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Better Homes and Gardens has covered interior design since the dawn of the Jazz Age. We’ve followed the decorating choices in American homes from the luxe look of Art Deco through the austerity of World War II, the Atomic Age exuberance of the 1950s, and into a new century where tech makes our homes as smart as The Jetsons.
Join us on a decade-by-decade journey through the furniture, colors, and styles that filled our homes over the past century, along with a look at the people and events that drove the designs of our lives.
The 1920s roared. With World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic over, a sense of optimism and a burst of economic prosperity fueled a desire for glamour and luxury in American homes. Art Deco, a look that featured bold silhouettes, rich colors, geometric patterns, luxurious fabrics, and mirrored and metallic finishes, was the age’s reigning look.
The Rise of the Art Deco Aesthetic
“Art Deco is a pastiche of different styles united by a desire to be modern,” says Dr. Anna Ruth Gatlin, assistant professor of interior design at Auburn University. “There was an exuberance of having fought this great war and being done with war forever. The future was bright. People didn’t want to look to the past; they wanted to look forward in all aspects of their lives.”
Looking forward meant buying furnishings that took their inspiration from new technologies of the era: cars, skyscrapers, jazz, movies, and radio. Industrial design heavily influenced furniture design. “You see a streamlined aesthetic that comes from cars and trains expressed in curvy furniture,” Gatlin says. The curvy Parisian club chair—which inspired Pottery Barn’s monster hit Manhattan club chair four generations later—is peak Art Deco.
Starburst designs were also popular in upholstery, wallpaper, tiles, and light fixtures. “That’s directly related to the idea of radio waves and crackling electricity,” Gatlin says.
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At the same time, bold geometric patterns inspired by Cubism, the first abstract style of modern art, showed up in rugs and mosaic-tiled floors. Wood floors were laid in angular herringbone, chevron, and parquet patterns, giving them a striking abstract look. Stepped forms inspired by skyscrapers showed up in desks, bookcases, and chairs, while new manufacturing techniques made it possible to incorporate chrome and mirrors into furniture, allowing for dramatic shapes and glamourous finishes.
Colors reflected the era’s sense of optimism, with deep reds, yellows, blues, and purples often paired with high-shine silver, chrome, or black accents. Strong color contrasts appeared on Art Deco items, inspired by the plush decor of jazz clubs and Fauvism, an early 20th painting movement that emphasized bright colors.
In 1922, King Tut’s tomb was discovered in Egypt, and moving pictures brought the images to America. Lotus flowers, scarabs, and cats showed up as motifs in everything from upholstery to rugs to vases and ashtrays.
But 1920s interior design was not all glitz and curves. Bauhaus—the German school of industrial design that decreed form should follow function—was also born in this era.
Yep, minimalism had its beginnings in the age of The Great Gatsby and several icons of modern design, including the Barcelona Chair and Wassily Chair, were created in the 1920s. Bauhaus designers stripped furniture down to its fundamental elements, with everything from tables to teapots reduced to simple geometric forms.
Bauhaus designers wanted to create beautiful objects that could be mass-produced and therefore available to all, not just the rich. That’s why they used steel, glass, plywood, and plastic in their creations. While unconventional materials at the time, they fit with the Bauhaus ethos of practicality.
Ultimately, however, the 1920s were all about the bling. “People craved a luxurious component in their lives, whether it was leather upholstered furniture or a lucite clock,” Gatlin says. “The Jazz Age was glamour and glitz.”
And just like that, the nation plunged into the Great Depression. In 1929, the stock market crashed, the banking system collapsed, and the party ended. At the height of the Great Depression, nearly 25% of the total workforce was unemployed. Factories were shut down, farms and homes were lost to foreclosure, and wages and productivity plunged to a third of their 1929 peak. Austerity quickly replaced Art Deco glamour. Most people no longer had money to spend on home furnishings, so minimalism became a necessity, not an aesthetic choice.
Compared to homes in the 1920s, rooms were more open and spacious because people had fewer belongings. There was a cleaner, less cluttered look, with little to no art on the walls. To make up for sparsely furnished rooms, people hung floral and striped wallpaper and laid down hooked floral area rugs to visually fill the space. Colors became more subdued to soothe the somber mood of the era and included soothing neutrals and cheerful pastels.
