The year is 1976. You’ve been invited to a bicentennial Fourth of July party outside the city.
As you pull up in your wood-paneled station wagon, the grill is going on the concrete patio in the back by the kidney pool. Your friends wave to you, inviting you to come inside the split-level house. You compliment your hosts on their new wraparound couch in the sunken living room, a crucial element of 70s interior design.
You decline to astral-project in the smoking circle so you can make it back in time for another party, at a high-rise in the city, where you’re pleasantly surprised to find the host has invested in a total remodel of their apartment. The pink, purple, and orange shapes undulating on the wallpaper are echoed by the orange shag carpet and wiggly plastic furniture; low-hanging lamps cast warm light and intriguing shadows over the chatting guests.
A Brief History of 70s Interior Design Trends
The 1970s brought the tail-end of Midcentury Modern design. Where architects, designers, and decorators sought simplicity, functionality, and elegance through the 50s and 60s, 70s tastemakers took those principles and turned up the volume. They brought back levels of ornamentation not seen since the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods and forged new directions of their own.
That’s not to say that all of it was beautiful. 70s American homes have a bad reputation for cheap materials and strange structural choices. Suburbs blossomed in the 70s as the interstate highway system expanded and manufacturing drained out of major cities.
Many white families, fleeing what they wrongly perceived as a racialized danger in urban centers, moved into ranch houses — a long, single-story home with an airy and open floor plan — or split-levels, similar to the ranch but with semi-underground finished basements, a few steps up and down between living room, kitchen, and bedrooms. Everyone had sliding glass doors.
This was the era of TV dinners, of Nixon, Ford, and Carter — as Americans focused on modest markers of their prosperity, the first Earth Day also took place in the 70s, and protests of the Vietnam War brought imperial greed into the wider consciousness. In design, all that manifested as a focus on hand-crafted pieces with natural materials and muted colors, engineered and arranged to foster connections between the people enjoying them.
The style was a total vision for comfortable living in the modern world, the realization of futuristic aspirations percolating for decades. With the environmental movement gaining traction, it was also a moment for people to step back and change how their surroundings and the products they used impacted the earth. Maybe that’s why the retro style feels especially relevant now as the importance of striving for zero waste becomes critical. As we hit our stride in the tumultuous first quarter of the 21st Century, a 70s design trend is surging in modern homes.
Want to get in on it? Here are some hallmarks to look out for, as you spruce up your own 70s-inspired interiors.
Funky Color Schemes of the 70s
A room or piece of decor designed in the 70s is instantly recognizable by its color scheme. When else would people own things in “harvest gold” or “avocado”? You might find a bathroom done entirely in teal or dusty pink, and carpets of eye-watering oranges and yellows. For tasteful throwback upholstery, try “Swiss chocolate” or “Mexican sand.”
70s-Style Patterned Wallpaper
Floral wallpaper might seem like an antique, frilly choice, but 70s pattern designers launched it in a new direction. Big geometric shapes and vibrating hues suggest natural forms with a clean update. With wallpaper making a comeback in interior design recently, consider a tantalizing 70s repeat for your accent wall or an entire room — it looks even better on psychedelics!
Whether it was real or linoleum laminate, wood grain was unstoppable in 70s interior design. You would find it paneling appliances, furniture, decor, and even cars. Teak, a warm, medium wood without much grain, was popular with Scandinavian designers, whose furniture made the material almost synonymous with Mid Century. Meanwhile, bamboo cane and bent rattan brought people’s love of the outdoors to the interior, inspired by garden furniture and providing an airy, low-budget alternative of the same style.
With its ubiquitous overuse now, it’s hard to imagine that plastic really got off the ground in the 1970s. Many types were invented earlier but gained everyday household use over the decade. Bakelite, a beautiful marbled plastic in harvest colors, was the first fully synthetic material (it was made of formaldehyde) and it formed key components of kitchen utensils and jewelry with flair. More durable injection-molded plastics allowed designers to give their furniture that undulating character we associate with 70s modern, all in one piece.
