Curved membranes are key features of intracellular organelles, and their generation involves dynamic protein complexes. Here we describe the fundamental mechanisms such as the hydrophobic insertion, scaffolding and crowding mechanisms these proteins use to produce membrane curvatures and complex shapes required to form intracellular organelles and vesicular structures involved in endocytosis and secretion. For each mechanism, we discuss its cellular functions as well as the underlying physical principles and the specific membrane properties required for the mechanism to be feasible. We propose that the integration of individual mechanisms into a highly controlled, robust process of curvature generation often relies on the assembly of proteins into coats. How cells unify and organize the curvature-generating factors at the nanoscale is presented for three ubiquitous coats central for membrane trafficking in eukaryotes: clathrin-coated pits, caveolae, and COPI and COPII coats. The emerging theme is that these coats arrange and coordinate curvature-generating factors in time and space to dynamically shape membranes to accomplish membrane trafficking within cells.