Why Is ’80s Design Huge Right Now?
Have you recently felt the urge to replace your sensible Studio McGee table lamp with something that has a mauve plastic shell base? Do you feel inexplicably drawn towards rounded edges, tessellated stone, and spiraled details? If so, you’re not alone. The design world is currently in the midst of a shift, one that’s marching home furnishings towards a decade society as a whole pretty much swore it would never embrace again: the ‘80s.
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Look through your feed on Instagram or TikTok — or browse through a recent house tour — and you’ll notice quintessentially 1980s furniture and decorative accessories sneaking back into the decorating equation. Whether you notice wavy mirrors and ditsy florals or rounded sofas that look more like marshmallows than sectionals, know it’s not your eyes (or the algorithm) playing tricks on you. Pro designers are incorporating these highly photogenic statement pieces into their projects more and more, and data from home retailers backs up this renaissance, too, particularly resale marketplaces and secondhand sites that stock authentic ’80s wares.
“We have seen a 14 percent increase year-over-year for ”80s’ in search, including a 90 percent increase in searches for ‘tessellated furniture’ in the last two years,” says Anthony Barzilay Freund, editorial director and director of fine art for the retail site 1stDibs. The question then isn’t whether this is happening, but why? To trace the origins of this design shift, let’s first look back on this once polarizing decade’s characteristic design trends.
The ‘80s were nothing short of eclectic. Depending on what style you gravitated toward, the color palette ran the gamut from Laura Ashley’s English garden-style sweet pastels to Synthwave-esque neon to Memphis Design‘s primary colors. Houses were decorated with tessellated stone side tables, deep leather sofas, laminate coffee tables, and white Formica bedroom sets. In general, furniture was known for curvier silhouettes, which rejected the straight, sleek lines of mid-century modern design to embrace the rounded corners, spiraled poles, and waterfall edges of a new decade. Patterns ranged from ditsy florals and pastel, almost Southwestern motifs to the familiar geometric shapes — circles, squares, triangles, and squiggles — synonymous with Memphis Design.
It was a look, one that many people are guilty of bashing, along with the teased bangs and shoulder pads of the era. As the saying goes though, everything old becomes new again. Of course, there isn’t just one catalyst behind this current design shift; instead, it takes several independently-brewing circumstances at the same time. The first of which, in the case of this ’80s renaissance, has something to do with the rise and maturation of millennials and Gen Zers.
Late millennials and Gen Zers are just far enough removed from the 1980s to appreciate its style earnestly and free of context. “It’s a product, I think, of the usual evolutionary process in which younger folks ‘discover’ the coolness of periods that we older folks lived through far too recently to feel nostalgic about them or to acknowledge that they — like we — are now considered ‘vintage,’” Freund says.
Home influencer Miki Carter of Plot Twist Interiors, who’s a lawyer by day and an interior design aficionado by night, can attest to this phenomenon. She’s had an ‘80s tessellated coffee table since 2019, years before it hit its current “hot ticket item” status. While she’s since swapped hers out for perhaps maybe an even more ‘grammable checkered mirror-and-travertine table, she first gravitated towards the tessellated stone piece for its funkiness. “I liked it because it looked like it was from the earth, but it also looked like it was from another planet, like Mars,” Carter says. “It was just very organic and rocky.”
Even more than being drawn to its texture, Carter loved that the ’80s table was stylistically at odds with her late 19th-century apartment building, once a Victorian hotel. “I’m always drawn to juxtaposition,” says Carter. “So if there’s something that’s very definitive of a decade or a point in time, and I can put it together with something from a different point in time — in a way that is cohesive — that’s kind of my style.”
Opportunity to create and play with contrast aside, this current ’80s interiors revival also owes something to mid-century modern design. In fact, mid-century modern design dominated both the decades leading up to the 1980s and was the preferred aesthetic of Gen Z’s parents, Generation X. “What Generation X loves, millennials and Gen Z are going to reject as much as they possibly can,” says Justin Riordan, the founder of Spade and Archer Design Agency. “‘We hate everything you love, and we love everything you hate’ is the mantra. Every generation does this… take what their parents hate and make it new and beautiful for themselves, so they can claim interiors for their own.”
Economics also play a role in this resurgence, too. Some millennials and Gen Zers may be embracing ‘80s furniture because, save Ettore Sottsass’ Ultrafragola Mirror, pieces on the whole can be relatively easy on the wallet. You can certainly source high-end designer ‘80s furniture, but, right now, you can just as easily stumble on a funky clam shell lamp for $20 at a thrift store… or in my case, a laminated side table abandoned in an alley. Why? Well, Baby Boomers were, in large part, the original buyers of the ’80s Art Deco revival, Memphis style, and country chic Laura Ashley designs, and since some are currently downsizing and shifting into the retirement stage of their lives, they’re getting rid of the ‘80s furniture they held onto at a rapid rate. This creates more supply than demand, keeping pricing relatively affordable.
Carter, for example, snagged her tessellated coffee table on Facebook Marketplace for $50 from a woman who won it at a storage unit auction. Meg Gustafson, whose 1885 Workers’ Cottage in Chicago is decked out in eclectic pieces, was first drawn to her ’80s aesthetic for its affordability, too. Her obsession began with a $7 Memphis Design poster for a Picasso exhibit being held in a since-closed gallery in Chicago, which she found at a garage sale in 2011. She loved the look and decided to decorate her entire house around the bold, primary colors of the poster. “That’s one of the fun things about ‘80s stuff — it’s kind of low stakes,” she says. If you make a mistake buying a piece of furniture, you can just resell it for a few bucks and break even.
