What Is Memphis? (And How Can I Get My Hands on It?)

By
Get onboard with Memphis.

You might’ve heard murmurs about Memphis Milano. Maybe you read that it inspired Millennial Pink, have seen hints of its brash style on Pinterest, or you’ve noticed all your cool friends started following @ettoresottsass on Instagram. However you might’ve first come upon it, or even if you haven’t learned how to classify it just yet, the clashing colors, blocky shapes, and loud patterns of Memphis Milano are back.

The movement began in 1981 in Milan with a group of designers led by Ettore Sottsass (who died in 2007 and does not run that Instagram page, although his associates have approved the 25-year-old who does). It was a reaction to what he found as the staid, structured straight lines of mid-century-modern furniture, so he and his group disregarded “good taste” in favor of the radical, funny, and outrageous. It was a philosophy more than a design imperative. For the Memphis group, form did not need to follow function.

The legend is that they’re called Memphis because the group listened to Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues” on repeat for their entire first meeting. They debuted their first collection at the world’s premiere design show, Salone de Mobile, in 1981, using cheap materials like laminate, bright primary colors, and weird, surprising shapes like spheres for couch legs. Almost all of the pieces in that very first show were prototypes, which is common for design shows now only because of Memphis. Before, every piece of furniture presented needed to be ready for mass production, which is why manufacturers wouldn’t take risks on new designers. Memphis, again, was a reaction to that. “Memphis broke everything,” says Dr. Alberto Bianchi Albrici, who has owned the Memphis brand since the 1990s.

Although its wacky look subtly influenced the late-’80s (think Saved by the Bell) the furniture was for the most part commercially rejected. Instead it managed to attract a small, loyal group of obsessives before breaking up for good when Sottsass left the group, in 1986. It’s the type of style you either love or find completely bewildering. Karl Lagerfeld bought Sottsass’s entire first collection (and eventually sold it at auction in 1991). There’s a wedding photographer in Tennessee who will only decorate his home with original 1980s Memphis.

But it mostly disappeared from attention until 2007, when Sottsass died and Memphis began creeping back into the mainstream design world. By 2014, American Apparel had asked Nathalie du Pasquier, an original Memphis artist, to design a collection. That same year, Sofia Coppola wrote in W about how she’s been obsessed with Memphis since she was a young girl. Last November, David Bowie’s estate auctioned his art collection at Sotheby’s where it was revealed that he had collected more than 400 pieces since he first met Sottsass in the ’80s.

Now the Met Breuer is planning an Sottsass show for July and museums in Amsterdam, Pittsburgh, and Minneapolis are all working on Memphis-related exhibitions for next year. “I think we keep reexamining it because there’s a part of it that’s still very irreverent and jarring,” says Lorry Dudley, president of the Modern Archive. “It still has that shock value that it did so many years ago.”

Lots of young designers, sick of mid-century-modern everything, are riffing on Memphis designs these days. But while they’re using a lot of the same patterns and shapes, the colors are generally a little less intense; whites and grays instead of primary reds, yellows, and blues. And though original Memphis designs are still available for purchase, we’ve collected some more affordable and surprising takes below.

So Sottsass decorative plate
$151, yoox

In 2013, the London design store Darkroom launched a Memphis-inspired collection called “So Sottsass.” This colorful plate is so Sottsass.

Darkroom London Vase
$85, Yoox

Another Darkroom piece. Still so Sottsass.

Candelabrum
$234, Yoox

This swooping design lives in the Memphis spirit, as does this other option from the design team called Menu that takes inspiration from Memphis’s love of big round spheres.

Note: This candelabrum is sold out, but here is another swooping option by De Vecchi.

Nappula Candelabra
$222, Need Supply Co.

Curvaceous and kind of alien, but in a good way.

Note: This is sold out, but a similar candleholder set is available here.

Memphis Grid Plates
$8, Bash

A light Memphis touch for parties to teach everyone where Millennial Pink comes from.

Opening Ceremony x Espirit multicolor patterned scarf
$70, The Real Real

Opening Ceremony’s collaboration with ’80s cool-kid brand Esprit is full of Memphis pops of color. They also have this dress that’s a lot like Sottsass’s bacteria print.

Eric Trine + Dusen Dusen Outdoor Lounge Chair
$419, West Elm

Brooklyn designer Dusen Dusen’s entire collection gleefully nods to Memphis. West Elm paired her squiggly cushion on top of designer Eric Trine’s mint-green base, and although it’s meant for outdoors, I can easily see this in the living room.

Note: This is no longer available, but the outdoor sofa version is.

Camille Walala Cotton Tote Bag
$10, Etsy

Add Memphis to any outfit.

Memphis-Inspired Fabric With Spoonflower
$27, Amazon

Add Memphis to anything.

Society6 Memphis-Inspired Pattern 3 Duvet Covers
$99, Amazon

Memphis for the bedroom.

