The origin of the ’80s aesthetic

The origin of the ’80s aesthetic


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 specific
person 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 world
in the ‘80s. The collective led by Italian architect Ettore
Sottsass 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 song
that was playing during a meeting. “..mobile with the Memphis blues again” First thing to know about Memphis is that it comes out of a long tradition
of Radical design in Italy in the 1960s. Radical design was a movement—formed by architects
in reaction to the minimal and practical aesthetics of modernism. “Modernism was put into some kind of  a
box. We gave it a lot of rules—which I think a lot of people felt trapped within these rules.” Radical design allowed designers to express
distortion 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 the
Memphis 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 Americans
who 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 the
first time at the Milan design fair. The entire collection was named after luxury
hotels. GLENN: The Carlton… the Belair Chair that Peter
Shire did… The Plaza Vanity that Michael Graves did. Which is like a joke, right? About taking plastic laminates and
putting it on cheap composition wood, and naming it after luxury hotels… it’s all part of this faux-chic
thing that they were interested in. The New York Times wrote that the show “appalled
some 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 and
crowding 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 magazines
that were popular at the time. And soon enough you saw their influence everywhere. GLENN: I always think it’s important that it happened
virtually simultaneously with MTV which also launched in 1981. And if you think about the logo of MTV with
all 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 with
Memphis 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 black
orbs 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 fell
over backwards. And that was pretty funny. A few years later, Sottsass left the group
to build his own studio, and the Memphis Group held their last show in 1987. GLENN: Whenever people would say to me what would
be 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 serve
a function in people’s homes… they left a colorful mark in history and inspired
many designers to come. Like this first Apple watch which was created
in 1995. They were given out for free to anyone who
bought the Mac System. Or this 2011 Dior couture show, which was
an ode to Memphis design. Karl Lagerfeld was among the few who collected
their 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 have
never heard of Memphis at all. PETER: I should ask somebody. I should ask a man on the street. Most people would go “…What?”

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100 Replies to “The origin of the ’80s aesthetic”

  1. I was going to say m tv. Music videos started life in the 80s And the British invasion . And first it was Friday night videos. Which was awesome

  2. Another great thing about the 80's I remember was NO political correctness. Face to face conversations felt much easier and less pressure when you wanted to tell a joke. Now unless you're as serious as a Victorian grandmother you will get in serious trouble and be fired and try to live on the money in your pocket until you find another job. It's depressing. Millenials nowadays really missed out on that. This new way of life seems normal to them. It's sad. I feel sorry for them.

  3. Billy Ray Cyrus didn’t come along until the early 90’s so using him as a marker for the decade’s hairstyles doesn’t fit. There are so many other amazing examples.

  4. I'm happy Memphis is getting some of the credit they deserve but to put it all on them is exaggerated. There's some strong elements that came before, from album covers and street art, some influence of 50s come back… There is such a thing as Zeitgeist after all. They compiled and remixed these influences with novelty flair having the recognition as fresh and tasteful coming from Milan's boundary pushing design scene, at the right time. They certainly were influential and helped these influences spread worldwide way quicker. Perhaps if it weren't for then the style would take so much longer to spread it would've been a 90s thing instead

  5. I’ve always wondered what causes a decade’s “look”. I go back and forth between the 70’s and 80’s as to which one is my favorite aesthetic. I like the 70’s in this weird, ironic way. Most of the stuff from that decade looks really awful and brown, but I like it /because/ of that.

    The Memphis designs always reminded me of elementary school or a child’s bedroom from that era, for some reason. I guess it’s the heavy use of basic primary colors. But even as a kid in the early 90’s, my mom bought some “Memphis-esque” furniture for my bedroom that included a bed frame, end table, toy box/chest, and a small bookcase. All of them had a different primary colored panel with an occasional white panel to separate the colors. So basically, my bedroom had white walls and blue carpet, and all the furniture had colors of white, red, yellow, and blue.

  6. Being born on 1980 I still remember how electrifying everything was.
    It all sort of dissipated in the early 90’s when it all got very cynical and sort of just sad and depressing.
    The 80’s will forever remain imprinted in the imagination of a generation and the generations that followed.
    Everything was just exciting and full of vibrance. The mood was so positive and optimistic.
    The early 2000’s remind me of the 80’s a bit. No sense of political correctness and all the prudery that’s going on now.

