Throwback Month

This Is the Most Popular Design Style from the Decade You Were Born

published Apr 29, 2022
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If you’ve kept an eye on home design trends over the past few years, you’ll know that everything from 1980s-era squiggles to retro 1960s patterns have re-entered the style rotation — oftentimes paired together, no less. The term “decade dabblers” has officially entered the 21st century interior lexicon, too, as renters and homeowners harness decorating with blasts from multiple decades past. Recently, I myself was pleasantly surprised finding a coffee table book from 1998 that’s packed with inspiring interior ideas that look like they could have been photographed today.

It’s no secret trends are cyclical, and there’s a huge need for the comforts of nostalgia. Increased interest in secondhand shopping also feeds into this ongoing throwback decorating fad, with old-school home decor just a thrift shop away. And while it’s easy to pinpoint mid-century modern furniture or ’70s-era printed wallpaper, I started to wonder about every decade design-wise from the past century. What would be considered the single most popular interior style from every time frame since?

To answer this, I polled designers and experts on the most prominent design style to come out of each decade from 1920 to the 2010s. They weighed in on their biggest trend takeaways and the historical context that set the scene for these designs in the first place. Of course, it’s impossible to narrow down just one style for every decade (I can think of at least five from the 1990s alone), so I’ll be nodding to many need-to-know honorable mentions, too. Whether you’re looking to learn about the decade you (or even your parents or grandparents) were born, or just want to scroll through some cool vintage interiors, read on for a crash course in American home design from the past 100 years.

Credit: Getty Images/General Photographic Agency

1920s: Art Deco

The “Roaring Twenties” marked an era of glitz, glamor, and the distinguishably opulent Art Deco style — a hallmark of more than just decorating. As Anne Mahoney of Anne Lydia Interior Design notes, the look “left its mark on so many visual mediums. From fashion, film, architecture, and interior design, it created a lasting impression for many years — and is still inspirational.”

According to Sarah Lichtman, PhD, the assistant professor of design history at Parsons School of Design, this movement debuted at the 1925 Paris Exposition — formally known as the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. “It really set the style of what Art Deco was,” she explains. Characterized by geometric patterns, metallics, and bold colors, the style quickly made its way stateside. “American department stores and museums bought a lot of stuff at this exhibition,” Lichtman says, which domestic designers then replicated. “The reach of Art Deco was very big coming back here.”

On top of this, in 1925, the renowned Bauhuas art and design movement, founded by architect Walter Gropius, relocated and opened a new school in Dessau, Germany. “This is the pinnacle of modernist education, and that’s a completely different aesthetic of modernism: metal furniture, stylelessness, utopianism” says Lichtman. As a stark contrast to the detail-oriented Art Deco, “it’s really fascinating to think that these two things are existing together and really informing the design of the decade,” she adds.

Credit: Getty Images/Woollcombe Collection

1930s: Streamline Moderne

Following the stock market crash of 1929, the ’30s pivoted to a more “aspirational” period, marching to a “tomorrow is going to better than today” tune amidst the Great Depression, per Lichtman. That futuristic mentality — coupled with the ongoing U.S. Machine Age — helped foster the advent of Streamline Moderne, an evolution of the characteristically grand Art Deco style in favor of more practical design. “[Streamlining] is like the antithesis of what modernism was, where things would have a function,” Lichtman adds. “They’re not being re-engineered, they’re really just being re-styled.”

Evidenced in anything from automobiles to ocean liners to pencil sharpeners, this sleek new aesthetic largely centered around aerodynamic forms, curved lines, and smooth surfaces. Streamlining also paved the way for industrial designers and more affordable, mass-produced wares: Russel Wright, for example, launched his “American Modern” furniture line at the Macy’s New York showroom in 1935. Overall, Lichtman deems Streamline Moderne as a “quintessentially American” and “optimistic” style that was publicized at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 — fittingly operating under the slogan “Dawn of a new day.”

Credit: Getty Images/Lena Koller

1940s: Post-War Modernism

Interior design remained somewhat stagnant in the 1940s, largely because of WWII, but this time frame laid the groundwork for a style many people know and love today: mid-century modern. Although the look didn’t became fully popularized until later decades, Charles Eames exhibited his now-iconic Eames Chair at MoMA’s Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition in 1941, just before the U.S. entered the war. Mark Lavender, principal designer of M. Lavender Interiors, also alludes to the equally famed Saarinen Womb Chair, designed in 1946 as a “response to Florence Knoll complaining about the lack of comfortable chairs,” he explains. “It created a whole new look that was a very popular style with sophisticates for the next 25 years.”

