesced into Memphis Lite, an eclectic aesthetic that came to dominate the memories of much of the late 1980s and early 1990s. While the continuation between pure Memphis design and Memphis Lite is obvious, in practice much retro callbacks to the 80s and 90s refer to Memphis Lite (e.g. Synthwave, Arcadecore etc.). The revival of true Memphis in the 2010s is sometimes referred to as Bougie Design.

Visuals[]

Furniture and decor in Memphis Milano, a pop-up exhibition and shop at Seattle's Nordstrom

Furniture and decor in Memphis Milano, a pop-up exhibition and shop at Seattle's Nordstrom

Memphis Design typically uses brightly colored (typically white) backgrounds plastered with geometric shapes with vibrant colors. Pink, yellow, and blue are the most common colors used for said shapes; the Late 1980s and Early 1990s also marked the addition of purple and teal colors to the palette. Zig-zagged and squiggly lines (usually black) also tend to appear alongside the geometric shapes.

Media[]

TV Shows[]

  • Early MTV
  • Double Dare (1986)
  • Miami Vice (1984)
  • Full House (1986-1995)
  • Pee-Wee's Playhouse (1986)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987)
  • Saved By the Bell (1989)
  • Wild & Crazy Kids (1990)
  • Mahou no Tenshi Creamy Mami (1983)
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990)
  • Make the Grade (1989-1990)
  • The Simpsons (1989)
  • Rugrats (1991-2004)
  • Sailor Moon (1992)
  • Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (1993)
  • WWF Golden Era (1982-1992)
  • WWF New Generation Era (1993-1997)
  • Rocko's Modern Life (1993-1996, 2019 )
  • ReBoot (1994-2001)
  • ZOOM (1999)
  • Cyberchase (2002)
  • The Eggs (2004)
  • Stranger Things (2016-present)

Film[]

  • Ruthless People (1986)
  • Short Circuit (1986)
  • Wall Street (1987)
  • Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
  • Short Circuit 2 (1988)
  • Beetlejuice (1988)
  • Back To The Future Part II (1989)
  • Home Alone (1990)
  • Terminator 2 (1991)
  • A Goofy Movie (1995)
  • Barbie (2023)

Video Games[]

  • Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (1989)
  • Sonic the Hedgehog 1-3&K (1991-1994) (Specifically the Japanese Boxart)
  • Kid Pix 1-Studio (1989-1995)
  • ToeJam & Earl (1991-2019)
  • Lego Island (1997)
  • Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)

Music[]

  • New Jack Swing
  • Microsoft Multimedia Pack for Windows 3.1 MIDI demo files (1993)
  • Golden age of Hip Hop
  • Synthpop
  • Early Rave/Breakbeat/Hardcore/Jungle music (1989-1993)
  • Hair metal
  • Adult contemporary
  • New Age
  • Grunge
  • Jimmy Edgar(early works)
  • Michael Jackson's Thriller and Bad albums

Criticism[]

While Memphis Design challenged traditional design norms with its bold, primary colors and geometric shape, its almost extremist approach resulted in furniture that was often grotesque, impractical and impossible to design around in an actual average 80s home. Comments have described it as "a riot of color and materials that often overwhelmed a piece's original intent"[1] and, discussing its use in Miami Vice, "telegraph[ing] a clear message: things ain’t right in Miami".[2]

Influence[]

While extremely memorable, Memphis design had relatively minimal impact on consumer products. Its legacy lies more in its influence on later styles and as a precursor to the "postmodern explosion" of the late 80s and early nineties, with styles like Wacky Pomo, Factory Pomo, Festival Marketplace, Neoclassical PoMo and Memphis Lite. On the opposite end, actual Memphis design elements are uncommon at best in most revivals that gesture generally toward the 80s and 90s. Synthwave and Vaporwave typically borrows far more heavily from aesthetics like Laser Grid, Pacific Punk Wave (and particularly its neon-colored tropical version) or the far more eclectic Memphis Lite.

Gallery[]

References[]

Advertisement