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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Retro
Design

What Is the Memphis Style?

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If you love unashamedly brash and bold colors and patterns, you’ll be very happy to hear that the Memphis Style, the design style pioneered by the 1980s Memphis Group, is very much back in vogue. 

90s dj flyer
Club flyer template with Memphis Style references

Here we’ll take a look at the background of the Memphis Group and look at how you can emulate the Memphis Style in your own design work. 

What Was the Memphis Group?

In 1981, Italian designer Ettore Sottsass founded a group of artists and designers called Memphis. Bob Dylan’s song 'Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again' was playing on repeat during the group’s first meeting, which led to the group being named 'Memphis'.

After the inaugural meeting, the group decided that they would meet again in February 1981. The members brought over 100 drawings with them, picturing a variety of bold, colorful designs with multiple stylistic influences. 

The Memphis Group went on to create furniture, fabrics, patterns, ceramics and other products in a distinctly Postmodern style that blended stylistic traits of 1950s kitsch, Art Deco, and Pop Art. 

memphis style
A room containing furniture and other items designed in the Memphis Style, as part of a Memphis-Milano design collection. CC Wikipedia.

Initial critical reaction to the designs produced by the Memphis Group was not positive. The group’s use of conventionally ‘bad-taste’ plastic laminate and clashing colors didn’t resonate with the more widely accepted design standards of the time. 

However, we can now reflect on the designs created by the Memphis Group and recognise that they were groundbreaking. They marked a complete separation from the dark, overly tasteful and serious design styles of the 1970s. 

Memphis’s fresh approach to design, which was characterised by creativity and humor, came to be a lasting stylistic hallmark of the 1980s. 

dj flyer
Club flyer template

After six years of creative productivity, in 1987 the Memphis Group disbanded. Despite being described as a fad at the time, the group’s trademark style is now experiencing a revival. 

One of the members of the Memphis Group, Nathalie Du Pasquier, recently collaborated with Danish design company HAY to create Memphis-inspired products. The world of fashion has been one of the quickest design fields to revitalise the style, with houses such as Dior and Missoni creating collections and show sets that take inspiration from the Memphis Group.

What Is the Memphis Style?

The Memphis Style is one of the most instantly recognisable design styles. It's known for its use of bright neon, primary and pastel colors, geometric shapes, and bold, repetitive patterns. The style is experiencing a resurgence in graphic design and illustration, as the trend for reviving all things eighties and maximalist continues to feel fresh and relevant.  

As the Memphis Style is a mish-mash of various design styles that were popular during the 1980s, it can look a little confused at best, and downright bonkers at worst! It's a real Marmite design style—individuals tend to either completely love it or loathe it. 

Whether you think the outlandish designs of the Memphis Style are awesome or simply bad taste, you can’t deny the influence of the Memphis Group on graphic design and interior design today. 

casablanca cabinet
‘Casablanca Cabinet’, designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1982. CC Wikipedia.

Graphic design has allowed the Memphis Style to be recreated for a contemporary audience, with designers creating patterns, textures, color fonts and posters using its trademark geometric shapes and bold colors.

How Can I Emulate the Memphis Style in My Own Work?

While the out-there furniture style of the Memphis Group might not be everyone’s cup of tea, luckily the revival of the style in graphic design and illustration is a little more pared back. 

A good starting point is to create a vector pattern using repeated shapes, such as triangles, circles, and wavy lines, to give any background a Memphis flavor. 

memphis patterns
Memphis seamless patterns

Try softening the color palette of your pattern to more muted tones to keep the style looking fresh, not throwback. 

abstract memphis patterns
Abstract Memphis Style backgrounds

You can apply your background to print media, such as business cards or invitations. Team it with simple, minimal sans serif typography in black to anchor the style and stop it all looking a bit too zany.

business card
Memphis business card template
wedding invite set
Wedding invite set with geometric border

You don’t need to be a Memphis purist to extract the best elements of the style. Blending Memphis influences with other retro design traits can make patterns look nicely off-beat and relevant for now. These retro-style patterns borrow influences from 1970s design and the Memphis Style, as well as mixing in pastel neons for a contemporary twist.

pattern
Seamless retro patterns

Ultimately, the Memphis Style is all about taking a bold and brash approach to design. So get experimental! Try pairing pastels and neons together, rotate shapes into jaunty positions, and keep everything you create looking playful. 

Try to add a contemporary twist to your designs that keeps the style looking on-trend. In this tutorial, the Memphis Style is given a 3D update and a fresh pastel palette. 

In this text effect tutorial, Memphis Style influences are stripped down to the basics, with minimal lines, a rich color palette, and a flat design. 

Conclusion

Even though the Memphis Group’s ethos was considered to be in poor taste by the critics of the day, the style they pioneered has proven to have lasting relevance for designers, who look to its off-beat, humorous approach to give freshness and life to their designs.

What makes the Memphis Style so fun is the lack of rules and regulations associated with it. It really is a style that embraces eclectic and truly creative design. It’s also an inherently optimistic design style, which perhaps is why designers and illustrators are discovering a fresh relevance to the style today. 

Although the Memphis Style had its heyday during the 1980s, its influence filtered down into 90s-era design too. Check out these retro-themed tutorials to embrace the optimistic, brightly colored design style of the 1990s:

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