Design Rewind: the 1980s

This post has an audio story too. Catch a breeze:

What comes to your mind when you think of the 1980s?

Do you imagine big, elaborate hairstyles or oversized shoulder pads? Do you hear upbeat music? Or perhaps, you think of color. If so, you might be onto something.

From multicolor and technicolor, to no color at all, there is no other decade in which color was more counted upon as it did in the excessive and eccentric 1980s.

Design is not an isolated manifestation of creativity but rather a response to what is happening around us. So, in order to understand the palette of the eighties, we must first remember the decade itself.

World In The 1980s

The events that led to the 1980s make it a uniquely revolutionary decade and a major propeller for today’s highly-advanced modern world.

Conservatism and a free market economy defined the entrepreneurial and highly consumerist cohort of the accelerated era—as did geopolitical shifts, economical division, and a heightened resistance against social conformity.

Look Of The 1980s

Whether we did or didn’t live through the 1980s, we can all agree on the defining look of the time. The decade set a trend of bright colors, graphic patterns, and geometric shapes—a phenomenon that can be easily located in the celebrated design collective dubbed the Memphis Group.

The Memphis Group on the “Masanori” Bed by Umeda Tawaraya for Memphis. 1981.

In 1981, a group of young, internationally renowned designers, architects and artists came together to join Italian designer and architect Ettore Sottsass with the aim to create a new design collective—the Memphis Group. Their groundbreaking creations had an impact on postmodern design, not only in Milan where they were based but worldwide thanks to their media-savvy skills and multicultural background.

You know it’s Memphis when there’s laminate, terrazzo, Bacterio, color, and wacky geometry. Photo: Bobby Doherty for New York Magazine. New York, 2017.
The totemic Carlton room divider is an absolute Memphis icon—you either love it or you hate it, there’s no in-between. Photo: “Carlton” Room Divider. Ettore Sottsass for Memphis. 1981.

The faux-chic aesthetic of Memphis moved away from modernist functionality, allowing designers to play with distortion, irony, emotional engagement, and unpredictability. “Everything must remain possible,” believed Sottsass. “It must be possible to design instability.” This idea can be seen on the Carlton Room Divider he designed for Memphis in 1981.

The group designed furniture, lighting, fabrics, carpets, ceramics, glass and metal objects, often incorporating materials like plastic laminate and terrazzo, blending ideas born of Bauhaus with 1950s Kitsch and the American New Wave scene, relying upon color to make everything work together. Memphis overlapped patterns, asymmetry, and exoticism, alluding to rising innovations in technology and capturing the economic optimism of the first half of the decade.

Bold forms and plastic laminates epitomize Postmodernism’s New Wave. Photo: “Brazil” Table. Peter Shire for Memphis. Milan, 1981
Bold forms and plastic laminates epitomize Postmodernism’s New Wave. Photo: “Bel Air” Chair. Peter Shire for Memphis. 1982.
Under Memphis’ influence, a new wave of avant-garde design emerged. Form no longer followed function, but rather emotion and meaning. Photo: 9093 Kettle. Michael Graves for Italian company Alessi. 1985.

The eighties came to be known as “The Designer Decade” and labels permeated the fashion and interior industries. In America, Postmodernism found expression in the tongue-in-cheek homeware designs of Michael Graves, the California New Wave furnishings of Peter Shire, and the unconventional buildings and chairs of Frank Gehry.

A stucco box perched on a post with unbeatable ocean views. Photo: Norton House in Venice Beach, CA. Frank Gehry. 1984.

The Postmodernist wave arose in Japan with the works of Shiro Kuramata, Arata Isozaki, and Masanori Umeda—all of whom contributed designs to the Memphis collections—and Toshiyuki Kita. Kuramata’s Miss Blanche Chair from 1988 blends the use of polymers and design bridging the gap between Eastern traditions and Postmodernism.

