When you’re decorating, renovating, or even building your home or commercial space, one of the first things we generally do is research particular décors and themes that resonate with us. One of these décors is retro. However, one of the confusing things about the retro style is that it means different things for different people, so it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact era you’d like to replicate or evoke. So, we’ve created a comprehensive how-to guide dedicated to retro décor and lighting, exploring how to define your retro style, the key differences between retro, vintage, and antique, as well as common questions surrounding materials, colours, patterns, lighting choices, and more. Keep reading as we travel back in time to the nostalgic world of yesteryear.
What does retro design mean?
So, here’s the thing – the word ‘retro’ refers to a style that evokes or is derivative of the styles, trends, lifestyles, music, fashion, or cultural concepts of the past. This concept often goes hand-in-hand with the idea of the nostalgia of the ‘good old days’, and that’s where this concept gets a little tricky. By coupling ‘retro’ with ‘nostalgia’, this means that what retro means to an individual is inherently tied to their lived past and isn’t one-size-fits-all. While a 50-year-old in 2020 might refer to the ‘good old days’ as somewhere in the 1970s or 1980s, someone born in the late 1980s or 1990s might refer to the 1990s or early 2000s as the epitome of ‘retro’.
The interesting exception to this, of course, is when individuals who weren’t born until after a certain time period are enamoured by it, such as teenagers born in the early 2000s loving the culture, fashion, and music of the 1990s.
Given this fluid concept, this guide will explore various time periods and their relevant styles, thereby giving you a comprehensive guide on how to achieve the retro look for these different eras. While you might find some articles online about how to achieve the ‘definitive retro look’, we refuse to prescribe what retro should mean to you, as it’s all about the era in which you grew up and can relate to, even several decades later (or conversely, the period you have a connection with, even if you weren’t born yet!)
What are the origins of retro design?
Given that retro décor and style means different things to different people, depending on what time they consider retro or nostalgic, there’s no time-specific origin to ‘retro design’ per se. However, the word ‘retro’ has been used since at least the early 1970s to refer to the design characteristics of the relatively recent past – that is, within the lifetime of those currently alive. The word ‘retro’ actually derives from a Latin prefix, and means backwards, or in past times.
An important distinction in our general understanding of the meaning of retro is that, while it generally relates to a past that is recent enough for those alive to have witnessed, it is sufficiently far back enough in the past that the defining characteristics of this time period are no longer considered modern, and have therefore passed the litmus test to become ‘retro’.
What is the difference between retro and vintage?
Okay, so you love reminiscing on the good old days of record players, tram conductors (please come back, we miss you!) and shoulder pads; or, or, if you’re a 90s baby, you think back to the days of parachute pants, your Sony Walkman, and buying the latest So Fresh! album. Whatever your flavour, we completely understand the desire to bring in the personality of the past, especially considering how it shaped who we are today.
So, you want to evoke a retro, back in the day kind of look, but when you look online, you see the words ‘retro’ and ‘vintage’ thrown around and are kind of confused between the two. You’re looking at a bright orange and green lava lamp online, and the words ‘retro’ and ‘vintage’ are both used. Is it the real deal? Or was it made recently? While these words actually have subtle differences and distinctions, these words are often used interchangeably, so we totally understand the confusion! Let’s try and break it down for you.
‘Retro’ refer to items, cultural artefacts, music, fashion, homewares, lighting etc that is created to mimic or emulate a specific time period. In contrast, ‘vintage’ refers to items that were manufactured during the time period you want to evoke. An important distinction to add here is that items can be made in ‘vintage style’, which is emulating vintage but not claiming to be an authentic artefact. To this end, ‘vintage style’ and ‘retro’ generally mean the same thing, and can be used interchangeably, whereas ‘vintage’ refers to authentic items from a particular time period.
What is the difference between retro and antique?
So now that we understand the difference between ‘retro’ and ‘vintage’, another question tends to pop up: so what’s the deal with ‘antique’, what does it mean, and what’s the difference between ‘antique’, ‘retro’ and ‘vintage’? Well, the nuts and bolts, shortened version of the answer is that ‘antique’ relates to authentic items from the past that are at least 100 years old. However, if an item cannot be confidently dated to be at least one hundred years old, we can’t call it antique. However, finding a definitive, widely understood understanding of this is hard to come by, so items can be described as being of ‘antique style’ or similar. This is totally fine, however you need to make sure that if the word antique is being used, it isn’t being used to mislead you into thinking it’s an original artefact.
So now you’re thinking, ‘that’s great Fat Shack, but how on earth do I add antique or antique-inspired items to my home without it looking out of place?’ Never fear, we have the answer ready at hand. If you have an authentic antique item, or an antique inspired item, and you want to know how to integrate it into an otherwise modern home, we recommend adding these items as accent pieces – that is, as a point of contrast, and to accentuate the space.
If you’re keen to retain a modern feel to your home, and don’t want to make it look like the inside of your grandma’s living room, then add antique items in small quantities, or as part of a carefully curated look. Examples of this could be things such as antique Bankers Lamps (we have a range of antique-inspired Bankers Lamps available on our website – check it out here), original paintings, carefully preserved textiles such as family heirloom quilts to drape over a couch or cosy armchair, or even an antique wooden desk that has withstood the test of time. These items provide timeless appeal and can be seamlessly integrated into your otherwise modern home with minimal effort.
