Does the 1970s deserve to be remembered as the decade taste forgot? Absolutely not, says antiques expert Chris Yeo. It was a time of bold experiments and high glamour.
There is, they say, nothing new in fashion. Is there anything new in design? Whatever your thoughts it can’t be denied that the lure of the past has always been a potent source of inspiration. The Romans took their style tips for everything from togas to temples from the Ancient Greeks, the Elizabethans got dewy eyed over the Middle Ages and the Victorians were besotted by anything Medieval (apart from Chaucer, who was far too dirty for them). Not much has changed except that, latterly, we have tended to take a leaf from the more recent pages of style’s back catalogue. Anyone who was around in the 1970s will remember that the 1950s held a powerful draw and now it’s the turn of the ‘70s itself to be the focus of our rose-tinted spectacles. Ah, the Seventies. They called it the decade taste forgot. Of course, “they” were the 1980s, which, if we’re talking taste, is nothing short of the pot calling the kettle black. But now the decade that brought us Abba, the hostess trolley and the three-day week is being mined by a new generation of tastemakers. Fashion has been nostalgic for the 1970s for the last few seasons, with tinted sunglasses, long floral dresses and straw handbags omnipresent on the high street and catwalks alike. However, when it comes to interior design, it’s been a different story. For years, the very mention of the word ‘Seventies’ was enough to strike fear and loathing into otherwise reasonable, aesthetically broad-minded people and it seems old prejudices die hard. Style pundits from Wallpaper magazine recently collated a shortlist of the most egregious design faux pas of the past half-a-century and guess which decade came top? But look beyond the avocado bathroom suites and macramé plant pot holders and a different picture soon emerges.
The Seventies was a study in contrasts and contradiction: austerity and decadence, muddy earth tones and eye-popping colours. Trends that began life in the hippy communes of Haight-Ashbury grew-up, got a haircut and went mainstream. Italian designers schmoozed the world with their take on high-tech, high gloss futurism and, all over the world – from Studio 54 to Abigail’s Party – a mood of defiant decadence reigned supreme. As David Netto in The New York Times memorably put it:
“The 70s were sensual and decadent. People were unafraid to take risks. The furniture was made for hanging out, lounging or sex — activities infinitely more tempting than what was going on in the places where post-war design made its mark. Imagine trying to make out on a Barcelona Chair."
Decadence and glamour were the twin beats that throbbed throughout a decade that was bookmarked by Bowie at its beginning and Grace Jones at its end – oh, be still my beating heart! They were the torch bearers of the new mood that thrived in a world filled with the harsh realities of economic uncertainties and political strife. In a decade that saw two miners’ strikes, countless I.R.A. bombing campaigns, runaway inflation and powdered orange juice, what to do but loose yourself in a whirlwind of hedonism? A mood of defiant decadence was abroad, whether it was glam rockers “gender bending” – as contemporary parlance had it – on Top of the Pops or Bianca Jagger riding into studio 54 on the back of a white stallion (because, let’s face it, how else do you let people know it’s your birthday?) In London the mood was encapsulated, branded and retailed to perfection at Big Biba, opened on Kensington High Street in 1973. Biba had started life as mail order fashion outfit but over just a few years had come to dominate the UK fashion scene. Big Biba was the firms last great shout before bankruptcy in 1975 brought an end to its reign of fabulousness. Housed in Art Deco splendour at the former Barker’s department store, complete with live flamingos on the roof garden, Big Biba offered an interior vision that took elements of Hollywood’s Golden Age and mixed it louche colours, peacock feathers and peacock chairs, crushed velvets and Art Nouveau prints. It was bold, daring and worked perfectly a world jointly ruled by Marc Bolan and Pan’s People (ask your parents).
At the same time as Biba was refashioning homes in the UK, Willy Rizzo (1928-2013) was introducing a chic – not to say disco – sensibility into furniture design. Rizzo had started his career as a fashion photographer but, at the suggestion of his friends and clients – the great and the good of fashion and film, he took a sideways step into furniture design. He was soon swamped with orders and requests. Rizzo designed and produced more than thirty pieces of furniture: sofas, consoles, hi-fi furniture, coffee tables and lighting, all of which were handmade. Rizzo’s world is one where coffee tables rotate like a vinyl disc on a turntable and then open up to reveal an integrated ice bucket – perfect for those pre or post-club Campari. He opened boutiques across France and Europe and had points of sale in New York City, Miami and Los Angeles. However, in 1978, Rizzo gave it all up to return to photography, his first love. Rizzo’s furniture design channelled the sophistication of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, his pieces combining clean, simple lines with bold geometric forms and a delicate handling of materials. The result is classic modernism and very chic.
Willy Rizzo operated at the glamourous end of the sleek International style, a movement which took basic Form Follows Function Modernism and added a sheen of Jet Set sophistication. Luxury was the watchword and materials like rosewood, bronze and chrome were in. The interior design world’s new face could, in a way, be summed up in a single word: plastics. Technological advances had begun to create more flexible varieties that could be moulded into striking, sensual forms—strong but weightless, often without any hard edges. Designers revelled in the creative possibilities offered by new materials, especially plastics, which could be coloured boldly, mass-produced and, therefore, enjoyed by a wide audience. Lucite was the brand name for a clear acrylic plastic resembling glass or rock crystal, which really took off in the ‘70s. This lightweight material was easy to mould and carve and was an instant hit for everything from costume jewellery to furniture and, of course, lighting. Lucite gives an instant hit of space age glamour, as intoxicating now as it ever was.
And it seems you can’t keep a good decade down. These days the once maligned ‘70s are bang on-trend, with designers, architects and style savvy buyers all eagerly embracing the decade’s bold and brash personality, from Tom Dixon’s gloriously retro copper globe pendants to a renewed love for houseplants, via bold, clashing patterns and old-school gold accessories. That the decade should be ripe for plundering for inspiration should come as no surprise the question is how could it take so long to happen?