American Style Through the Decades: The Seventies

published Jul 7, 2011
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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.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

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 and A-frames. But according to Lisa’s Nostalgia Cafe, the king of the 70s home was the one-story ranch. In 1975, 60% of new single-family homes were one-story. Outside the house, you were likely to encounter a Hibachi grill, blacktop driveway and concrete patio, and a metal swing set. The average American house was much smaller, at 1,700 square feet compared with 2,500 sq. ft. in 2007.

Chair Mania
The Saarinen tulip chairs were popular, as were various Verner Panton chairs. According to Interior Dezine, the 70s was a time of major advances in the design of chairs and modular office furniture. Designers began experimenting with ergonomic designs for the workplace and home office. Italian designers were at the forefront of radical and experimental furniture design, using high tech materials, tubular steel, bright colors, and polyurethane plastics.

A 1970s Checklist
• Crafts revival and hippiedom (macramé. string art, embroidered wall hangings, afghans)
• Victoriana (e.g. Laura Ashley)
• Scandinavian teak and pine
• Sleek plastics and high-tech materials
• Avocado green and harvest gold appliances
• Bold patterns and prints (flocked wallpaper, flower prints)
• Stacked stone fireplace and stone walls
• Timbered ceiling beams
• Exposed brick walls
• Terracotta tiles and hardwood flooring
• Metal (chrome, polished steel)
• Geometric shapes and lines
• Thick and chunky masculine furniture
• Fiber optic lights
• Wood paneling
• Skylights
• Atriums
• Indoor gardens
• Fireplaces with elevated hearths
• Big windows and lots of glass
• Wall-to-wall carpeting
• Sunken living rooms
• Floating staircases
• Wicker furniture
• Shag rugs
• Earth tones: brick, rust, sand, avocado, harvest gold
• Brightly colored furniture
• Orange


1 There is a lot to love about these 5 rooms from the 70s. From top left, clockwise. Small Ritual on flickr.
Thread Bare on flickr. Small Ritual on flickr. Thread Bare on flickr. My Retrospace.
2 Top row, left to right: Rodney Kinsman’s Omstak stackable chair; Armchair 4794 by Kartell; Europa floor lamp by Verner Panton; Ettore Sottsass Synthesis 45 chair.
Middle row, left to right: Frank Gehry’s Easy Edges corrugated fiberboard chair;. Frank Gehry’s Easy Edges wiggle stool; Panton’s 123 sofa; Ettore Sottsass
Bottom row, left to right: Ettore Sottsass orange dining chairs; Lucite chairs;
“The informal lifestyle of the 1970s produced furniture that catered to leisure and entertaining. This settee has a removable cylindrical bolster that can be used independently of the seat and the backrest supports a plastic tray that can support glasses.”

3 My Retrospace. This green apple room is sparse and whimsical.
4 My Retrospace. Typical masculine, earth-toned study.
5 <House Beautiful. Mark and Duane Hampton moved into this Manhattan apartment in 1971. The look was “hard, chic, and Hicksian, with glossy red walls, black wool tuxedo sofas, maroon curtains trimmed in black, white plastic tables, and a painting they called ‘Alligators in the Sludge.'”

6 My Retrospace. Seriously groovy swing.
7 The Insane Domain. How amazing is this sunken living room?
8 Lisa’s Nostalgia Cafe. This dining set would not look out of place in today’s decor mags.
9 My Retrospace. A little bit minimalist and a little bit groovy.
10 My Retrospace. Now, this is where the earthy colors and woody tones go overboard and feel stale and suffocating.

11 Life Goes Strong. Yikes.
12 Glen H on flickr. Now those are some colorful toilets.
13 O Modern No comment.
14 Via Thread Bare on flickr.
15 Via Small Ritual on flickr. I had to showcase this photo again. I love this room, which contains many of today’s more popular design elements (sleek couches, bold modern rug, elegant arced lamp, lovely wood floors).