The Retro Family of Interior Design Styles – Your Definitive Guide

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Streamlined car, 20s microphone, retro radio


Images by:  nomadsoulphotos,  pixelshot, and  jakkapan21 via Canva Pro

Retro television, vinyl, psychedelic art


Images by:  ZargonDesign,  Vladimir Sukhachev, and  jakkapan21 via Canva Pro

Retro telephones, 50s ad, cassette tape

Images by:  Bruno Cantuária from Pexels,  ArtsyBee from Pixabay and morisfoto via Canva Pro


The Retro Style can be embodied by many interior design styles, but before we delve deeper into our subject, let’s first see what the word “retro” means.

Texts sating "What does retro mean?"

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Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it:


     :relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past 

     :fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned


So we have two key characteristics to look for in a style to consider it retro:

  1. of the past
  2. nostalgic

We have the criteria to work on, but they’re kind of problematic.

Retro definition
Past by Professor25. Nostalgia by pedrosala. Both via Canva Pro.

The problems with the word “retro” in terms of interior design styles

Ask around what retro is in interior design terms and you’ll hear many different answers. And that’s because, as we’ve already mentioned, the word itself can be confusing. Here’s why:

1.    Except for Contemporary Style, all other styles are “of the past.”


2.    Nostalgia as an element requires people that have a longing for a particular time when that style came to be.


Art Deco has been around since the 1920s. Decades after that in the 1970s, it was already called retro. It is now a century old and there are surely no more people roaming around today wanting to relive that time.


For Memphis of the 1980s, Gen Zeds were not around then to feel nostalgic about it.


Time is relative, and because of this, depending on how old the person you’re asking, what they think is retro would differ from another.


Good for us, we have other means to define it.

But first, let’s do a backgrounder.

A short trip back in the history of styles

For centuries prior to the last parts of the 1800s, styles evolved at a very slow pace. Two successive period styles could have a hundred years between them, some even more. 

baroque and rococo architecture

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There were cases where new styles appeared only with few iterations, like when Rococo came after the Baroque.

Images by:  christobolo,  _ultraforma_and sebasnoo via Canva Pro

Some styles were mere revivals of the classical Greco-Roman Styles of the Antiquities, like the Renaissance and Neo-Classic.


Because a lot of these structures had remained standing for long stretches of time (and still do), people didn’t really get to “miss” them. And besides, those styles were mostly only applied to churches and homes of the nobility. 


But the Modernist Movement changed all that. Design leaders developed a desire to sever with historicism and classicism, and they aimed to make things accessible for the masses. And with the Machine Age of the Industrial Revolution happening at the same time, they were able to accomplish what they set out to do.


Starting from the early 1900s, the world of design churned out styles at a much faster pace than it did in the past, and a lot of them were never seen before. And the new middle class that emerged from the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent generations were only too eager to embrace each style as it came. 

A little adjustment to our “retro” criteria

With that above perspective, let’s tweak our criteria just so we can have a handle on what to call retro.


  1. of the past

From the present going back until the time of the Modern Movement. Any style beyond that is usually considered as a style based on historicism and classicism.


  1. nostalgic

None of us today experienced Art Deco and our youth certainly didn’t see Memphis Style. But unlike a hundred years ago when people only had books, period movies today give us a more immersive experience of a bygone era. That gives everyone a level of affinity to the styles whether they were in the thick of it or not.



Now we’re ready to answer the following question.

What is Retro Interior Design Style?

A retro interior design style can be any past and recent style from the 20th century. It’s a style that consciously moved away from historicism and classicism. It also seeped into popular culture so deep that it evoked and still evokes nostalgia in some people today.



Given that definition, here are the styles we consider to belong in the Retro Family of interior design styles:

  • De Stijl
  • Bauhaus
  • Art Deco
  • Streamline Moderne
  • Atomic Age
  • Space Age
  • Mid-Century Modern
  • Diner Style
  • Pop Art
  • Bohemian
  • Memphis


And for those spaces that can’t really be classified as any of the above, but include their elements, we can simply call them Retro Style.


Let’s do a short overview of each one.

De Stijl

De Stijl Building

Image by: hohl Getty Images Signature via Canva Pro

Stemming from an art form that used extreme simplification, the De Stijl Movement of 1917 went on to influence architecture, furniture design, graphic design, décor and fashion.


