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The origin of the ’80s aesthetic

The design phenomenon that defined the decade.

The ’80s was the decade of crazy patterns, vibrant colors, and feathered hairstyles. The time had such a distinctive style that the mere mention of “the look of the ’80s” conjures up specific visuals. The look was so influential that it continues to inspire design today.

The essential elements of the ’80s look were created by the Memphis design movement, led by Italian architect Ettore Sottsass. The collective included designers and architects from all around the world — Italy, Japan, Britain, Austria, France, Spain, and America. They set out to break out of modernism, a style that required designers to follow many rules. George Sowden, a co-founder of the Memphis Group, said in an interview that “a lot of people felt trapped within these rules.”

The Memphis Group’s first show took place in Milan, at the Salone del Mobile Milano, in 1981. It featured the “Bel Air” chair, which had a plastic ball as a part of the leg, and the colorful “Carlton” bookcase that cascaded outward. The show crowded the streets so much that on his way to the venue, Sottsass thought a bomb had gone off in downtown Milan. 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.” According to Glenn Adamson, a senior scholar at the Yale Center of British Art, the design trend caught on very quickly:

It was this huge phenomenon, and then you saw it caught on very, very quickly as the look of the ’80s. How that happened is fashion, you know. 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 scratchy graphics, that clearly is close to the graphic designs coming out of Italy that were in context of which Memphis emerged.

To learn more about the Memphis Group and how it inspired the look of the ’80s, check out the video above. For more Vox videos, subscribe to our channel on YouTube.