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Memphis-Milano and Systemic Design

by | May 2023 | RSD12, SDA blog

RSD12 clock logo

I like the idea of starting a tradition at RSD where we pick a design style every year and use it as a motif for the conference. Last year mid-century modern (MCM) was the design inspiration. It’s a sound choice. MCM is a timeless, recognisable style; it’s clean, efficient, functional, but also earthy and organic. It’s a tough act to follow. What did follow it, though, was the Memphis-Milano movement of the 1980s and 1990s, and so it seemed appropriate to choose it as inspiration for the current RSD symposium. Our logo, designed by Margaret Neely, is a pretty spot-on example of this style.

MOVEment or MOment?

Memphis-Milano was a short-lived design movement centred on the Memphis Group that consisted of only about a dozen or so designers working in Milan in the late 1970s and early 1980s, founded by Ettore Sottsass. The fact that the group was only together for about eight years might imply that it was more of a moment than a movement; yet, it was hugely influential for its time and very much entangled in a particular moment of Western culture. Memphis arose as a direct counterpoint to MCM. Where mid-century modern used minimalist “clean lines” (a phrase I despise) to emphasise function, Memphis embraced ornateness for its own sake and inserted random shapes and zig-zags where they had no business being. MCM favoured wood, glass and metal as materials. Memphis used cheap plastic. The reasons for this, and it might be a stretch to call them that, were many, but largely had to do with breaking away from the status quo and challenging assumptions about what is good design… and good taste.

Both movements share a common ancestor in the Bauhaus. MCM emphasised maintaining the orderliness and consistency of Bauhaus while also trying to merge those ideas with more natural and organic forms. On the other hand, Memphis appears unnatural and uses those same Bauhaus ideas as a backdrop to set expectations that it would then break by introducing unexpected and chaotic elements. Still, there is a playfulness to the style that is reminiscent of the Dada and Surrealist art movements, and it was once famously described (in one of the best quotes ever) as “A shotgun wedding between the Bauhaus and Fisher-Price.”  If I were to sum it up, I’d say that MCM was pre-occupied with restoring order to a world that had just seen a lot of chaos and destruction in WWII, but by the time the 1980s rolled around, the mess of WWII was largely forgotten, and Memphis wanted to inject some chaos back into a culture that had become far too ordered, and, subsequently, to ask the viewer to question the goals and assumptions of that existing order.

So, what should systemic design take from this, if anything? I’ve said many times that our world has become increasingly disrupted and chaotic. This was more by accident than intention, but the same notion of questioning the underlying principles and assumptions that are the foundation of the existing order, embraced by Memphis, still applies. There must be something to learn from people who saw some value in intentional chaos; today, we would call them “disruptors.” In the definitive guide to the work of the Memphis Group, Barabara Radice, one of the group’s members and its prime documentarian (and Sottsass’s wife), had a very systems-oriented notion of how the style attempted to break with the dominant design logic of MCM:

This change of attitude corresponds to a dive from the certainties of the macrocosm to the virtual universe of particles, from a world borne by the laws of deterministic logic to a world interpreted through the hypotheses of probability. Objects are no longer designed from the outside according to a certain idea of structure; they are genetically engineered from the inside in an inverse process that adapts the final structure to the variable logic of its constituent parts (Radice, 1984).

It may take a bit to tease this apart, but all the good stuff is in there. There is a change in scale from the macro to the micro that, aside from the connection to systems, calls to mind notions of challenging the dominance of large-scale organisations that are proving increasingly dysfunctional. The change in scale also references determinism vs probabilities, which are the key differences between classical physics and quantum mechanics, where entanglement was first discovered. More importantly, though, there is an accompanying change in perspective as design moves from a process of imposing structure from the outside to managing interactions within the system, and this is also a change in the role and mindset of the designer. The designer can no longer consider themselves outside the system, imposing order according to external logic, but is inside the system, managing its interactions to incubate what emerges.

Clearly, there is a lot for the systemic designer to think about in just these few lines, and no doubt much more than a more studious investigation into Memphis-Milano can teach us. Among those things, I think, is also something of a warning. When I consider the catalogue of Memphis-style work, there are many words to describe it, but one that stands out for me is “unstable.” Memphis designs often appear to be teetering on the edge, about to fall into pieces, and this is something that every systemic designer needs to be aware of. When you design from inside the system, managing the emergence of constituent parts, there is always the danger that what you create will have no real connection to the environment. Memphis is quite guilty of this, I think, and perhaps that is why it was so short-lived and often derided. The real trick, and the lesson that I take from the work of the Memphis Group, is not to “dive” from the macro to the micro head first, but to wade in more slowly, take time to adapt and adjust, and try to create a stable logic that lives comfortably between deterministic and random.


Radice, Barbara. Memphis : Research, Experiences, Results, Failures, and Successes of New Design. Rizzoli, 1984.

Barnes, S. (April 27, 2018). How the Memphis Movement Went Against “Good Taste” to Inspire Designers Today. My Modern Met.



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