The 1930s were the golden age of radio, and living rooms were arranged around the family radio cabinet, which was treated like a piece of furniture, much like TVs in the latter part of the 20th century.
While Art Deco influences lingered, mainly because people couldn’t afford to replace their old furniture, Gatlin says, new furniture and household items made in this era were in the Art Moderne style—a cleaner, lighter, more streamlined look than its ornate predecessor. “Art Moderne was a celebration of mass-produced and machine-made,” Gatlin says.
All that Depression-era austerity didn’t kill high design, though. The design company Knoll formed in the late 1930s and Frank Lloyd Wright created his masterwork, Fallingwater, in 1939. European-born designers who would go on to change the look of architecture and interior design in the 20th century —like Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and designer Mies van der Rohe—also came to the U.S. in the 1930s, fleeing the Nazis and a brewing war in Europe. Their arrival set the stage for a revolution in American interior design.
World War II defined the 1940s. Hitler’s forces swept through Europe, Hirohito’s through the Pacific, and here at home, our energy, materials, and industrial might went into the fight. “For the first half of the decade, almost nothing happens in the interior design world because of the war,” Gatlin says. Factories stopped creating furniture and consumer goods and began making tanks, bullets, and fighter planes to supply our troops. Even the creation of Fiesta dishware came to a halt so its manufacturer could shift resources to produce china for armed forces.
When the war ended in 1945, a new era began. “The soldiers come home and they’re ready to buy a house and start a family,” Gatlin says. “There’s a huge boom in residential building.” While factories retooled from war production, a materials shortage meant new houses were built small and at a low cost. Most homes built in the late 1940s had two bedrooms and averaged just under 1,000 square feet.
Levittown, the nation’s first suburban planned community, was built in 1947 atop a potato field on Long Island, N.Y. It was the beginning of the post-war housing boom and the tract house, with Levitt & Sons cranking out 12 houses a day for four years. There were more people who wanted houses than there were houses, so builders found a shortcut: Finish one level of the house, leaving the attic or basement unfinished. This kept costs down, got the houses move-in ready faster, and allowed homeowners to finish the houses themselves as their families grew.
Since steel and other metals were in short supply, wood became the material of choice. Knotty pine paneling was added to nearly every room of a house. “It was an inexpensive material that a DIYer could install,” Gatlin says. Dark wood furniture finishes were also popular, partly because that’s what was left from the pre-WWII era and partly because people wanted to give their homes a cozy feel after the atrocities of the war.
Kitchens take on a recognizably modern shape in the late 1940s, thanks to the Bauhaus focus on efficient work areas and storage. Easy-to-clean linoleum floors, built-in cabinets topped by long, interrupted stretches of countertop, and electric appliances all make an appearance.
Those appliances were almost uniformly white. American factories were still retooling, so there was no capacity for making stoves and refrigerators in a spectrum of colors. And as Americans worried about polio, which swept the nation in the 1940s, white appliances looked sanitary and safe.
Ultimately, the 1940s were a transitional period. “The average American was living in a kind of country-style home for much of the decade,” Gatlin says. Wartime supply shortages meant the average person was cobbling together interiors with a patchwork of items, including ladderback chairs, floral wallpaper, and hooked rugs. The space-age look of the 1950s was still on the horizon and Modernism was just beginning to move mainstream.
In the 1950s, the future was bright. World War II ended, leaving the United States an economic powerhouse. American wages soared, unemployment fell, and there was money to spend again. And what did many Americans want? Consumer goods, like houses, cars, and furniture. Many also wanted kids, and the baby boom exploded, with nearly 37 million children born in the 1950s.
The suburbanization of the nation that started in the late 1940s accelerated as we built housing developments far from city centers, connected by new superhighways. Ranch-style homes and midcentury modern style reigned supreme.
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Bright, happy colors were in every room of the house. Popular hues included turquoise, coral, pale yellow, mint green, and light blue. Pink was also peak 1950s. “You see pink everywhere, in kitchens, bedrooms, but especially in bathrooms,” Gatlin says. The reason? First Lady Mamie Eisenhower loved pink and America loved Mamie.
