Memphis-Milano: The new interior design trend borrowing from the 80’s

There’s a popular (but little known) interior designer who’s had a major influence on all of the major interior design trends over the last few years. That millennial pink that was everywhere a couple of years ago? Yeah, you can blame it on them. Whimsical, beautiful furniture suddenly becoming a mainstay? That’s their fault too.

Though one could argue Memphis-Milano’s effect on interior design never really went anywhere, the aesthetic has been gaining traction for some time now; call it the perfect antidote to the strains of 21st-century life or the Instagram effect, but a long overdue Memphis-Milano renaissance is upon us. 

Founded in 1980 in the living room of the late Ettore Sottsass, the ringleader behind the movement, Memphis-Milano arrived as a salve, albeit a loud, brightly-hued one, to the rigours of mid-century modern design. 

“Since its origins, it was intended as a cultural laboratory for the development of new design ideas through experimentation on materials, shapes, colours, signs and contents, in contrast with the standardised universe of traditional furniture,” Bianchi Albrici, the current owner of the brand, explains. “Memphis broke all the rules of functionalism and the bourgeois concept of ‘good design’, and in the space of a decade it changed the face of contemporary furniture forever.”

Characterised by a contrary, unharmonious use of colour, shape, texture and pattern now synonymous with the ’80s, at its core, the movement championed freedom, experimentation and sought to bring pleasure and a sense of fun back into the world of design. 

Now, interior design is full of trends influenced by the brand. Wiggle mirrors, bright colours and odd additions to traditional concepts are everywhere as people embrace more of the whimsical look. Some are saying that our want for these is linked to how drab the last few years have been (2020 in particular), but whatever the reason is, here’s how you can integrate more Memphis-Milano into your home and life:

Funky accessories

The easiest – and least permanent – ways to update your space is to add brightly coloured (and slightly eccentric) accessories to a space. This can be a little as adding a funky new vase to your kitchen, or by choosing to swap out the dining room table legs so they don’t all match. Another DIY option is to add a new frame to a mirror in your house, either by painting on it or by building a funky frame (wave style is very in, as you’ll see in the video below).

Brooklyn-based designer Sophie Collé makes a case for filling your space with just the right accessories, what she calls the “cherry on top” of any space, particularly a Memphis-inspired one. 

“Thankfully,​ since the ’80s in general is having quite the comeback, it’s really become easy to find cool retro items that really align with my style via vintage shops and Instagram,” the designer elaborates, noting it was important to her to fill her home with a 50/50 split of new and recycled pieces. “Big statement pieces of furniture—like a solid coloured couch—paired with patterned pillows and throws have been, I’ve found, the easiest way to instantly inject the Memphis spirit in a room.”

Use colour

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Another way to integrate some Memphis-Milano inspiration into your home is to use colour. Collé suggests that choosing one colour as a “jumping off point” is the best place to start. In her case, she used pink in her main living space, framing the french doors that lead into her studio in a dusty ballerina shade first. “From then on, I mixed and matched every pastel possible… [and] because I accented only the apartment doors and trim, all in all the painting didn’t take too long,” the designer says of the scallop-trimmed windows and doors, which sit neatly alongside her squiggly furniture. 

Choosing a base colour can often guide an entire room and create a really cohesive look. To avoid overly matching, always try to throw in accessories of friendly, non-competitive colours: blue with green, pink and yellow, etc.

“For example, my pink living room has accents of peach, yellow, and green, which all help to tone down the pink majority. On the flipside, pairing matching colours can be successful as long as they have contrasting textures i.e. a velvet couch with a shag rug,” Collé counsels.

Layer shape and texture

Complementary colours in different textures
Complementary colours in different textures are the way to go

On top of your palette, layering texture, shape and pattern becomes a simple, yet boldly effective, way to channel the Memphis spirit the experts note. 

Get the structure right and then you can play within the framework. Use colour and texture as materials within the architecture of a space, rather than decorative layers. This can mean an all over colour treatment to a room or a full wall of textural tiles for example. Memphis-Milano is nothing if not an excuse to push the boundaries of cohesive design that aim for a ‘square peg in a round hole’ take on geometry and shape within your home. Repetition of a shape is also a great feature, as it can bring a level of cohesion to a room or wing of the house.

“I firmly believe that all geometries can happily coexist as long as they flow well with the space or create some exciting juxtaposition,” says Collé. “I love putting small circular pieces of furniture in corners, to open up corners and create some contrast with the typically very rigid layouts of New York City apartments.” 

Be brave, not wacky

Don’t try to be wacky or cool or trendy. The heart of this look for us is confidence and bravery – giving yourself permission to do things differently because you love it. Don’t try to be something you are not. Focus on elements that make you happy, whether that is the curves that are so associated with Memphis or the bold colours. It’s an attitude rather than a specific thing, so let yourself be free.

Some of the colours associated with Memphis can feel intimidating if you are approaching your home design—don’t shy away from that, embrace it! Conflict and tension can be hugely creative and by diving into that you can find that you are braver than you think. Start with a colour you love and turn up the volume on that colour. Then begin to layer in elements that feel so wrong they are right. A little bit of clash can go a long way.

If in doubt though, take the words of Bianchi Albrici with you on this wild journey: “We are certainly in a period of great uncertainty; and the colour, the madness, the joy of Memphis in the end are reassuring and satisfying.”

Written: 10 November 2020, Updated: 6 November 2020

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