And, if you’re still struggling to figure out how to add these as carefully considered accent pieces, why not get in touch with our friendly FSV team? We’re always on call to help with your design questions.
What does retro style look like?
Alright, so heading back into the realm of ‘retro’, we’ve now established that the concept of retro is fluid, and that our understanding of what it means is subjective to our lived experiences, as someone who grew up in the 1970s would have a very different understanding of retro, compared with someone who grew up in the 1990s. With this in mind, the question of ‘What does retro style look like?’ is a somewhat vague question to answer. Given this, we’ve decided to give you a taste of some of the styles and characteristics of the last few decades. It’s by no means exhaustive, so if you want to delve deeper, head online to places like Instagram for some retro inspo!
The 1960s was a fun decade in which traditional sensibilities were thrown out of the window, and the younger generation embraced bright swirling colours, with psychedelic patterns, tie-dye clothing, and a groovy way of life. If you were a kid in this era, you might be heading to school with your Monkeys lunchbox, while you debated whether Davy Jones or Micky Dolenz was cuter. Or, if you were a young adult during this period, you listened to Eric Clapton as you dreamt of going to Woodstock.
The 1970s was an era of cultural change, with large-scale protests about the Vietnam War, women’s rights, gay rights, the Watergate scandal, and more. This was an era of great revolution, and the fashion and décor were no different. Bell bottom pants, frayed jeans, and platform shoes were in their heyday, while the disco scene was at its height. And hey, we won’t tell if you want to rewatch Saturday Night Fever for the thousandth time – it’s our guilty little secret, too.
Okay, so it was the 1980s, and you thought it was a good idea to get a perm or a mullet. We all thought that too, so no judgement from us. The 1980s were a decade filled with bold new ideas, from acid wash jeans, to hypercolour t-shirts, biker jackets, workout leotards, double denim, fluro clothing, Rubiks cubes, and more. This was a crazy and eccentric decade. Quintessential artists of the time included Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Hall & Oats, Madonna, Blondie, Pink Floyd, and Queen. Décor during this period was much less overwhelming than the 1970s, and featured vertical blinds, glass block walls (who ever thought these were a good idea?!), honey oak cabinets, clear furniture, and lots of plants inside the home. If you can remember an episode of The Golden Girls, you’ve hit the nail straight on the head.
It’s the 1990s. You’re reading the latest Dolly magazine as you sit in your four-poster canopy bed. You head to the kitchen, which is full of wooden cabinets, and then you head into the living room to blow air into your Nintendo game cartridges to get them to work, so that you can play the latest Super Mario game. You hang out with your friends in leather pants, black converses, Doc Martin boots, and plaid shirts, while you rode your penny board to the arcade. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Beastie Boys, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers were some of the biggest bands in the world, while you learnt this new thing called the Internet.
These are just some of the defining characteristics of these decades. And while you can’t necessarily incorporate all of these directly into home design, you can distil the vibe of these decades in order to incorporate it into your home. Find an old family album to help you decide exactly what type of retro you want to emulate and pick some décor items that represent the quintessential essence of that decade.
Why is retro design so popular? Will it remain popular in the future?
We firmly believe that the reason that retro design is so popular is that, given its fluid definition relative to our own individual pasts, the idea of ‘retro design’ evokes the nostalgia of our formative years – the years that created and shaped who we are today. While we can look back on those times and think we all looked kind of daggy, it is with a certain degree of fondness and reminiscence of the ‘good old days’ that we do so.
By bringing retro design into our homes (whether that be through vinyl record inspired lights, parachute pants, linoleum flooring, burnt orange floral wallpaper, antique paintings or prints, lava lamps, or more) we can allow ourselves to step back in time and remember how life used to be. And, for those who dream of a time in which they weren’t even born, retro design allows us to feel as if, for a moment, we’re living in a faraway world that is lost in time.
For this very reason, we confidently believe that retro design, in all its various iterations, will remain popular in the future. And, given that we always consider current day design to be ‘neutral’ (until twenty to thirty years from now when we can see the defining and noticeable style of the 2020s) there will always be a new and ongoing understanding and definition of retro design, so we’ll never run out of design ideas and reincarnations of what retro design means to us, and how we can bring it into our homes, our businesses, and our lives.
What materials and patterns are used in retro décor?
If you adore the mid-century retro look, we recommend exploring items with frosted opal glass, defined and structured lines, metal, marble, and traditional finishes such as antique brass (take a look at our Lamarr Marble Table Lamp for some mid-century inspo). In terms of larger furniture, we recommend wooden furniture that has a mid-brown colour, as this is most in keeping with popular furniture of the time. This era didn’t use as many ‘out there’ patterns, so artefacts from this time remain relatively timeless.
