Is ‘M3GAN the Definitive End of Memphis Design Mania
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
Set Design

Is M3GAN the Definitive End of Memphis Design Mania?

The movie casts bright, playful decor in a harsh light

Director Gerard Johnstone’s M3GAN has surpassed box office expectations, reenergized our love for Allison Williams, and, for us design lovers, got us reconsidering kindercore. Call it a Memphis design resurgence, call it an extension of Avant Basic, but whatever you call it, the bright-color-imbued and pattern-happy trend has held on tight for the past few years. Even still, it was quite surprising to see the inventive way the style was deployed in the film.

For those who haven’t yet seen it, the movie follows a nine-year-old girl named Cady (Violet McGraw) whose parents die in a car accident while she’s sitting in the backseat, playing with her advanced-Furby-like Purrpetual Pet. She’s sent to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), a tightly wound toy developer who works at the very company that makes Purrpetual Petz. 

Where one might imagine a pity-filled guardian doting on her niece, in her own repressed grief, the best that Gemma can muster is unlimited screentime and a bit of mercy when Cady forgoes a coaster. The midcentury-modern inspired pad they share has some child-friendly artifacts (vintage toys line the open shelving), but those are off-limits until a CPS agent comes to visit and Gemma cracks under the scrutiny, busting one out of its packaging, though that amounts to little more entertainment than a tennis ball.

A look at the playroom from the observation room, where Gemma and her colleagues watch Cady and M3GAN interact. 

Photo: Universal Pictures

That is until Gemma creates M3GAN. M3GAN contains the infinite wisdom of her data, the boundless patience of a being with a central mission and no inner life to distract from it. The robot is content repeatedly reminding Cady to flush the toilet, to wash her hands, and to Gemma’s delight, to use a coaster. “Why would you want M3GAN to do all of that stuff?” Gemma’s coworker asks. “If you’re having M3GAN tuck Cady in and read her a bedtime story then when are you ever spending time with her or even talking with her?” But, along with her practical benefits, M3GAN earns Gemma’s desperately needed approval from her boss, so the potential ramifications are not worth considering.

Gemma (Allison Williams), M3GAN, and Cady (Violet McGraw) sit at the home’s wood dining table. 

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

Second to the murdering M3GAN later gets into, this is the tension of the film: What do children want and need and how does that differ from what adults—or more specifically, adults who benefit from their craving for toys that get more elaborate by the minute—think they want? 

The first visit to the two-way mirrored testing room at the company’s headquarters is innocent enough. It’s when Cady first meets M3GAN and, desperate for companionship, is immediately wooed by her. It’s also when the audience first sees her in motion, and it’s also hard to look away from the haunting full-size doll. It’s during the group’s visit to the testing room, immediately following M3GAN’s first murder, that the space feels most unsettling. 

What could have been decorated simply, or even comfortably, for the child subjects who occupy the space is instead a stark white treasure trove of genuine Memphis design pieces. Vintage Studio Alchimia shelves and the First chair, along with designs that originate in the 20th century and are still in production today (including the Eero Aarnio Parabel dining table and the Pilastro and Collona stools and Calice vase designed by Ettore Sottsass) occupy the space. In another context, these objects would serve as status symbols, yet as M3GAN goes rogue and talks to Cady about the death of her family—a subject the robot’s been told to avoid and something that Cady hasn’t even opened up to Gemma about—the furnishings begin to feel quite sinister. Are these overly wacky objects an extension of the delusion that led to the creation of M3GAN? 

Another look at the playroom. 

Photo: Universal Pictures

“My image for the children’s testing room came from that memory of when you’re a kid, and you catch a bug, and you put it on a jam jar. It’s captive and you’re looking at it with a magnifying glass. I wanted the testing room to be really harshly lit and very simple. The director just wanted a kid’s playroom, painted nice colors with lots of toys everywhere, but I kind of had to push back on that,” says the film’s production designer Kim Sinclair. “I got Memphis furniture because it’s kind of got a slight unease to it, most people look at it and they go, ‘What?!’ We sprinkled a little bit of that around, some of it we made and some of it was from collectors. It was kind of a disruption in plain terms, that you’ve got this valuable stuff and throw it in there for the kids to put their filthy fingers all over.”

By the end of the movie, the midcentury-modern home that once felt bland feels like an appropriate place for Gemma to raise Cady. It might not be candy-colored and full of distraction, but it’s comfortable and filled with the objects that surrounded Cady at her home before her parents died. There’s no going back to that life, but isn’t learning to use a coaster just part of growing up anyhow?