If you’re working hard to reduce your use of plastics, you can still enjoy that seventies feel by finding natural products instead. For example, switch to a bamboo razor handle and bamboo toothbrush to complete that 70s aesthetic with sustainable products.
Shag Carpeting and Vintage Rugs, Baby
Let your feet sink into this classic, stylish comfort. Though high-pile area rugs are back in vogue now, there was a time when people had this stuff wall-to-wall. It’s perfect for keeping you cozy if you like to sit on the floor — and for losing an earring!
If you’re not ready to commit to carpeting, a simple shag rug is a comfy trend you can’t forgo. You could also get something called a shag haircut.
These rope weavings were the star of the show in almost every living space. Ranging from accessible craft kits to complex works of art, macramé in the US may have been influenced by ancient khipu knots from the west coast of South America.
In the 70s, people wove macramé into decorative interior wall-art and plant cradles to hang from the porch or ceiling. The decade also saw people keeping more, and bigger, houseplants in general, possibly to reconnect to growing things through the environmental movement.
Exposed Brick and Stone
You couldn’t make a dramatic entrance without a rough-hewn fireplace surround. Bringing exterior materials indoors wedded American farmhouse and lodge chic with a European courtyard aesthetic. Exposed brick, especially, has endured as a staple in coffee shops and lofts, while terrazzo — a composite concrete buffed smooth with marble, glass, and quartz inclusions — is making a comeback straight from Italy to our kitchens, bathrooms, and more.
Pendant Light Fixtures
A low-hanging lamp in a 70s dining room or living room let people know they could relax in confidence. Danish designer Poul Henningsen pioneered the multi-layered round shades design, which diffuses light indirectly so you’re never looking into the glare of a bare bulb.
Today, shapes inspired by artichokes, clouds, flowers, and more continue that 70s playfulness and elegance in functional decor. Many designs come with adjustable pulley wheels to alter their height to your event’s ambiance.
Crazy Clocks of the 70s
In our era of handheld screens, the most charming retro household item — besides a vinyl record player — might be an analog clock. Many 70s households had kitsch classics from the 50s and 60s and even earlier, like the kitty cat plastic clock with sliding eyes and swinging tail, or the more high-brow multicolored sunburst clock. These are still produced new and make for fun accents today. Cuckoo clocks fit into the 70s focus on handcraft, but digital radio alarm clocks were also on the rise. You can find great versions that still work on resale sites to brighten your morning wake-up call with a little vintage sci-fi.
Peace, Love, and Pottery
The “it” item to display on your windowsill or side table in 70s interior design was a dramatic piece of pottery with a lot of personality. That simple piece of decor can definitely pack a punch today!
Stoneware dipped in brown, green, or white glazes were especially big. Popular ceramics have turned recently to thinner, airier pieces in lighter palettes, but the spirit of quirkiness remains.
Glass containers with bulbous shapes and looping handles also bring both practical and decorative flair.
Furniture Design as Sculpture
The ethos of the 70s sought to bring people together in new ways, from peaceful activism to sexual liberation, and that meant a rich moment of experimentation for furniture designers. They looked for solutions that would foster connection, as material innovations in plastic and foam made new shapes possible.
Interior designers like Verner Panton and Nanna Ditzel transformed entire rooms into installation experiences where people could sit, lounge, lie down, and even climb as they never had before, surrounded by eye-popping colors. For most people, who can’t afford to purchase such an all-encompassing artwork, the trend showed up in dens, game rooms, sunken living rooms, and finished basements, and we see it now even in our modern storage solutions. Maybe the 70s vision of a total experience will guide you the next time you think your spaces are ready for an update.
The 70s Are Here to Stay
Most people who were adults in the 1970s might not have thought their home goods would stay relevant now, or maybe they thought nothing would ever be different. And that’s true — the subtle aesthetics of a vase or a chair may have gotten an update, but the principles behind them and the ways they serve our comfort and values haven’t changed. There’s a wide array of interior design podcasts out there, so as you browse, don’t forget the golden era of the 70s!
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