American Style Through the Decades: The Seventies

American Style Through the Decades: The Seventies

Catrin Morris
Jul 7, 2011

It is easy to dismiss the 1970s as "the decade that taste forgot". But to do so would be to overlook the decade's contributions in architecture, furniture design and interior decorating. After all, with the Bad and the Ugly there is usually some Good. A more thorough examination of this period is particularly worthwhile today, a time that (like the 1970s) is burdened by recession, corruption, and high unemployment rates; a time of renewed environmentalism and disenchantment with material excess. And like our early 70s counterparts, we too are emerging from a period dominated by sleek, minimalist modernism in interior design.

The 70s was a study in contradiction: austerity and decadence, drab earth tones and campy colors, nature-loving hippiedom and high-tech futurism. In his book 70s House, David Heathcote argues that the decade was a significant "watershed" for interior domestic design, marking the transition from the Modernist 60s to an era in which "style and the individualistic ethos of fashion design became the guiding principles." According to Lutyens and Hislop in their book 70s Style & Design, the 70s represented a reaction against sleek mid-century modernism in favor of "playful embellishment and radical experimentation with form."

Self-expression and individuality were hallmarks of the time. Of course, self-expression can manifest itself in some downright hideous ways, whether in the gloomy wood-paneled rec room or the bedroom saturated in REM-defying Kool-Aid colors. Not to mention the macramé tea cozies, the creepy spider plants, the shag toilet seat covers. I could go on. But a lot of what we think of as 70s was actually a hangover from the 60s, say Lutyens and Hislop, "with its enthusiasm for technology and psychedelic excess." While "people in the mainstream clomped around in platforms and flares, avant-garde subcultures were honing an alternative look…which ultimately evolved into punk."

So, what are some of the more interesting, even inspiring, features of 1970s design?

Eco-Tripping Back to Nature
70s style was greatly influenced by the back-to-nature movement, which arose from both a hippie rejection of consumerism and materialism and a renewed environmentalism following the 1973 oil crisis, according to Luytens and Hislop. Architect S. Claire Conroy points out that many 70s architects were early adopters of new energy-efficient technologies and designed houses "as organisms that mesh with their surroundings—living, breathing, and changing together." Big windows and skylights were popular, as were indoor gardens and elevated or stacked stone fireplaces. While high-tech plastics were obviously big in the 70s, so too was teak and pine furniture. When decorators went overboard with the nature motif it was suffocating, however. Earth-toned terracotta tiles, hanging plants, exposed ceiling beams, wicker furniture and harvest-gold appliances may have some aesthetic appeal on their own. But when they all come together in a single room, however, it is downright depressing.

Open-Plan Living
While many rooms in the 70s resembled wall-to-wall carpeted, wood-paneled dungeons, residential architecture of the time was actually very innovative when it comes to light and space. In many ways, the 70s introduced the concept of "open plan living", according to some architectural historians. Heathcote says designers responded to the "altered sociology of the family" with double-height spaces, open planned living and grand entrances. Many homes had massive windows, spiral or "floating" staircases, interior second-floor balconies and vaulted ceilings. Often the living room was spread out over multiple levels, sometimes with a sunken seating area. Think of the Brady Bunch home and you get the picture. You may not like the look but you have to admit it was pretty radical. Homes were also being designed to accommodate and integrate children into every day life (not "out of sight out of mind" a la the Mad Men era). Studies and home offices started being built. Kitchens expanded to accommodate more cabinets and countertop space at a time when Julia Child's cookbooks were all the rage. Many kitchens had islands or breakfast nooks, bringing the family into a room once reserved solely for women or staff.

Color. And Lot's of It.
Love it or hate it, the 1970s was a colorful time in interior design. For every drab earth-toned room there was an equally colorful one. Today there is a lot of talk of "pops of color." In the 70s it was more like "explosions of color". Says Conroy, "these houses were funky and friendly." The architects "had exuberant spirits; they reveled in form, function, and funkiness." The toilet seat covers were brightly colored, as were the toilets themselves. Lamps, bedspreads, walls, and furniture: Nothing was spared the Technicolor rainbow. See images 3, 5 and 14 for some colorful examples of 70s decor!

Reign of the Ranch
From the outside, most 70s homes were pretty uninventive. There were the post-and-beam style homes, A-frames, domes, cubes