The 1980s

Written by Ayesha Qasim

The 1980s. Responsible for movies like Ghostbusters, songs like Billie Jean and When Doves Cry and of course, some memorable fashion. The look of the time was bright and bold. But how did this aesthetic come about?

It’s all because of this one group called Memphis (named after the Bob Dylan song). Memphis were a design collective created in 1981, by Italian architect Ettore Sottsass. The majority were Italian, but there were designers from Japan, Austria and America and they were based in Milan.

Their iconic look originated out of a movement of radical design in Italy during the 1960s. Radical design was a response to the minimal aesthetic of modernism. Modernism originated during the Mussolini-era, as there was a war on, there weren’t many resources, so all the buildings became very simple and flat, made of very durable materials. One of the main buildings from this time is the Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro in the EUR area of Rome, a building which was created so Mussolini would have somewhere nice to celebrate 20 years of fascism.


By dalbera (Palazzo della civiltà del lavoro in EUR, Rome) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Memphis had their debut in 1981 at the Milan Design Fair. One of the designers was in a taxi and there was such a loud commotion and a big crowd, they thought that there had been a bomb threat of some sort. In fact, there was no bomb threat, this was just the reaction to the Memphis exhibition. Whether you loved it or hated it, it created an atmosphere of excitement.

Many people cite the MTV as the reason Memphis had so much influence, as they both started in 1981. Consider the loud MTV logos, with bright colours and strong prints, the music videos they showed had sharp silhouettes and exaggerated makeup. It became the norm, a generation regularly wearing neon with big hair.

However, commercially Memphis wasn’t successful at all. Only one thing was mass produced, and that was the First Chair, which was surprisingly impractical as if you tried to lean back, you would fall over.

The First Chair by de Lucca for Memphis

Memphis disbanded in 1987, due to Sottsass wanting to work independently, as well as a severe recession which had a great impact on the art market, with less willing to collect. Even though they were never commercially successful, they still had a great effect on design, and they still do. In 1995, the first Apple Watch ( back then it only told the time) was sold, and in 2011, Dior had a haute couture show based entirely around the works of Memphis. Memphis was fundamental to the aesthetic of the 80s and as long as the aesthetic of the 80s lives on, so does Memphis.


Dior 2011 Spring Show / Photo credit: Tony Barson

About the author

Ayesha Qasim


  • I do not like our generation. The 80’s was great and unique just like most of the 90’s, but as we proceed further in time everything revolves around technology and social media. We don’t have our own style as a generation and we are just ruining the planet as we go.

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