All this said, there’s a twist to today’s ‘80s design resurgence. This time around, interiors aren’t just carbon copies of those from forty years ago, but rather, they combine the loud, geometric forms of Memphis Design with the soft colors and curves of Art Deco — and may even mix in a little mid-century modern, too, for good measure. “When you didn’t live through that period, you don’t realize that one of those styles was a resurgence from the 1930s and one of them was a new invention of the 1980s,” says Riordan. “Millennials and Gen Z just see the whole thing as ‘80s style’ and are taking that whole genre and mixing it all together, so we’re getting this new genre that I call ‘Memphis-Deco.'”
Memphis Design, which was itself a reaction against the more traditional styles that came before it, came to the fore as budding technologies like the computer began revolutionizing the world. According to Riordan, one would not have put Memphis and Art Deco together in the 1980s because they were from the opposite ends of the design spectrum. Millennials and Gen Z can though, he says, because “they have the luxury of not knowing.”
Riordan points to the Proper Hotel in San Francisco, designed by Kelly Wearstler (and shown right above) as a prime example of Memphis-Deco design, since its lobby looks like a late 1920s reimagining of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” — but in the best way possible. Memphis Design, Riordan says, is playful almost to the point of immaturity, whereas Art Deco is really clean, luxurious, and so luscious, it’s almost pretentious. When you mix these two styles together, you get something that is lighthearted, beautiful, and just plain fun. At the Proper San Francisco, “They put this very Memphis style fabric over these very Art Deco pieces of furniture, completely combining them into a mishegoss,” Riordan says.
Even though she runs an ’80s style appreciation Instagram account, Gustafson still wouldn’t characterize her house as “pure ‘80s” style either. “I’ve had people come in and say, ‘Oh, I was expecting worse’ or ‘I was expecting something so much more ‘80s,’” she says. She recalls that one commenter on her first house tour with Apartment Therapy wrote, “I like that it wasn’t just an 80’s pastiche but 80’s reinvented.” That’s maybe the key to this ’80s resurgence: It’s a true blending of styles and time periods — not just one.
Finally, fun — and the idea of creating joy at home through interior design choices — underscores this ‘80s style resurgence, especially during a time that is marred with a global pandemic, rising inflation, and a possible housing market crash on the horizon. “I also think the recent surge owes to the fact that the 1980s produced furniture (and art and fashion) that was often bold, bright, confident (read: brash) and playful,” says Freund. “Today’s collectors turn to these objects as a happy antidote to the environmental, social, political, and health issues that seem to define these times.”
Carter agrees. “Visually, it’s a great aesthetic to have in our space right now,” she says. “As everyone knows, the world is a freaking mess right now, and it feels good to go into a room that feels like a dream.” Carter’s own theory is the new ‘80s revival mixes in the childhood pieces that millennials and Gen Z wished they owned, but their parents didn’t get them. Think the zebra-striped cabinet from “Clarissa Explains It All” or the ice cream sandwich couch from “iCarly.” Says Carter, “When I was a kid, if I could own bright pink bookshleves or checkered anything, that would have been awesome. And now that I’m in my thirties, I could finally buy myself that. It feels kind of like a daydream.”
If you want to try this new Memphis-Deco style yourself, make sure you mix in some more modern pieces. “Don’t buy everything for one room in one style,” Riordan says. “Buy a piece here and a piece there, and mix it in with the things you have. Keep it organic, keep it growing. So if you’re going to buy an ‘80s couch, don’t buy the massive ’80s chair to go with it.”
The same goes for tessellated pieces, which are a great stepping stone (get it?) into ‘80s design, since they’re typically cream-colored and very neutral. “If you want your home to be serene and calm, pair the tessellated piece with a lot of neutrals, like beige walls, white curtains, cloud sofas, that kind of thing,” Carter explains.
You can still balance out your ’80s period pieces with more modern items, even if you don’t gravitate towards neutrals. “It’s just mixing old with new,” sys Carter. “If you get an old table from the ‘80s, surround it with things from the current times. Add one trendy thing you’re drawn to, like pastel candles that are twisted, or stage it with items from a favorite store you’d ordinarily shop at that isn’t vintage.” Think pottery from H&M Home or a tray from Urban Outfitters.
Worried about buying flash-in-the-pan pieces that won’t have much longevity? You can always invest in 1980s pieces dubbed as “classics” if you’re able to. After all, the ‘80s began forty (!) years ago. “Cini Boeri and Tomu Katayanagi’s Ghost chair from 1987 has garnered much attention recently and is now regarded as a classic,” Freund says. “The chair is transparent, so it’s immune to color fads — and the low, wide, rounded shape foreshadowed the neotenic movement we see everywhere today. In fact, Faye Toogood — the godmother of neotenic design with her Roly Poly chair — recently cited the Ghost chair and Boeri herself as major influences on her work.”
The moral of the story here? If you find yourself oddly gravitating towards a spiral lamp on Facebook Marketplace or a pastel pink marble column at a thrift store, then take this as your sign to snatch it up and incorporate it into your space. You’re not the only one out there looking to make their home a little more tongue-in-cheek, and the time is now to score these pieces on the cheap before they really hit prime time. Follow your instincts… and if someone scrunches their nose at it the next time they come over to see your new favorite piece, all the more power to you. You’re probably onto something, at least when it comes to being ahead of the interior design curve.