The Groovy History of an Iconic ‘70s Home Feature: Wood Paneling

published Jun 10, 2022
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Wood-paneled bathroom

If there were a “Family Feud” question on iconic design features of the 1970s, several answers immediately come to mind. Shag carpet. Sunken living rooms. Avocado tile. Linoleum. And of course: wood-paneled walls. For the first decade of my life, I lived in a 1970s build with a wood paneled basement, and folks, we hated it. Even after my parents painted them white to brighten up the space and propel us into the ‘90s, the rec room still smelled of the stench of bell bottoms and Watergate.

Looking back, I’m willing to admit I was wrong about two critical things. First: I admit that my family was quick to condemn the wood paneled walls, which are actually pretty excellent. After all, there’s no easier way to achieve that very trendy “Mad Men” look than by having the real thing already installed in your home! Our second critical error? As it turns out, wood paneling has a history that goes further back than just the 1970s! Who knew!? 

Let’s rewind. When I think of the earliest forms of architecture — I mean ancient, historical, even — various stone structures come to mind. From Machu Picchu to the Great Pyramid of Giza to the Colosseum to the Great Wall of China, each are made of stone, lime, and other earthen materials. Beyond grand structures such as these, interior wood ornamentation wasn’t universally popular, and was relegated to the homes of the hyper-privileged few. 

It wasn’t until the Gothic period that wooden paneling became a more broadly utilized decorative element. And the paneling commonly found in, for instance, Tudor styles of architecture did not resemble the wood paneling of your grandparents’ rec room. Rather, these wooden wall coverings were far more ornate and made of heavier and sturdier woods like oak and pine. These aided in insulating homes in colder climates of many European countries, and the trend caught on.

Credit: Getty Images/Thomas Jackson

As colonists and immigrants set sail for what would become the United States, settlers constructed their modest homes with wooden walls, though these frequently lacked any sort of ornamentation. As the colonies expanded and white enslavers appropriated the revenue from enslaved people’s forced labor, the same wooden ornamentation of the Elizabethan and Tudor eras blossomed in mansions throughout the South. Later on, during the Victorian era (1837 to 1901), wood paneled walls evolved into wainscoting, a design element that remains popular today

Wood paneling as we know it now exploded onto the scene during the post-WWII housing boom. With soldiers returning home from war in droves and the U.S. enjoying a period of economic prosperity, houses were constructed en masse and in record time. With this period of development utilizing prefab housing and easy-to-assemble and inexpensive materials, wood paneled walls made their retro debut. Between the 1950s and 1960s, when mid-century modern design changed the game for architecture and design forever, wooden walls served the purpose of showcasing nature within the home’s interior. With wood grain on display, the massive windows of MCM homes complemented the home’s earthy materials.

As the ‘50s and ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s, builders continued to utilize the synthetic wood paneling for homes. But the 1980s ushered in a new wave of interior design and architecture with pastels, glass blocks, Memphis design — all the good stuff that wacky decade that brought us, like perms, hair metal, and yours truly.

The 1970s seem to be manifesting everywhere these days, and with good reason. Those moody colors, the myriad of textiles, the open-floor living space concept and back-to-nature basics are, as the kids say, A Vibe. Next time you come across a preserved retro wood paneled wall in all its groovy glory, take a second to appreciate its epic journey through time.