Modernism Makes it Mainstream
Modernism (now often referenced as midcentury modern) went mainstream in the 1950s, and the chairs created by Bauhaus designers in pre-WWII Europe made their way into the homes of middle America. There were Eames chairs of all types made with steel, plastic, and bentwood, and Arne Jacobson created the iconic Egg Chair.
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Scandinavian furniture with light wood and organic, minimalist lines replaced the heavy, ornate seating of the past. This was due both to Modernism’s forward-looking aesthetic as well as the optimism of the era. Additionally, minimalist modern furniture could be mass-produced to meet the well-funded middle-class desire to shop. “In an era when you’re trying to build a lot of things fast and inexpensively, you need to be as efficient as you can be with your materials,” Gatlin says.
Terrazzo floors, which originated in the Bauhaus era, went mainstream in the 1950s. “It’s such an easy material to clean and take care of and it’s very streamlined so it goes with anything,” says Dr. Lilia Gomez-Lanier, assistant professor of interior design at the University of Georgia.
Open Floor Plans and Outdoor Entertaining
Open floor plans surged in popularity, and huge windows brought the outdoors inside. “Ranch houses were perfect in terms of space planning because you could connect all your living areas without stairs. There was an abundance of land, so houses could spread out,” Gomez-Lanier says. Houses got larger, too, as the baby boom continued to explode. By the end of the decade, the average house size was 1,200 square feet, 35% bigger than ten years earlier.
The newly prosperous American middle class had leisure time and increasingly spent it on their home patio. The labor movement regulated office hours, so Americans had free time on weekends and evenings. Plastic dishware like melamine allowed for casual outdoor entertaining with the neighbors.
In 1955, the USSR announced it was going to launch the first artificial satellite, and the Space Race began. It defined the era. Atomic Age motifs like starbursts and boomerangs appeared on everything, including barware, clocks, lamps, and upholstery. Much like the 1920s, transportation and new technologies drove design. “Only this time, we’re inspired by rockets,” Gatlin says. “We were going to space.”
In the 1960s, counterculture blossomed. Now teens, kids born after World War II rebelled against tradition, and America was changing thanks to the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, a sexual revolution, and the Beatles. Everything from fashion to home decor became more dynamic, graphic, and colorful.
“There’s a playful aspect to the 1960s,” Gatlin says. “This era sees the rise of the individual, so you see a lot of personalization and self-expression in decor.” Lava lamps, paisley prints, and color palettes featuring fuchsia, tangerine, neon orange, and bright green all make an appearance.
To accommodate a baby boom, families sought larger homes. Split-level houses began to appear in the suburbs, allowing more living space to be packed into a tighter footprint. By the end of the decade, the average house size creeps up to 1,500 square feet.
Homes had an airy feel with open shelving and floating staircases. “Instead of solid walls, you see screens or shelves used to divide spaces,” Gomez-Lanier says. “The effect is to make houses more transparent, more open to the outdoors.”
Furniture made of Lucite, fiberglass, and colored plastics—inspired by the Panton chair and the Ball Chair—was mass-produced, affordable, and intended to be tossed out as soon as it was no longer fashionable. Designers also used wood, metal, and glass to produce sleek, lightweight pieces like coffee tables and bureaus with simple shapes and tapered legs. “The materials designers were using to make mainstream furniture were much more innovative,” Gomez-Lanier says.
America’s continuing economic prosperity drove tastes, too. “Matching furniture is big in the ’60s because it was a status symbol to show you could afford to buy an entire roomful of furniture at one time,” Gatlin says.
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Hippies and counterculture rose in opposition to the Vietnam War, influencing interior design. Graphic floral patterns inspired by the peace movement’s flower power theme appeared on wallpaper, upholstery, rugs, and curtains. Vibrant colors and patterns influenced by Morocco and India showed up on accessories, influenced by the Beatles’ White Album era. However, all that groovy peace and love stemmed from something less than sunny. “Anxiety about the Cold War and the Vietnam War inspire a longing for nature and the outdoors,” Gatlin says.
By the end of the decade, we put a man on the moon, but America’s love of all things futuristic and machine-made begins to waver, setting the stage for a new era.