A transparent resin chair flecked with synthetic roses, alludes to floating on a cloud of blooms. Photo: “Miss Blanche” Chair. Shiro Kuramata. 1988.
A sunken contrast to the extreme heights. Photo: Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA) with Los Angeles, CA. Arata Isozaki. 1986.
A conversation piece, a boxing ring surfaced with Japanese traditional tatami mats. Photo: Tawaraya Ring. Masanori Umeda for Memphis. 1981.

In the UK, London’s Creative Salvage collective emerged at the beginning of the decade. With origins in the city’s club scene, design renegades Tom Dixon, Mark Brazier-Jones, and Nick Jones wowed the public with furniture made of recycled scraps and junkyard findings. Their aesthetic was based on their anarchic, anti-mainstream, DIY ethos of Punk.

Do-it-yourself welded salvage furniture. Photo: Space Age Chair. Tom Dixon for Creative Salvage. 1987-1988.

Creative Salvage revolutionized design the same way that Punk changed music and fashion. Its significance determined the development of avant-garde design.

The Postmodernist movement in France, labeled Late Modernism, is seen in the emotional pull of Philippe Starck’s work. Starck’s playful and colorful designs are cleverly injected with personality and quickly became the first international design superstar by working with an array of manufacturers, like XO, Driade, and Alessi and eventually developed his own label, “Designed by starck.”

An icon of industrial design, perfectly adequate for a kitchen with aspirational desirability. Photo: Juicy Salif. Philippe Starck for Alessi. 1988.

The Designer Decade

The eighties came to be known as “The Designer Decade” and labels permeated the fashion and interior industries. In the U.S. Postmodernism found expression in Michael Graves’ bird-whistling kettle for Italian houseware company, Alessi, the “California New Wave” furnishings of Peter Shire, and the unconventional buildings and chairs of Frank Gehry.

Starck reinterpreted past styles and forms like a toothbrush and, perhaps most famously, the Juicy Salif lemon squeezer which was launched to the public early in the next decade. He also popularized boutique hotels—a theatrically contrived space that alluded to the exclusivity of designed luxury and tapped into the emerging lifestyle market.

The Royalton’s sleek design, curved velvet banquettes, block-long blue carpet and low lighting drew the publishing and fashion elite of Manhattan. Photo: Lobby of the Royalton Hotel, New York. Philippe Starck. 1988.

Starck’s Royalton Hotel offered a more intimate atmosphere, which compared to large chain hotels, leveraging the hype of the experience and bringing the idea of design as lifestyle to the public.

LONDON, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 01: Atmosphere during the public exhibition of the personal Art Colelction of David Bowie ‘Bowie/Collector’ at Southerby’s, New Bond Street on November 1, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Tim Whitby/ Getty Images for Sotherbys)
Installation view of works by Memphis at the exhibition “Bowie/Collector” at Sotheby’s London. David Bowie was an avid collector of Memphis. His 100-plus pieces were exhibited and available for sale at Sotheby’s in 2016. Photo: Sotheby’s, 2016.
Left: Shoes, clothes, and headpieces caught the postmodern madness of Memphis Christian Dior Fall 2011 Couture. The collection. Right: Flamingo Side Table by Italian designer Michele de Lucchi for Memphis Milano, 1984.

Digital Revolution Of The 1980s

The digital revolution of the 1980s changed the face of the entire creative industry. Young designers found post-war modernist developments quite outdated, therefore a fresh approach to design was needed to parallel the accelerated changes happening around the globe.

Even with the market crash at the beginning of the decade, a computer design revolution took place. Rebelling against basic, sober notions around the design was the blossoming market of the personal computer.

In 1984, Steve Jobs introduced the original Apple Macintosh desktop computer with a high-definition screen and easy-to-use mouse.

Apple announces a technological breakthrough of incredible proportions. Photo: Apple publicity photo for the Apple Mackintosh 128k desktop computer. California, 1984.

The Apple Mac was also the first graphics-oriented computer allowing users to interact with it using images rather than text commands, spurring a momentous shift to digital in graphic design making traditional tools, like pen, inks, Letraset, almost obsolete.

