Some of my earliest memories of being aware of interior design revolve around Memphis style. Featured heavily in the set design of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, this design language was loud, colorful and other-worldly. Saved by the Bell used Memphis in much the same way that Pee Wee did. It was a way to create a cartoon vibe with real world objects.
So let’s back up. In 1981 (the year I was born), Ettore Sottsass and a group of other designers founded the Memphis design group. These dudes and dudettes named the group after a Bob Dylan song that played during their first meetings. Most of the designers were Italian and Memphis is considered an Italian design movement, though it included designers, architects, etc. from all over the world. It literally has nothing to do with Tennessee.
Memphis is like a pug. It’s a messed up concoction of ideas thrown together, blended up, and then passed off on the world as it’s own, new thing. And even though it dies young and can barely breathe – there is something charming and adorable about it.
Art Deco raw dogged Pop Art while dressed like a 1950’s housewife and out popped Memphis.
To really understand the design though, you have to understand how truly punk rock it really is. Punk rock tends to conjure images of black leather and spikes, while Memphis looks like an epileptic seizure. Memphis began life as a frustrated response to the mid-century designs of the ’60s and ’70s.
I’m a huge Mid Century Modern fan, but, the Memphis guys had a point. Mid-Century, by the late ’70s, was old and stuffy. Rigid and established. There’s a reason MCM is timeless. It never changes. It doesn’t lend itself to outrageous color schemes or new textures. It is yellow and brown and leather and warm. It’s masculine and serious and sexy. It’s not fucking around.
Memphis, on the other hand, is sticking it’s dick in the punch bowl and winking at your grandma. Memphis is fucking insane compared to Mid-Century. The Memphis Group basically said “What’s the stupidest thing we can think of?” and then that’s what they did.
“Oh, chair legs are rectangles? Now they’re triangles!”
“A room should have two or three complementary colors? How about we put every color ever all in piece of furniture, let alone a room.”
“You know what would be funny? If we combined art deco and bauhaus with PlaySkool and Fisher Price.”
Memphis is the biggest “fuck you” to design convention ever. And that’s what makes it so punk rock. This group of designers, designers with serious industry clout mind you, invented the future in a couple months. They threw out everything they learned and started fresh and created a whole new aesthetic vocabulary and the most remarkable thing about it is, is that it works. It has insane colors, patterns, materials and textures, and yet somehow it is instantly recognizable.
For some reason, it became the main design language adults used to communicate with the children born in the 1980s. It was on our Trapper Keepers, it was the literal look of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. Screech and Zack Morris (who is trash btw) had lunch at the Max diner, while Pee Wee showed and told in a Memphis wonderland.
It goes to prove that the older generations have never really understood how to talk to Millennials. They’re just like, “You like this right?” and then while we go “Yeah, actually, that’s kind of cool.” they laughed at us and called us names for liking it.
But Memphis, while bombastic, is not a joke. It’s pretty sophisticated and for a time was quite the toast of the town, debuting at the Milan Furniture Fair. While it was created in the ’80s, it didn’t really get popular until the early ’90s. Weirder still, is that in retrospect, it makes people think of the ’80s, even though they’re mostly remembering things from the early ’90s. I wonder if there is anything else like this, where people’s memories auto correct the past.
Memphis keeps threatening a full-on comeback, but, that’s impossible. It never really was. It only really existed in children’s programming. Sure, Karl Lagerfeld and David Bowie had huge Memphis collections, but the group itself only ever made one piece of furniture for mass consumption (a chair that sucked). The group was defunct just 7 years after it was formed and by the time it had it’s day in the sun, it shriveled up and died in the heat.
The biggest issue with Memphis is practicality. Hard edges, and thin cushions of Mid-Century Modern furniture render it uncomfortable. But Memphis furniture is just plain unusable. It’s arresting in it’s design and bold in it’s color choices, but it’s one of the least functional design languages ever. It’s the opposite of timeless. It is heavily rooted in a time and place. These ideas were futuristic and almost immediately they were cemented in place, forever to be thought of as artifacts of the past.
Ultimately, Memphis suffered from the same short-comings as MCM. While insane, it was too rigid. You couldn’t have a regular sofa or a normal rug in a Memphis room. It was all or nothing. At least with Mid-Century you can put a lamp from Target on your end table and it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.
Memphis design really relates to the concept of Bachelor Uncles in general because it never got to live up to it’s potential despite it’s pedigree. It was always misunderstood, even when heralded. Realistically, Memphis was a failure collapsing under it’s own ideals and forced to reinvent itself. Dedicated weirdos, who always wanted to get slimed on “You Can’t Do That On Television”, will sing it’s praises and dream of a revisionist past where Memphis was everywhere and in every home.
And the revisionist vision that a better past can create a better preset, is what draws me to Memphis Design and the story of the Memphis group. Maybe that’s what drew Bowie to it. Somewhere in all of us, is a frustrated group of aging Italian designers begging to tell old Uncle Frank Lloyd Wright to go fuck himself.
Happy Bachelor Uncle Sunday guys. Let’s have a great week.