Self-expression was the driving ethos of the 1970s. Called the “Me Decade” by novelist Tom Wolfe, it was a time of shag carpet, houseplants, wicker furniture, and avocado-green appliances.
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This inward turn was in part a reaction to bad news. An energy crisis had Americans waiting in line for gasoline, inflation soared, we lost the Vietnam War, and Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted it caught fire in 1969. The environmentalism movement was born with the first Earth Day in 1970.
These events had a profound effect on interior design. “People start bringing in indoor plants and going for earth tones to feel one with nature, to ameliorate the anxiety of what was happening,” Gatlin says. However, there was also an attitude of melancholy, says Gomez-Lanier. Americans fell out of love with machines and the future, instead embracing nature and a romanticized past.
Maximalism replaced the clean lines of modernist furniture and finishes that had reigned for generations. Houseplants, woven textiles, and macramé owls—many handmade—filled homes. “People wanted to express themselves creatively, so they made simple objects for fun,” Gatlin says. “We were nostalgic for the days when we made items ourselves instead of buying everything off an assembly line.”
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The bright hues of the previous decade gave way to colors inspired by nature: gold, green, burnt orange, and brown. Nature-inspired finishes like stone, granite, and wicker were also popular. Many houses built in the 1970s had massive, rough-hewn stone fireplaces or stone exterior siding. Wood paneling hit peak popularity, the shiplap of its day.
With a nod to the outdoors, kitchens featured wood cabinets, butcher-block countertops, and appliances in harvest gold, avocado green, and brown. Terra-cotta tile floors were also popular, and sunken living rooms replaced patios as the place to socialize.
Despite all the earthy colors and boho accents, the ’70s also had some shine, thanks to the influence of disco. Studio 54 was born in this era, after all. Chrome accents appeared on lamps and coffee tables, and foil wallpaper decorated bedrooms, bathrooms, and living spaces. Yes, the design dissonance was as powerful as the cultural dissonance.
The 1980s were a time of excess. America saw the rise of Reaganomics, MTV, the personal computer, yuppies, and an eclectic collection of interior design trends. “You’ve got a lot of things happening at once, but none of them define the era completely,” Gatlin says. “Women were solidly back in the workforce, so you’ve got a lot of two-income homes with money to spend on home furnishings. Until the stock market crash at the end of the decade, there’s money for seemingly frivolous things.”
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Maximalism was in; minimalism was out. Decorating styles were diverse, but excess was the underlying theme. Earth tones and the longing for nature ended. Instead, we embraced bright colors, including soft pastels inspired by Miami Vice and the primary colors of Memphis design. Houseplants were replaced with silk floral arrangements and overstuffed sofas covered in floral chintz, an effect of the English cottage style made popular by Laura Ashley.
A surge of luxe colors reflected the affluence and optimism of the time. Rich color palettes included turquoise and peach, as well as shades like hunter green and burgundy associated with southwestern design. Mauve—a pale shade of pinky-purple—was to the 1980s what brown was to the 1970s. It showed up as far as the eye could see and cut across a range of styles.
Memphis design, a postmodern design movement from Italy, was over-the-top whimsy, embracing bright colors and bold geometric patterns. “It rejected the stripped-down look of modernism and overstated the ornamentation,” Gatlin says. The original MTV logo is perhaps the most well-known example of Memphis design, in addition to the sets on Saved By The Bell. This edgy style showed up in homes in the form of playful objects that favored form over function. Squiggle-print upholstery, zig-zag throw pillows, pops of neon color, terrazzo tabletops, and coffee tables with round legs all exhibited the look.
Simultaneously, more subdued styles, like country and prep, took off. Ralph Lauren Home debuted in 1983, and blue and white palettes showed up in striped curtains, wallpaper, and upholstery in rooms with traditional furniture. Monograms on pillows and chinoiserie lamps completed a look that took its inspiration from old money. Country style, another microtrend, featured oak furniture, glazed tile, canisters embellished with country ducks, and rooms swathed in light blue and, yes, mauve.
Houses got larger, with the average reaching 2,000 square feet by the end of the decade. Floor plans included the first open kitchens designed for family living, merging dining and family rooms with the cooking area. Kids could do homework at the counter while parents cooked, watched Designing Women, and chatted with a friend or two.