Only a year later after Apple Mac’s debut, Page-Maker would allow designers to create both magazines and books digitally. In 1986, Pixar Animation Studios was founded in California, and two years later Adobe Photoshop was created by Thomas Knoll.

Thomas Knoll is an American software engineer who co-created Adobe Photoshop with his brother John. Knoll created the first core image processing routines for Photoshop in 1988, and when his brother saw them he encouraged Thomas to bundle them into one package.

New Wave Of Postmodern Graphic Design

The new wave of postmodern graphic design swept across the world incorporating eclectic references to art, photography, film, advertising, and iconic designs from the past—another example of mixing and sampling of the era.

Similarly to Shiro Kuramata’s work for Memphis, Ikko Tanaka’s poster work blended traditional Japanese aesthetics with bold shapes, vivid colors, and incisive typography. Corporate identity design of the decade entailed clean, sans-serif typography with pronounced angles and curves, plus drop shadows and outer glows for emphasis.

Throughout seven years, Igarashi designed 4356 variations of axonometric three-dimensional numerals based on 84 different ideas. Photo: MoMA Poster Calendar by Takonobu Igarashi for The Museum of Modern Art, New York & Alphabet Gallery. 1984 – 1991.

Japanese designer and sculptor, Takenobu Igarashi, developed groundbreaking 3D typographic experiments on axonometric grids. Clear examples include his Calendar Series for MoMA, New York’s Modern Art Museum.

In South America, Chile was living under an authoritarian military dictatorship headed by General Augusto Pinochet, from 1973 to 1990.

While posters were banned from seeing the light of day, the free market economy gave Chilean designers several commercial opportunities, such as branding, leaflets, packaging, and product labels.

A Free ad for their Free Concert series. Embotelladora Andina. Chile, 1986.

Free is Chile’s answer to American Coca-Cola which launched in 1986. Its design was a clear nod to Coke’s emblematic image—white cursive typography against a bright red background—but Free remains in the collective consciousness as a cult product of the latter part of the decade.

In 1988, the Chilean government called for a plebiscite, so murals and posters became visible again in support of the “NO” vote to decide whether the military regime should continue in power.

In the UK, Neville Brody, art director of The Face magazine from 1981 to 1986, created experimental album covers that represented Postmodern New Wave graphics. Terry Jones launched i-D magazine in 1980 with a cover design that turned its brand logo into a pink-on-black emoticon.

Design is history. Youth culture magazine The Face under founder Nick Logan’s stewardship during the 1980s and 1990s.

Abdulkader Arnaout is a pioneer of graphic design in Syria and known as the father of graphic design in the country thanks to his contribution to the development of graphic design and typography in Syria and the Arab World. The modernist graphic designer, typographer, poet, and professor designed more than 600 posters and around 300 book covers among other design applications such as Arabic fonts and logos, plus numerous poster designs for theater, art exhibitions, and cultural events.

Visual Poetry. Posters by Abdulkader Arnaout. Syria, 1980-1985.

Arnaout’s work is reflective of a strong modernist feel that was unfamiliar at the time. He introduced design as a profession highlighting the communicative function of design.

Poster for the Kazakhstan Classical Dance Group, Cultural Program of the 33rd International Fair of Damascus, 1986.
Poster for the concert of Joan Baez at 17th International Festival Istanbul by Bülent Erkmen. Turkey, 1989.

In Turkey, Bülent Erkmen’s graphic work was distinguished with his recognition of the plurality of postmodernist design. His deconstructivist approach was seen in his poster work for the Istanbul Music Festival in 1989.

* *

Looking for more design inspiration?

Explore our design cards!


    Style Cards Vol. 2

    Use this set of 135 design cards to explore visual trends, define a brand’s look and feel, gamify design workshops, and enhance moodboards. These cards contain works of modern designers and are curated into 10 themes that reflect the world’s visual trends.

    50 35