Redesigning Retro: Finding the Best From the Past


retro interior wooden sideboard

It’s fair to say that science, engineering and medicine are things that improve over time. But creative quality can’t be measured in the same way. The Beatles and Vermeer are just as relevant as contemporary musicians and artists. It’s the same with design trends. Sure, things come into fashion and fade away, but the best things have a habit of re-emerging, sometimes for good.

Look at the rebirth of ‘70s style furniture. By definition it’s a style that was popular half a century ago, and its eye-catching post-pop art sensibilities are plain to see. The style is so iconic that when we see exuberant mustards and oranges, laminated wood and subtle curving, we immediately know what decade it’s from.

The same applies to Art Deco. It’s a look that has hardly ever truly gone away, perhaps because it’s associated with the dawn of modernity, and inevitably everything flows from its visual grammar. But it could simply be that the 1920s/30s era focused on making things so perfectly proportioned that it’s almost impossible to make it more pleasing to the eye.

Old Style Furniture in Home Fashion

Designers are still busy coming up with new ideas, of course, but there’s never been a better time to retro furnish your home. The great contemporary creatives are rethinking craft from the pinnacles of retro-design and giving it a modern twist. This could be why modern retro furniture looks, well, modern – it’s drawing on something timeless that just happened to have its prominence in previous decades.

So there are two ways of finding retro style furniture in the 2020s. First, you can seek out antique dealers and online sellers who are offering mid-century modern furniture. You’re guaranteed retro credentials and maybe some authentic patina, but it doesn’t always look retro; it often just looks… old.

The second way is to look for retro house accessories and furniture from modern retailers. It’ll be retro-look, inasmuch as it’ll have the colours and proportions of the original design ideas, but it’ll also draw from the best of modernity. That could be purely technical (electrical components, for example) or simply that je ne sais quoi that makes it both retro and contemporary.

Finding Your Style

Clearly there is no overarching style called ‘retro’. There are a number of key periods that inspired identifiable trends in furniture design. They’re broadly defined as below:

  • 1920s/30s – Art Deco: geometry, long parallel lines with decorative flourishes
  • 1950s – bridging the classical and the mass-produced: curved corners and chrome details
  • 1960s – pared back, unfussy, with new materials like plastic being integral, not hidden
  • 1970s – back to wood, with laminates, low-profile comfort seating and veneered sideboards. (Flouncy chintz was also big, but it has aged less well.)
  • 1980s – pastel shades and plenty of solid pine

It’s arguable that anything more than 100 years old can’t strictly be retro – it starts becoming antique or classical. Similarly, there are no doubt plenty of homes that still have furnishings less than 20 years old, so it’s probably not retro yet. Hang on to it though…

When you’re aiming to make a room retro, it’s often useful to aim for a particular decade rather than to go for generic ‘retro’ furniture and home accessories. That’s because the designs tend to work well together. Curves meet curves; boldness feeds off boldness; ornate styling threads through the whole space.

Applying Retro Style to Modern Furnishing

The beauty of retro styling is that it takes the best of the past, not everything. Every decade produces its duds that were popular at the time but which just don’t translate to the modern era. And if you’re actually spending time in the room – i.e., it’s not a museum piece – you’re probably going to want your mod cons like flat screen TV and MP3 speakers, as well as your favourite pieces – that side table that fits perfectly beside the sofa.

So when you’re looking for retro furnishings, make a mental Venn diagram asking not just “is it retro?” but also “will it work in my room?” It’s all too easy to choose one over the other and end up with retro items that look out of place.

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Mixing it up

Blending the retro with the modern probably isn’t as difficult as you may think. After all, successful retro styles influence modern furniture to such a degree that even an unmistakable period piece probably wouldn’t look too out of place in the modern setting.

Make sure you’ve got your colour wheel to hand. The rules about complementary colours don’t suddenly cease to apply just because you’re drawing from the past. Your cushions will still need to match the couch, and a floral piece might look totally out of place in a 60s-inspired living room.

Here at AMARA, we work closely with designers to highlight some of the best retro style furniture the UK has to offer. You can filter by genres, too, so if you’re looking for industrial, Art Deco or that staple of the ‘60s, Bohemian, keep scrolling through the collections. You’ll soon start to build a space with modern furnishings that have a heartfelt affection for whatever retro mood you’re aiming for.

Christian Hillebrand