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.

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

Buy
So Sottsass decorative plate $151, yoox

Another Darkroom piece. Still so Sottsass.

Buy
Darkroom London Vase $85, 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.

Buy
Candelabrum $234, Yoox

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

Buy
Nappula Candelabra $222, Need Supply Co.

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

Buy
Memphis Grid Plates $8, Bash
Photo: Daniella Rodriguez

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.

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

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.

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

Add Memphis to any outfit.

Buy
Camille Walala Cotton Tote Bag $8, Etsy

Add Memphis to anything.

Buy
Memphis-Inspired Fabric With Spoonflower $27, Amazon

Memphis for the bedroom.

Buy
Society6 Memphis-Inspired Pattern 3 Duvet Covers $100, Amazon

A starter piece for the couch.

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

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

Buy
So Sottsass pillow $132, Yoox

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

Buy
Afro80’s T-shirt $44, Etsy

Memphis for the neckline.

Buy
Bib pendant, Rick Rack $65, Etsy

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

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

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

Buy
Memphis Painted Cuff $158, Anthropologie

With polka dots!

Buy
Lotta spot plates $3, Spring

Memphis on the go.

Buy
Abstract phone case $40, Spring

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

Buy
Memphis Boobs $28, Spring

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

Buy
Mykonos barette $66, Spring

Another Dream Collective original.

Buy
Zeppelin brooch $30, Spring

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

Buy
Takada Collection Face Bank 2 Light Pink (japan import) by Banpresto $30, Amazon

A bright blue that’s very Memphis.

Buy
Nora Wooden Folding Chair $79, Urban Outfitters

The confetti design (mixed into recycled plastic) is similar to Sottsass’s bacteria print. The pattern also comes in salad plates.

Buy
Zak Rainbow Confetti Nesting Bowl Set $40, Urban Outfitters

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

Buy
Slowtide Visions Beach Towel $60, Urban Outfitters

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

Buy
Blair Circle Table Lamp $29, Urban Outfitters

A pop of color for the coats and bags.

Buy
Gillian Wall Hook $29, Urban Outfitters

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

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

Studs with a little something extra.

Buy
Multistone Pebble Earrings $550, Need Supply Co.

Memphis was wavy before everyone else.

Buy
Wave Collar $28, Need Supply Co.

It’s time to embrace soft curves.

Buy
Modern Coffee Table I $640, All Modern

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

Buy
Post Modern $16, Spring

This shape is just so ’80s.

Buy
Post Modern Black & White Tea Pot $45, Amazon

Memphis for babies.

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

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

Buy
ModMade Spoke Wall Clock, Red $70, Amazon

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.

Buy
Lo-Res rug $299, Spring

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

Buy
X Marks the Red Book Caddy $99, Land of Nod

There’s that pattern again.

Buy
Raw mark pitcher $125, Recreational Center
Photo: Balarama Heller/BALARAMA HELLER bala@balaramaheller.com

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

Buy
Blue Milking Stool $1,100, Coming Soon New York
Photo: MICHAEL D WILSON 2016

It’s a chair, but it’s also a domino.

Buy
Domino Chair $650, Spadone Home
Photo: MICHAEL D WILSON 2016

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

Buy
Heavy Metal mug $50, Spadone Home

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

Buy
Pilastro stool $390, Y Living

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

Buy
Take table lamp $140, Y Living

A very Memphis tray.

Buy
Parana $682, Yoox

Get the best of the Strategist delivered to your inbox.

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?)