Americans entered the ’90s with cautious optimism. The Berlin Wall fell in ’89, ending the Cold War and a sense of unease. For the first time in generations, Americans craved minimalism, rebelling against the neon colors, big hair, and floral chintz excess of the previous decade.
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The World Wide Web entered the mainstream, and techno and grunge music rose to prominence. Since much of pop culture came from the Pacific Northwest, color palettes became more muted. Sage, greige, dark green, rustic golds, terra-cotta, earthy reds, and beige filled homes across the nation.
Loft apartments with exposed brickwork and metal finishes also took off. “You see a raw approach to interiors in the 1990s,” says Dr. Kim Rich, lecturer in the University of Georgia’s interior design school. “You see an industrial look, leaving things as they are. You see a lot of adaptive reuse in design and decor.”
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Another outcome of repurposing items, the shabby-chic aesthetic combined flea market finds into a thoroughly eclectic style. The romantic, lived-in look surged in popularity after designer Rachel Ashwell opened a store with the same name in Santa Monica. Hallmarks included chalk-painted furniture, white slipcovered sofas, worn crystal chandeliers, and iron beds with canopies. “It completely opposed the Memphis design of the 1980s,” Gatlin says.
The style inspired the mashup of decades seen in Monica’s apartment on Friends, where Shaker staples combined with Rococo for a mix-and-match ethos that survives to this day. “After decades of mass-produced furniture, young people found they could piece together their own unique looks from a thrift store,” Gatlin says.
While Frances Mayes’ 1996 memoir “Under The Tuscan Sun” didn’t inspire everyone to run off to the Italian countryside, it did convince many Americans to redecorate in an Old World style, especially in kitchens. Chunky wood tables flaunted Provencal tablecloths in French blue and gold, and oversized wood cabinets featured ornate molding. Granite countertops became a must-have, appliances were black, and kitchens were generally dark due to color and finish choices.
When it came to walls, texture was tops. Stencils, sponge-painting, and faux finishes made interior walls look like leather, stucco, marble, ancient frescoes—anything but drywall. Vases with silk, plastic, or dried plants replaced houseplants, still considered a dated relic of the Carter era.
With the dawn of a new millennium, the internet became a part of daily life. The first generation of iPhones rolled out, Amazon introduced its Prime membership, and shopping online became as normal as visiting storefronts. McMansions filled the suburbs, with the average house measuring 2,300 square feet—double that of just two generations earlier. Houses were built with open floor plans, high ceilings, bonus rooms, and even home theaters.
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As kitchens got bigger, islands became a staple, allowing for a more open layout and additional workspace. Stainless steel became the must-have appliance material, appearing on everything from ovens to refrigerators to toasters to microwaves. The reason? That shiny steel was appealingly futuristic.
Another reason for the stainless-steel surge: More men were cooking. “Women had been in the workforce for a while so there was a shift in roles at home and the kitchen is no longer a gendered space,” Gatlin says. Unlike the pink kitchens of the 1950s, stainless steel was gender-neutral.
Trendy colors of the era included sandy beiges, blue-greens, soft golds, chocolate browns, and deep reds. After watershed moments like Y2K and 9/11, Americans looked for warmth and calm at home. Our desire for comfort got even more urgent when the Great Recession struck in 2007, sending many of the aforementioned McMansions into foreclosure.
Seeking respite amid uncertain times, some homeowners found comfort in spa bathrooms with deep garden tubs and steam showers. To fill vast rooms in huge houses, furniture got the super-size treatment. Living rooms were furnished with oversized leather sofas and armchairs called chair-and-a-halfs that were big enough to accommodate both kids and the golden retriever. King-size sleigh beds made of dark wood or covered in leather were also popular, as were enormous entertainment centers that could accommodate your 48-inch TV, DVD player, and cable box.
However, not everything was larger than life. Tailored, tight-back sofas made a comeback, replacing the slouchy, pillow-backed sofas of the previous era. “You’re seeing a new interest in midcentury mod style and cleaner lines,” Gatlin says. “Excess was giving way to another round of minimalism.”
