Forgotten decade

The fashion industry has shamelessly aped the styles of the period for some time, but – as Dominic Lutyens discovers – designers are only now catching up with the zeitgeist and acknowledging how influential the 1980s really were

Discovering that fashion is on an 1980s retro trip is a no-brainer. High street shops are awash with such unmistakable signifiers as black leggings, pixie boots, puffball skirts, pushed-up jacket sleeves (very Miami Vice) and oversized plastic-framed Ray Ban shades. And, for the benefit of anyone who’s failed to notice, fashion editors are forever spelling out that a 1980s revival is upon us.

The same thing is happening in design, although this has gone relatively unnoticed, the reason being, perhaps, that in the 1980s fashion impinged on our consciousness much more than design did. It was only in the 1990s, after all, that taking an interest in design became seriously hip. So those of us old enough to remember buying our 1980s togs from C&A, say, or London’s Kensington Market – memories which now either make us wince or dewy-eyed with fond nostalgia – may have hazier recollections of design from that decade. But to a design geek like me (yes, I freely admit I own a collection of 1980s Habitat catalogues), it’s plain to see that the 1980s look in interiors is back. Check out the current revivals of the graphics by artist Piero Fornasetti and Postmodernist design movement Memphis (both massively popular with design-conscious yuppies at the time).

Perusing those Habitat catalogues once again has inevitably jogged my memory. The decade that spawned BT’s Busby, the New Romantics and yuppies brandishing brick-sized mobile phones also brought us hi-tech interiors, an aesthetic first popularised in the late-1970s by such proudly functionalist buildings as Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Pompidou Centre and by Suzanne Slesin and Joan Kron’s 1978 bible on the subject, High Tech: The Industrial Style and Source Book for the Home.

Cue an unstoppable trend for transplanting objects from industrial contexts into domestic settings. You had laboratory flasks doubling as vases or tractor tyres as seats. These accoutrements were either unapologetically metallic or came in childlike, Lego-bright primary colours.

Other 1980s interiors fads included an obsession with black and white epitomised by a fascination with Japanese Minimalism, Battenberg cake-esque pastels, duvet covers with graph-paper grid patterns, regatta stripes and squiggly lines or graffiti patterns.

The design of the decade had its aberrations, of course: a love affair with Victoriana – first embraced by hippies in the 1960s but still going strong 20 years later – culminated in trad-looking, frilly chintz aplenty in muddy peach and fawn.

Thankfully, the revival has eschewed the latter, save in a super-ironic fashion. Art Meets Matter’s Factum chair bears a chintzy floral pattern but, on a black background, this looks graphic and contemporary. More commonly, designers are channelling the fresh, spankingly bright hi-tech aesthetic, notably in the shape of powder-coated metal furniture in Rubik’s Cube-loud primaries. Take design group Naughtone’s Trace table, whose frame comes in neon shades, or in über-1980s black or white.

Not all designers welcome the idea that their work is 1980s-influenced. Some don’t deny it, but believe this inspiration is subliminal, not conscious. ‘We didn’t decide one day, “Let’s pick some 1980s colours”,’ says Kieron Bakewell, co-owner and designer of Naughtone, who nevertheless describes the colour of his lacquered storage unit as ‘old-school BT yellow’. ‘It was more a question of choosing colours that people are really going to respond to right now. And they happen to be 1980s primaries,’ he says.

Designer Jennifer Newman takes a similar view. Her powder-coated aluminium, corrosion-proof Urban Balcony table in fire engine red, black or apple green (a hi-tech spectrum if ever there was one) flaunts its bolted connections, another hi-tech trait. But she claims that any 1980s influences on her work are subconscious ones.

‘I’ve kept all the 1970s and 1980s Habitat catalogues I browsed through when furnishing my homes then,’ she says. ‘I haven’t opened them for years but they’ve made an impact on my creative life. The influences now are subconscious, but it’s unlikely I’d have become a furniture designer without the pioneering use of bright colour in the home during that time. My work is in the same spirit, but I hope I’m moving things on a bit.’

Habitat itself appears to be returning to its late 1970s/1980s roots: witness its angular, lemon-yellow Lab candelabra (that word ‘Lab’ is not so much a nod as a firm headshake in the direction of the retailer’s hi-tech heritage), its Milla pedal bins in yellow and red, and the black hi-gloss Tari table. Yet, says Katharine Pulford, Habitat senior design manager for home accessories, this is more incidental than intentional (although I wonder if this isn’t a little disingenuous). ‘Vibrant colours are an essential part of our palette. We take inspiration from a broad mix of historical references. I think it’s great that our colours are in tune with the current 1980s fashion revival,’ she says.

Other designers seem to be revisiting the 1980s more knowingly. Art Meets Matter’s plain white Factum chair, designed for people to graffiti, is a reprise – conscious or not – of Habitat’s 1985/86 ‘fabric spray kit’ which exhorted customers to spray graffiti-esque squiggles on the blank canvas of a Persil-white sofa. It has even designed coasters in the shape of Space Invader icons, a homage to the popular computer game of that era.

Jethro Macey, who has designed some flying duck-shaped, powder-coated metal coat hooks, under the aegis of Hidden Art, which promotes designer-makers, points out that, like the hi-tech movement, he loves ‘industrial processes in design’. ‘My duck hooks reference the functionalist, yet playful aesthetic of the early 1980s,’ he says. ‘My parents’ home then had red and white tiles, exposed pipes and wiring. I use powder-coaters whose main customer is a bulldozer company which coats its vehicles an industrial orange. I used this as a starting point for my colour palette.’

This nascent style is, I believe, likely to snowball. It’s partly because 20-something designers are tapping into childhood memories – and not those of the early 1970s, which have been done to death (think the obsession among slightly older designers in the past few years for late 1960s/early 1970s psychedelia), but of the late 1970s/early 1980s. They are also after a style which, though clean-lined, is funky and humorous rather than drily Minimalist, a look that’s upbeat and pop but manages to be elegant with it.

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