Now more than a hundred years old, the style’s key principle of universality has proven to have served it well. De Stijl is still very visible, and with its signature primary colors, it can still look as fresh as it did a century ago.


More on De Stijl in this post about Modern Styles.


Wassily Chairs in a Bauhaus Style space

Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair by Kai ‘Oswald’ Seidler from Berlin, Germany, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

Bauhaus Movement came shortly after De Stijl. Just like the latter, Bauhaus embraced simplification as it took advantage of the new manufacturing processes afforded by the Industrial Revolution.


This resulted in the now iconic Bauhaus furniture pieces with simple silhouettes, sleek steel frames, and leather upholstery.


They are still very relevant today, but having been around since the 1920s, they also exude that retro vibe.


Check out this post on the modern family of interior design styles for more on Bauhaus.

Art Deco

Art Deco hallway

Image by: Jacek_Sopotnicki Getty Images via Canva Pro


Appearing in the 1920s and taking cue from the Modernist Movement, Art Deco was one of those styles that meant to sever with classicism.


However, it went a different direction and instead, took inspiration from the events of the time, like the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the Industrial Revolution.


This combination resulted to a style that looked fresh at that time.


It was glitzy and glamorous owing to its Hollywood connection and the world’s exposure to luxurious lifestyle of the Ancient Egyptian royalties. And let’s not forget. This was the Roaring Twenties, during which the Western World experienced a great deal of economic prosperity.


Apart from that, Art Deco showed the machine aesthetic, but because of the look’s exuberance that were reminiscent of the earlier styles, it still looked rooted in the traditional.


With all the famous Art Deco buildings still standing today and period movies in honor of the era, the style never went away. And now that it just celebrated its centennial, Art Deco is still very much in the scene.


Think The Great Gatsby, or Neflix’s Velvet.


Know more about this retro style in our guide – Art Deco Interior Design Style – Your Ultimate Guide

Streamline Moderne or Art Moderne

Interiors of a streamlined train car

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Coming out in the 1930s, The Streamline Moderne meant to counter the excesses of the Art Deco by “streamlining” or simplifying the style. It was after all the time of The Great Depression, and glitz and glamour were no longer the defining characteristics of the time.


Just like its predecessor, it exhibited the machine aesthetic, but it differed that:

  • It emphasized horizontality versus Art Deco’s focus on verticality. Buildings were only one or few stories-high.
  • It was less embellished than Art Deco.
  • It had more white in its color scheme while Art Deco had richer colors.

Adding to the concept of simplification was the style’s association with the application of aerodynamics to machines of transport. So “speed lines” and rounded corners became some the design’s hallmarks.


Despite these differences, it was usual to see both Art Deco and Streamline Moderne in the same building and space.


Check out this clip from Shall We Dance (1937).

Atomic Age

Atomic Age Style branching bubble chandelier

Chandelier available from Froy.

The Atomic Age is probably mostly linked with the bombings that ended World War II. But there’s much more to it than that. Also associated with it was the use of nuclear technology in fields like power generation and medicine, among others.


And yes, we also see its influence in interior design. Here are some examples:

  • Branching bubble chandeliers that mimic structural formulas of chemicals
  • Biomorphic or organic, cell-like shapes to refer to atom’s counterpart in biological sense

Space Age

Space Age Style

Photo by mark chaves on Unsplash

Just like the Atomic Age did, the Space Age also contributed to architecture and interior design. While the United States and the USSR competed with each other in the area of space exploration, designers found themselves inspired by it.


In terms of architecture, the Googie Style was born. The cartoon series The Jetsons is one that comes to mind, brining in the nostalgia factor at the mention of “Space Age.”


And here are some examples of how Space Age was translated into interior design:

  • Futuristic interiors
  • Sputnik chandeliers inspired by the Russian satellite
  • UFO-inspired lighting
  • Space-themed items like the sun-inspired Nelson Wall Clock collection
  • Furniture pieces like the Ball Chair and Bubble Chair with their plastic shells

Mid-Century Modern

Mid-Century Modern

Image by: Jodie Johnson via Canva Pro

It is probably an understatement to say that Mid-Century Modern Style is enjoying a good level of popularity today.


Given that name only in 1984, the style was sandwiched between the Modernist and the Pop Art Movements. As it developed, it picked up elements from styles that came before it and also from those that came after, giving it a unique personality all of its own.


Among its influences were the Bauhaus, Atomic Age, Space Age, Bohemian, and Pop Art Styles.