These new organic furniture designs came to fruition during the latter half of the decade, in part thanks to the war itself. Surplus materials like plywood were recycled to manufacture new household commodities, including tables and chairs. Danish-American designer Jens Risom even used parachute webbing to construct his Knoll-produced Lounge Chair.

Lichtman points to a general domestic shift after WWII, as well: suburbanization. She references a project from 1945-1962 called the Case Study House Program, commissioned by the now-defunct Arts & Architecture magazine as a series of “prototype homes” designed to model the contemporary post-war lifestyle. “This ‘modern man’ went off to war, comes back from war, and doesn’t want to move back into these traditional houses,” explains Lichtman. “So these Case Study houses were supposed to present alternative forms of living.” And in 1947, to accommodate housing demands (hello, baby boom), Abraham Levitt also established his Levittown development in Long Island, New York — which, although controversial, went down in history as America’s first mass-produced suburb.

Credit: Getty Images/Hulton Archive

1950s: Atomic Age-Inspired

The introduction of nuclear technology instigated a post-war Atomic Age, when the atom bomb carried major cultural influence in the U.S. — especially so with designers, who leaned into the concept of the atom itself for inspiration. Perhaps the best example of this is George Nelson’s Ball Clock, featuring 12 ball-shaped electron lookalikes orbiting a central nucleus of sorts. And, given the context, Lichtman posits this trend as a practice of “domesticating” traditionally “scary” wartime motifs.

You can still buy the Ball Clock for your own home today, which alludes to two more notable 1950s happenings, according to Lichtman: the rise of design companies like Herman Miller and Knoll, plus acknowledgement of certain design “classics.” Although still deemed fairly expensive for the average consumer during this decade, pieces like the Eames Chair or Womb Chair had reached mass recognition — and still continue to today.

This also marks a moment when technology gained more household prominence, per Lichtman, as families hopped on the television bandwagon. According to the Digital Public Library of America, “by 1955, half of American homes had a TV set.” As a domino effect, though, Lichtman adds that handmade arts and crafts became more commonplace as decor to “soften some of this modernism.”

Credit: Alamy Stock Photo/M N

1960s: Mid-Century Modern

Akin to a “Mad Men” TV set, the 1960s were synonymous with space-age styles, texture, bohemian touches, and — of course — a continuation of the mid-century modern aesthetic. “Jetsons”-esque designs took off in the wake of the Space Race, which propelled plastic as a new furniture material because it “allows these almost futuristic shapes” to come to life, says Lichtman. You’ll see this with Eero Aarnio’s planet-resembling Ball Chair from 1963, or Danish designer Verner Panton’s sculptural plastic Panton Chair. Simultaneously, “you have this counterculture that’s starting: psychedelic colors, patterns, and posters are also coming to the fore,” Lichtman adds. “It’s all of these mixing together.”

Speaking of, Kim Coombs of KBCO Design identifies one specific “it” color that dominated the decade: avocado. Fast forward to today, when a handful of paint brands have since declared shades of green as their 2022 colors of the year, which feels like a vestige of yesteryear. “To me, it’s a nod to the ’60s ‘avocado’ that was often coupled with bold pops of color, shag rugs, oversized fan decor, and wall coverings with striking patterns,” Coombs says. Overall, she explains that the 1960s “showed us minimalist, clean lines where form and function were prioritized.”

Credit: Alamy Stock Photo/ClassicStock

1970s: Groovy Style

Today’s earthy tones seem reminiscent of popular ’70s-era hues, but this natural emphasis transcended even the color wheel. At the time, Lichtman cites a growing “ecological awareness” — the first Earth Day, in fact, took place in 1970. “People are thinking about their environment again in a different way, bringing in more natural materials or objects,” she says, especially post-oil crisis in 1973. Pivoting away from petroleum-based plastics that were mainstream in the ’60s, this decade welcomed home design trends like wicker or rattan furniture, macrame planters, and “an emphasis on self-expression,” Lichtman notes.

Circling back to color, retro tones and bold patterns continued to pervade disco-era design, leaving no surface behind. Even the ever-polarizing shag rugs of the time could be found decked out in unbelievably vibrant shades. Describing her very own childhood home from the 1970s, Shoshanna Shapiro of Washington, DC-area Sho and Co. harks back to just about every quintessential look from the time: “thick rust-colored shag carpeting, busy colorful wallpaper, bamboo/cane headboard, gingham curtains. It was color upon color, with very little white or black to offset the colors.”

Additionally, more design “classics” hit the home scene and became re-issued in the 1970s: “You see things like Bauhaus furniture being put into production and coming into style,” says Lichtman. “The modernism is always right there.”