If you prefer the look and feel of the 1970s, we recommend bright orange and red wallpaper, unstructured and abstract shapes, and floral patterns, velour couches, shag pile rugs, and wood panelled feature walls. Lighting materials of this time largely followed the 1960s, with a few extra inclusions, and include metal, frosted opal glass, clear glass, brass, copper, ceramic, and rattan/wicker.
Heading into the 1980s and 1990s, there was a greater emphasis on non-traditional materials and finishes that were quirky or even grungy. Examples of this in lighting include chain and cord suspensions, cage lights, scissor lights, distressed finishes, unconventional colours, exposed light bulbs, and more. And, in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a revival in the use of traditional brass and copper finishes, and these finishes used prolifically in fixtures from tapware, door handles, toilet paper holders, light fittings, light switch covers, and more. Copper was especially popular in Australia in the 1980s, with copper furniture being in its heyday. Want to dive into the past? Check out these retro 1980s tv commercials for Copperart, which later became Homeart, a national homewares chain in Australia back in the day!
Here at Fat Shack Vintage, we have an endless collective of lighting that meets this junction of vintage, opulent and industrial. Check out some of our industrial vintage lighting here.
How do I add retro décor into my home?
We briefly touched on this earlier, but our advice about how to add retro décor into your home or business space largely depends on how modern you want your space to look. If you’re going for an all-in, step-back-in-time kind of vibe, then by all means go crazy with retro design. Pick your decade, research it, and create moodboards on platforms such as Pinterest and the Style Sourcebook. You might also consider consulting with an interior designer if you’re keen to create a one-of-a-kind time portal into the past, as you want to be able to pull off the look without it looking like a cheap imitation.
If, however, you want to maintain a relatively modern or contemporary home, and want to simply add some flair and personality, we recommend adding retro items as accent pieces. Think vintage chandeliers, lava lamps, vinyl record inspired lights, bankers lamps, rattan pendant lighting or wicker furniture (which was extremely popular in the 1970s and 1980s and has seen a massive resurgence in popularity around the world), vintage Persian rugs, copper bar carts, old concert posters (again this is relative to your own time, so it could be anything from The Monkeys, to the Beastie Boys, to the Backstreet Boys!), and more.
If you’re struggling to think of décor ideas, simply think back to your childhood, and of the items that you strongly identify with this era. Loved sitting in bean bags with your mates? Great, go put some in your rumpus room! Loved listening to the latest Alice Cooper record on the record player in your grandma’s living room? Then find an old record of Welcome To My Nightmare, and put it on the wall! The only rule is that there’s no rules, so throw caution to the wind and find the items that feel quintessentially like the ‘good ol’ days’. And hey, if your family are hoarders like ours are, you’ll probably be able to find a lot of these items still in storage from when you left home. Just make sure you don’t unpack these in front of your kids, lest they find your teenage love letters!
What retro lights do you recommend?
Here at Fat Shack Vintage, we’re obviously crazy for retro and retro-inspired lighting, and it’s impossible to pick our favourite! As mentioned earlier, what retro lights you choose is heavily influenced by which retro era you’re wanting to emulate and evoke, as retro means so many different things to different people.
If you’re obsessed with the swinging 60s and 70s, one of our most popular and stylish lights is our vinyl record inspired lights.
Check out our Handel Record Pendant, Handel Record Lights, Handel Glass Ball Lights, and Handel 5 Light Lamp. These evoke the nostalgia of an era in which listening to music was a physical and tangible experience, and record players hummed in homes, restaurants, and speakeasies around the world. Or, if you want to bring out the mod fashion look of the 70s, why not check out our Lunar Glass Pendant or our Mercury Glass Chandelier?
Or if you’d like to go a bit more abstract and arthouse with your style, and want to go down the mid-century path, why not consider our Stockholm Ceiling Light? We can visualise it now: you, sipping a martini, with some jazz music playing in the background as you waltz through your mid-century Bauhaus inspired home. It’s a mood, and we’re here for it.
Or perhaps you want to go for a more farmhouse look? Our Cone Gooseneck Outdoor Wall Light falls on the earlier antique side of retro, while the Vintage Umbrella Pulley Pendant Light combines an old-world scalloped design with a modern industrial twist.
The only rule is that there’s no rules. Throw the rule book away and find your style, no matter how quirky or eccentric, and we’re sure to have lights that fits the bill!
Okay, I’m convinced. But I still need help/have some more questions!
So, you’re ready to adopt all things retro and/or retro inspired, and you’re ready to inject some funky retro décor into your home, but you still have a few questions before you get started? We get it, and our friendly Fat Shack Vintage team is ready to help. We’re always here and ready to help you get started and assist with any lighting or décor questions you may have. Give us a call, send us an email, or drop into our DMs on social media. However you get in touch, we’re here and ready to help you however we can.
Did you know that we also have an extensive (and growing!) range of comprehensive how-to guides available? Ranging from style guides, to lighting guides, architectural styles and more, there’s something for everyone. Whether you’re a home renovator, a builder, or simply searching for inspiration as you scroll through Instagram and Pinterest (been there, done that, bought the postcard!) as you plan your dream space, we’re sure to have a guide to help you along your way. And if we don’t, simply drop us a line – we’re always on the lookout for new guide ideas to add to the pipeline!