  7. yeah exactly terrible chair just by looking at it you can see theres no chance it could work…those guys were probably the first wave of those ''designers" who were concerned only about the its look not usability. Its pretty awasome when you design something that stands out but actual designer thinks of its usability/comfort first

  8. Curiously enough, I'm Italian and I can tell you here in their motherland, and in continental Europe in general, the Memphis group have had a lot smaller influence they've had in the USA, and it had been felt much more in the 1990s than in the '80s.

  9. I don't know that this stuff was in any way the definitive 80s aesthetic, as this type of look only seemed to be found in company logos and in graphic design. The aesthetic in the 80s changed a lot as the decade went on. Even the 80s fashion changed drastically from the early 80s (still resembled the 70s) to the late 80s (big hair and baggy pants)

  10. Every time I talk about my work and I say Memphis, people in my class usually raises their eyebrows like I didn't know what I was talking about.

  11. I can see how this could influence the current look of Gucci (which is an Italian brand) as the origin of the 80s aesthetic that Gucci now portrays is very Italian.

  12. 80s in nutshell
    -Fast
    -Flash and neon
    -Colourful
    -Cocaine
    -Miami
    -Economy boom
    -Shopping it big
    -Pop music became mainstream
    -MTV MJ,MADONNA,
    -Radical,awsome,inappropriate
    -Steve Jobs and Bill Gates computers
    -Big pride and ego with wealth
    -With feeling of being invincible as a master of universe
    -Glamour was a standard
    -And key was to feel good and look good
    -Wall street
    -Ronald Regan
    -Just say no
    -Back to future and Rambo 3
    -Skateboarding ,Disco vs Rock
    -VCRs
    -Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen ,Jane Fonda
    -Calvin Klein,Tom Hinthaus
    -Long hair mostly curly guys with slicked back long hair
    -Brick phone
    -Car without roof
    -Pacman ,Tetris ,Arcade games
    -Berlin wall,communism
    -Bill Cosby show,Dinasty,Simpsons

  13. tbh I feel like I can relate to the 80s because my mom is a millennial and got me into lots of rock pop & indie music

  14. The Memphis Group's design was described as being "a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price" by one person.

  15. i remember them from my parents' interior decorating magazines. at one point memphis had diagonally placed bookshelves because 'books always fall over'. good stuff.

  16. Memphis was a boulder in a pond. Luckily, the ripples went out to touch far more design categories than the group intended. Today, graphic designer Yoko Honda captures the '80's spirit even better than what was available during the decade.

  17. And here I thought you guys were going to talk about bathroom carpets. I feel slightly disappointed. Just slightly.

  18. Don't some styles from a certain decade come back because parents have that nostalgia factor and have more money to spend?

  19. Ah the eighties…Times of neon, lace, black leather, poofy denim, hairspray, shapes, and men with long curly hair.

  20. I like the Memphis work better than the knockoffs. I was never a big fan of that aesthetic, even at the time.

  21. The 80s and 90s are two of my favourite decades from the 20th century but every decade after the Edwardian period is pretty amazing

  22. the great thing about this day and age is that you can wear anything resembling the style of a decade before the 2000s and look trendy and AeSTheTiC

  23. It reminds me of Pierre cardin's space age fashion of the 60's meets 50's household practicality and function (like the pink and seafoam green ovens etc)

  24. The 80s just believed they were going to make the future, what everyone imagine the future was. Shiny, colorful, vibrant. Extra lol.

  25. 0:00 – 1:46. Your answer: Bob Dylan.
    It was Bob Dylan just like the rat brought back scott in endgame to defeat thanos.

  26. I think Keith Haring had a lot of influence on that very kinetic design. Also, the bright colors and squiggles weren't the only aesthetic of the '80s. I think Patrick Nagel's graphics had a HUGE influence over new wave culture that dominated a lot of the '80s. That started with his cover image for Duran Duran's Rio album. Frankly, MTV picked up on a lot of this and perpetuated it. I don't think it was all Italian influence.

  27. really only watched this video to see if theyd ever mention MTV, im definitely not disappointed but im still sad about what happened to it eventually either way

    its kinda funny (and great) how the startup of the Memphis Design group coincided with the launch of MTV and how they both influenced the look of the 80s and 90s further ahead, even if one of them lasted a lot longer

  28. The facade of Nickelodeon Studios (1990-2005) originally had a Memphis-inspired paint job at Universal Orlando from 1990 to 2004…

    The Nickelodeon Double Dare game show sets used from 1986 to present day also had Memphis-inspired designs throughout…

  29. A friend of mine once described Memphis furniture as looking like it was designed by interdimensional clowns. "HERE IS YOUR FURNITURE. FOR HUMANS."

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