Credit: Dennis Zanone

1980s: Post Modernism (and Pretty Pastels)

Styles start to shift entering the postmodern period: there’s a “deconstructing,” per Lichtman, of the century’s former minimalist standard. The 1980s specifically marked a time when excessive Laura Ashley prints coincided with the rebellious, in-your-face Memphis Design movement. The latter hails from the Memphis Design Group, an Italian design collective founded in 1980 by architect and designer Ettore Sottsass. Notorious for their use of bold primary hues, geometric shapes, and overall unconventionality, the collaborators debuted their ideas at Milan’s Furniture Fair in 1981 before disbanding in 1988.

Although fleeting and widely criticized, the influential movement still generated public fanfare, attracting the likes of even David Bowie and Karl Lagerfeld. “[Lagerfeld] was one of the earliest collectors of Memphis furniture,” Lichtman notes of the late fashion mogul, whose former Monaco apartment (designed in 1983) epitomized the trend with a medley of “bright colors, plastics, weird surfaces, and angularity. That’s like a perfect example of what the ’80s looked like.”

Golden Girls,” “Saved by the Bell,” or “Miami Vice,” which Lance Thomas, lead designer of Thomas Guy Interiors, references specifically for “[depicting], albeit almost caricatures, of interior design trends of the decade.” He recalls “the pastel, desaturated color palettes — mauve, ochre, and seafoam green being at the top of the list.” To that end, “‘anything but white’ walls set the tone for many of these shows’ family rooms,” Thomas adds, a maximalist movement he’s loved seeing resurrected.

Credit: Getty Images/Fernando Bengoechea

1990s: Flower Power

There’s no shortage of interior design trends that made their mark on the 1990s (all of which The “shabby chic” look, which featured many a cottage rose, picked up from the Laura Ashley look of the 1980s. A handful of designers I polled all pointed to floral motifs as a memorable style overall. “Wallpaper dominated the ’90’s — particularly the floral wallpaper trend with a border on top or across the middle was huge,” says Leslie Murphy, creative director and owner of Murphy Maude Interiors. “Taking a modern twist on this trend, we’re now finding that people are looking for bold, more art-driven ways to incorporate wallpaper into their home.”

Even fake flowers ruled the decade, according to Georgia Zikas of Georgia Zikas Design. “Faux floral trends were a ’90’s prevailing theme, often the bigger the better,” she adds. “If you didn’t have an arrangement of dried flowers in your home — likely to include a variety of eucalyptus — I’m not sure you truly lived.”

Credit: pics721/Shutterstock

2000s: Anything Goes

The Aughts conjure images of shabby-chic bedrooms, elaborate Tuscan-style kitchens, and “an overzealous attempt to go Europe,” according to Kim Armstrong, owner and principal designer of Kim Armstrong Interior Design. “There was big, overly carved furniture, and the popular colors were red, gold, olive green, and dark blue,” she says. “Bringing stone into interior walls was popular, and textiles were very traditional — patterns such as damasks were all the rage!” But minimalism also took hold in this decade, too.

On a smaller scale, both Armstrong and Amy Leferink of Interior Impressions spoke about the decade’s preferred cabinetry — some of which still (stylishly) exist in homes today. “We all know the infamous honey oak kitchen cabinets from the ’90’s and early 2000’s,” says Leferink. “At the time it was all the rage.” She also offered easy DIYs for bringing this style up to 2022 speed, like “painting them to a color of your liking (tip: white, black, or a deep green) and update the cabinet hardware.” Or, “keep the cabinets as is but update your backsplash and countertops,” Leferink adds.

Credit: Getty Images/PC Photography

2010s: Modern Farmhouse

In the most recent decade, the rustic modern farmhouse look cemented itself as the most prominent design style. “It really took off and defined style for many people,” says designer Eleanor Trepte of Dekay & Tate. “You see it still to this day in some of the biggest stores in the country that don’t even have an interior focus. I think I could furnish an entire modern farmhouse themed bedroom from Target!”

This style goes hand-in-hand with shiplap walls, industrial wrought-iron touches, barn-style (albeit sophisticated) exposed wooden beams, and anything that looks straight out of Chip and Joanna Gaines‘s design portfolio. In fact, the husband-and-wife duo can arguably take credit for giving modern farmhouse much of its footing, as they showed how to get the look through their popular HGTV show “Fixer Upper” and Magnolia home line.

This piece is part of Throwback Month, where we’re revisiting vintage styles, homes, and all kinds of groovy, retro home ideas. Boogie on over here to read more!