Mainly having a masculine vibe coming from its Bauhaus conenction, the style is today mostly associated with the TV series Mad Men.


To get a deeper perspective on this retro style, check out our post Mid-Century Modern Style – Your Ultimate Guide.

Diner Style

Diner seats

Image by: AKlion – Andrey Kryukov via Canva Pro

It started out as a food service housed in a horse-driven wagon. And with that humble beginning in 1872, the diner had managed to become an enduring symbol of American popular culture.

Having a business model that served affordable food to the working class 24/7, the diner became more relevant at the height of The Great Depression of the 1930s.

Along with the hardships of the time, streamlining or simplifying started to be a common thread in many facets of everyday life. And when the steam-powered train morphed into the aerodynamic Pioneer Zephyr, the humble diner also began to model itself after it.

The diner continued to evolve, picking up elements from other styles as time went on up until the 1970s.

Some of its characteristics and elements include:

·      travel-themed in its look and elements

·      use of sleek metal in its exteriors and interiors

·      booth seats

·      use of juke box

·      references to the Googie Architecture of the Atomic and Space Ages

·      neon lights for signages

The aesthetic didn’t stay in commercial diners. Many homes’ dining area and kitchen also sported the style. 


In the movies, we always see the diner as a place where people hang out. For a dose of nostalgia, here are the diners in Back to the Future and another in Riverdale.

Bohemian Style

Bohemian Style Outdoor setting

Image by:  triocean Getty Images via Canva Pro

The origins of the Bohemian decorating style can be traced back to the Hippie Movement of the 1960s to 1970s.


The Hippie lifestyle was an anti-Establishment way of life – that was going in the opposite direction of what was conventional at that time.


Some examples of which were:

  • holding regular corporate jobs as normal VS being jobless
  • having clean-cut look VS unkempt look
  • having regimented schedules VS living carefree, nomadic lives

While it was unusual when it started, the lifestyle became so ingrained in society that their elements found their way into home interiors, becoming a distinct style. Not only that, it also influenced other styles like the Mid-Century Modern Style.


Check out our post All About the Bohemian Decorating Style for a deeper look into this retro style. And this post Mid-Century Modern Style – Your Ultimate Guide shows how Boho Style figured in Midmod.


And if The Jetsons is to Space Age Style, it’s Scooby-Doo Where are You for the Bohemian Style. See this interesting article theorizing on why the gang led a nomadic lifestyle.


Watching both cartoon series can send you back in time, albeit in different nostalgic frames.

Pop Art Style

Pop Art Style

Image by: leszekglasner via Canva Pro



From the comic strip promotional ads of Roy Lichtenstein to the Campbell Soup artwork of Andy Warhol, the Pop Art Movement of the 1950s definitely lived up to its name and made its mark in popular culture.


The movement aimed to bring back some sense of realism to the arts to counter the use of abstraction in Modernist art forms.


It was a loud kind of art that was meant to call attention to itself. So a room with a piece of Pop Art portrait collage on a wall or an accent wall covered with comic book-themed wallpaper could easily eclipse all other elements it in, making it own the space.


Usually used in spaces in Mid-Century Modern Style, any reference to the Pop Art Movement can surely add to a space’s nostalgic vibe.


Check out this post on how Pop Art figured in Mid-Century Modern. And also this post on Midmod mood boards with one inspired by Pop Art.

Memphis Style

Memphis Style

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Part of the Postmodernist Movement, the funky Memphis Style of the 1980s has made a come back and is very much in the scene again.


With numerous aging buildings getting wrapped today in patterns inspired by Memphis, we’ll sure be seeing this retro style in the years to come. Check out the works of Camille Walala here, the artist who’s in the forefront of bringing the style back to life.


So what is the Memphis Style, anyway?


Spearheaded by Ettore Sottsass, the Memphis Group of designers made furniture and furnishing pieces that were the opposite of those made by the Modernist designers.


Their works were colorful, blocky, radical, and probably looked weird to many when they first appeared. Patterns included squiggly bacterio, jagged zigzags, and sponge prints.


Check out this movie clip where almost an entire house was decorated in the Memphis Style. Ruthless People (1986)

And that’s the last of our retro styles.



So if you’re thinking of doing a space with a retro look, remember that there are several directions you can go about it. Find your favorite vibe and era and create that Retro Style space.

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