By the 2010s, America had climbed out of the Great Recession and into a new decade. Technology had so thoroughly pervaded our lives that you could get furniture equipped with USB ports. Smart tech began to automate homes, making it possible to turn on lights, adjust the thermostat, and open the blinds through an app. Flat-screen TVs hung over the fireplace where art used to be.
Social media sensation Instagram launched at the dawn of the decade and quickly became a source of inspiration, aspiration, and FOMO (fear of missing out, that is). The platform provided a wealth of home ideas and offered a place to post photos of personal design accomplishments.
The Gaines Effect
One of the era’s most notable interior touchstones, Fixer Upper premiered in 2014. The HGTV series featured Chip and Joanna Gaines transforming Texas tract houses into modern farmhouses with shiplap walls and various shades of white. The show’s success ushered in the ubiquitous farmhouse-style kitchen, which featured open shelves, reproduction Jadeite dishes, apron-front sinks, white subway tile backsplashes, and marble or engineered quartz countertops. Stainless-steel appliances continued their reign and hardwood was the flooring of choice.
What was so appealing about living in a farmhouse when we could simply say “Siri, order a pizza” and have a medium Hawaiian show up 30 minutes later? In short, tech was getting tiring. “We were romanticizing what the simple life was before the internet, before traffic, before we had to get three kids to nine different activities in two days,” Gatlin says. “We were imagining a life where you just worked on your farm and then knit in the evening, forgetting, of course, all the hardships that came with farm life.”
With modern farmhouse style came barn doors installed on closets, pantries, bathrooms, and more. More than a rustic statement feature, these sliding doors needed less clearance space than a swinging door and doubled as room dividers, making them a good solution for tight spaces.
What’s Old Is New Again
On the opposite end of the style spectrum, midcentury modern—first popularized in the 1950s—came roaring back into homes across America in the form of Nakashima knockoffs, Knoll office chairs, and atomic clocks. Herman Miller started making a new line of classic modern furniture that included iconic designs such as Eames chairs and Nelson Marshmallow sofas.
The 2010s also saw the return of houseplants, which had fallen by the wayside after the 1970s. This live-plant revival was attributed to millennials, many of whom had put off having children due to student loan debt and found that succulents and fiddle leaf figs filled their need to nurture. This young, eco-conscious generation brought nature indoors through plants to create their own urban jungles.
By 2015, houses averaged nearly 2,700 square feet, three times the size in 1950. This was due to historically low interest rates that made it cheaper to build, as well as a rise in multigenerational living.
Apart from all-white everything, color trends of the 2010s included gray and millennial pink, a soft rosy hue that harkened back to the 1950s. “That’s going back to Mamie Eisenhower pink,” Gatlin says. “Millennials are nostalgic for an era they never experienced, an era of exuberance and optimism, a time when the government really looked after people.”
We’re just two years into the 2020s, but one thing is certain: Maximalism is back.
Over-the-top interiors have replaced farmhouse minimalism, and popular colors include rich blues, deep greens, and warm pastels. Pantone’s 2022 color of the year was a rich shade of purple, demonstrating just how we’ve come from the years of all white. Even kitchen cabinets are getting a color treatment.
Meanwhile, grandmillennial style—a twist on traditional—resurrected mauve, florals, patterned wallpaper, and rich colors. We’ve gone from the restrained styling of open shelves to houseplant-packed urban jungles courtesy of Hilton Carter.
An ongoing global pandemic, rising inflation, and a war in Europe have created a desire for comfort, color, and the soothing qualities of nature. “To say that we live in stressful times is an understatement,” Gatlin says. Natural elements like stone finishes and organic shapes and materials are especially in demand, and we’ve doubled down on spa bathrooms, installing rainfall showerheads and jet spray systems.
With a rise in remote work, designated home offices have become a necessity. Zoom rooms (or corners) provide a place for conference calls with a pretty background that’s free of distractions.
As eco-minded millennials and Gen Z look to the future, a mix-and-match aesthetic has firm footing. Weary of disposable furniture, the next generations fill their homes with thrift store finds and upcycled antiques. “There’s a concern that buying new everything is no longer sustainable,” Gatlin says. “We’re looking for ways to lighten our carbon footprint by reusing and recycling, and that’s showing up in the design choices we make.”
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