Fjfz Cotton Linen Home Decorative Throw Pillow Case Cushion Cover
$8, Amazon

A starter piece for the couch.

So Sottsass pillow
$132, Yoox

This one from Darkroom London stays quiet on the color side, but goes full pattern.

Afro80’s T-shirt
$49, Etsy

This one reminds me of The Rugrats, which I’m now realizing was probably Memphis-inspired too.

Bib pendant, Rick Rack
$65, Etsy

Memphis for the neckline.

Note: This bib pendant is sold out, but the same maker has a porcelain pendant in “Memphis Peach.”

Standing mobile/colorful stabile in metal inspired by Memphis Milano design
$155, Etsy

My favorite of them all, a standing work of art from French mobile designers VOLTA Paris.

Memphis Painted Cuff
$158, Anthropologie

New York City jewelry designer Susan Alexandra adds Memphis squiggles and shapes to her brass cuff.

Note: Unfortunately this is sold out, but here’s another fun painted cuff with squiggles and dots.

Lotta spot plates
$5, Spring

With polka dots!

Abstract phone case
$40, Spring

Memphis on the go.

Memphis Boobs
$28, Spring

This one’s fittingly titled Memphis Boobs. There’s also a PG-rated print of Memphis lipstick.

Mykonos barrette
$66, Spring

A colorful hair piece by Dream Collective, whose entire brand is pretty much inspired by Memphis.

Note: This particular barrette is sold out, but there are a few left in another color, plus here is a great wavy barrette and another perfectly Memphis version.

Zeppelin brooch
$30, Spring

Another Dream Collective original.

Takada Collection Face Bank 2 Light Pink (japan import) by Banpresto
$16, Amazon

This Japanese “face bank” is just the right amount of weird.

Nora Wooden Folding Chair
$79, Urban Outfitters

A bright blue that’s very Memphis.

Zak Rainbow Confetti Nesting Bowl Set
$40, Urban Outfitters

The confetti design (mixed into recycled plastic) is similar to Sottsass’s bacteria print.

Note: The entire bowl set is sold out, but there is still a singular bowl available here.

Slowtide Visions Beach Towel
$60, Urban Outfitters

Those black-and-white lines are perfect to lay out on.

Note: This is no longer available, but here is a round towel with varying black-and-white stripes.

Blair Circle Table Lamp
$29, Urban Outfitters

The copper is very current, the circle is very Memphis.

Gillian Wall Hook
$29, Urban Outfitters

A pop of color for the coats and bags.

Note: This is sold out, but here is another more primary-colored wall hook.

Ball Drop Earrings in Chartreuse
$78, Need Supply Co.

Can’t you just imagine these all over 1980s Milan?

Multistone Pebble Earrings
$550, Need Supply Co.

Studs with a little something extra.

Wave Collar
$28, Need Supply Co.

Memphis was wavy before everyone else.

Note: This is no longer available, but this Annie Costello Brown necklace is full of loops and shapes.

Modern Coffee Table I
$640, All Modern

It’s time to embrace soft curves.

Post Modern
$16, Spring

Stick on these nail wraps because it’s easier than getting a tattoo.

Post Modern Black & White Tea Pot
$45, Amazon

This shape is just so ’80s.

Inchworm Alley — “Memphis Milano Heads” Unisex, 100% Organic Cotton Bodysuit Onesie
$33, Amazon

Memphis for babies.

ModMade Spoke Wall Clock, Red
$85, Amazon

Hang this one on a white wall to add some life to any room.

Lo-Res rug
$299, Spring

Land of Nod’s Lo-Res rug is technically for a kid’s room, but can add a colorful Memphis touch anywhere around the house.

Note: This style is sold out, but Land of Nod has some other great patterns here and here.

X Marks the Red Book Caddy
$85, Land of Nod

Memphis is perhaps most known for the Carlton bookshelf, and this one is slanted too.

Raw mark pitcher
$125, Recreational Center

There’s that pattern again.

Blue Milking Stool
$1,100, Coming Soon New York

Even if we leave alone that stripe, just the idea of a stool specifically for milking is very Memphis.

Domino Chair
$650, Spadone Home

It’s a chair, but it’s also a domino.

Heavy Metal mug
$50, Spadone Home

This one’s supposed to feel like you’re grabbing onto an industrial door handle.

Pilastro stool
$390, Y Living

This Kartell stool was first released in 2015 as a tribute to Ettore Sottsass and Memphis.

Take table lamp
$140, Y Living

And this Kartell table lamp was part of the same collection.

Parana
$682, Yoox

A very Memphis tray.

Get the best of the Strategist delivered to your inbox.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best women’s jeans, rolling luggage, bed sheets, coffee makers, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.

Every editorial product is independently selected. If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.

What Is Memphis? (And How Can I Get My Hands on It?)