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if we were to make a mood board for each decade... it would probably look something like this,right? even if we didn’t live through the ‘50s,‘60s, and the ‘70s… we can pretty much agree on the defining look of the time. this is my favorite—the ‘80s. and minus the questionable hairstyles...the ‘80s set the trend for bright colors, graphic patterns, and geometric shapes. which made me wonder, who created the look of the ‘80s? is it even possible to point to a specificperson or a moment in time?

well, in this case, we can. glenn: i think it’d be hard for us to think of any other design phenomenon that could be located as specifically to a group of people… the memphis group dominated the design worldin the ‘80s. the collective led by italian architect ettoresottsass came together in 1981. they had a huge impact on the postmodern designs of the decade. glenn: memphis is probably as influential as a design group there has ever been. and they did originate a lot of that visual vocabulary. so i do give them a lot of the credit for the look of the'80s for sure.

although majority were italians, the group had architects and designers from all around the world. japan, france, britain, austria, america... and unlike the name, the group wasn’t from tennessee. they were actually based in milan, italy. the name memphis came from a bob dylan songthat was playing during a meeting. “ with the memphis blues again” first thing to know about memphis is that it comes out of a long traditionof radical design in italy

in the 1960s. radical design was a movement—formed by architectsin reaction to the minimal and practical aesthetics of modernism. “modernism was put into some kind of â abox. we gave it a lot of rules—which i think a lot of people felt trapped within these rules.” radical design allowed designers to expressdistortion and irony, moving far away from functionality of design. sottsass was a big proponent of the movement. according to the guardian, he tried to stay away from modernist way of designing

“like a well-educated schoolboy.” he didn’t follow the rules, which made thememphis group’s work unpredictable. peter: we wanted to be excited. we wanted to be anxious. we wanted to be thrilled. this is peter shire, one of two americanswho were a part of the memphis group. peter: we were doing it mechanically, because we didn't have the computers. they existed—we were seeing signs of it. and you look at that kind of overlay. look at memphis—you know, pattern on pattern with stuff flying out.

in 1981, the group showed their work for thefirst time at the milan design fair. the entire collection was named after luxuryhotels. glenn: the carlton… the belair chair that petershire did... the plaza vanity that michael graves did. which is like a joke, right? about taking plastic laminates andputting it on cheap composition wood, and naming it after luxury hotels… it's all part of this faux-chicthing that they were interested in. the new york times wrote that the show “appalledsome and amused others but put everyone attending the fair in a state of high excitement.”

glenn: sottsass and one of the other designers were on their way to the opening on a taxi, and they thought a terrorist bomb had gone off in downtown milan. they realized gradually that the chaos andcrowding was actually because of their own exhibition. they got out and walked, and it was like a mob scene. their work spread quickly through design magazinesthat were popular at the time. and soon enough you saw their influence everywhere. glenn: i always think it’s important that it happenedvirtually simultaneously with mtv which also launched in 1981. and if you think about the logo of mtv withall those colors and patterns

and the kind of scratchy graphics. clearly relates very closely to some of the graphic design ideas that were coming out of italy that were context in which memphis emerged. but, despite the impact that the group had, their furniture never quite made it in to people’s homes. glenn: it was very very unusual to decorate withmemphis at that time. there’s only one single piece of furniture from memphis that was ever mass produced and that's the first chair. i think about 3000 of those were made.

with a circular disk at the back and two blackorbs to rest your arms, the design was unlike any other chair on the market in 1983. peter: which was a brilliant idea and a terrible chair. but the trouble is that they always fellover backwards. and that was pretty funny. a few years later, sottsass left the groupto build his own studio, and the memphis group held their last show in 1987. glenn: whenever people would say to me what wouldbe the ending of postmodern period, i would say more or less it is around 1987.

because there is a recession then, that takes some of the air out of the art market— and it's like a real turning point. the life of the memphis group was short lived,6 years to be exact. and even though their designs failed to servea function in people’s homes… they left a colorful mark in history and inspiredmany designers to come. like this first apple watch which was createdin 1995. they were given out for free to anyone whobought the mac system. or this 2011 dior couture show, which wasan ode to memphis design. karl lagerfeld was among the few who collectedtheir pieces.

and the sotheby’s auction house sold david bowie’s memphis collection last year—which also included peter’s work. the designs have a distinctive look that continues to come up time and again... and that’s how design works sometimes, it often spreads around the world without the designers’ names attached. so even if you recognize this look as the look of the ‘80s, most people probably havenever heard of memphis at all.

peter: i should ask somebody. i should ask a man on the street. most people would go “...what?”