The pandemic radically changed how many of us see our homes. Unable to go outside, the environments we spent our hours in became more precious; we sought to make them nicer, more comforting and in some ways a reflection of ourselves. After all, the background to your video calls or the backdrop to your mirror selfie was all you could visually communicate about yourself for a long time.
This concentration on our spaces led to a proliferation of homeware trends which often focused on the smaller and more affordable pieces – in large part driven by renters who can't make big changes to their home but can get a new table lamp. The trends themselves have varied, from dried flowers and coloured glassware to busty candles and tiled tables, but what has dominated many of them has been an adherence to a particular palette. A palette that is soft, chalky and muted, and traditionally associated with early spring, femininity and a sense of joy. That palette is, of course, pastels.
In the framework of colour theory, pastels have arguably never really gone out of fashion. They have ebbed and flowed through interior aesthetics – most notably in the '50s with the (forced) return of women to the domestic sphere and a romanticising of the home, and in the late '80s with the advent of explicitly playful Memphis Design. Pastels can range from preppy to childlike but the dominant association with these colours is one of optimism and freshness, perhaps because of the strong psychological connection with spring and new life, sitting between the darkness of winter and the full bloom of summer.
Their cycle in and out of vogue, as with any colour trend, is a reflection of the era. Throughout the latter half of the 2010s, a pastel colour palette has provided a tonal counterpoint to the immense social and economic turmoil that we’ve faced. In a 2016 Fast Company article about the rise of pastels’ popularity, Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, told reporter Meg Miller: "When we’re living in a time of discord, often the public at large will retreat to a palette, particularly in the home, that makes them feel a little easier and lighter."
This colour story grew and spawned the 'millennial aesthetic' that became unavoidable in the run-up to 2020: monstera plants, chalky pinks, pistachio greens and bold, sans serif graphics. So dominant was this aesthetic that surely, you felt, the tide of trends would soon shift. But then 2020 happened.
It’s perhaps understandable that during the pandemic, even as the designs and textures of homeware shifted, we clung to the optimism and playfulness of a pastel palette. David Hutcheson, senior homewares designer at Habitat, tells R29: "Pastels will always have a role to play in interiors as they help to create calming and restorative spaces within the home. During the pandemic, demand for pastel hues skyrocketed as our homes became somewhere to escape and shelter." He adds that this can be seen in tandem with the growing trend for biophilic design "as we looked to natural colour references to help soothe and heal."
As well as soothing us, pastels are both literal and psychological brighteners – useful when stuck indoors for days on end. Interior designer and colour expert Sophie Robinson recommends pastels as a way to lighten the dark corners of your home. The inherently playful, lighthearted associations of pastel homeware are cheering without feeling too grown up.
"I think the pastel trend was a form of escapism for everyone; an easily accessible fairy tale that could make them feel relaxed and hopeful for a few minutes," says Liv, one half of A South London Makers Market. Over the course of the pandemic, the market has championed many small, independent homeware and lifestyle brands and Liv has noticed how pastels, particularly pinks and lilacs, have dominated. She draws a line between the shades and a nostalgia for our youth. "Pastel colours are soothing and remind us of childhood, a time that was hopefully safe, fun and happy. I don't think it's a coincidence that these connotations became more appealing to us all last year." In this way the palette was like a comfort blanket, with decorative homeware playing into a general escapism as well as particular aesthetic trends like ethereal angelcore and the soft florals and muted tones of cottagecore.
The appeal of pastel homeware resonated more with some demographics than others. For older members of Gen Z and millennials who grew up at a time when the colours of childhood were explicitly gendered, there is a playful, almost tongue-in-cheek nostalgia about re-engaging with those shades. Liv points to toys and media like My Little Pony and Girl Talk magazine to emphasise the connection between pastels, childhood, girlhood and therefore comfort. "For us [young women who grew up in the '90s] pastel colours are inherently tied to childhood. In the same way we go back to our favourite films, TV shows or pyjamas, it doesn't seem coincidental that we'd look back to those colours to soothe us during a year of fear, sadness and anxiety. Generally, I don't think young guys have a connection to pastel colours in the same way."
In the context of the pandemic, when social media became a main point of access to the world around us, the ongoing popularity of pastels on platforms like Instagram (#pastelaesthetic has 1.4 million tags at the time of writing) helped keep the trend alive. The interweaving influence of the algorithm, the keen focus on the home and the desire to distract ourselves with pretty things co-mingled to keep pastel homeware and interiors alive.
It is inevitable that we would reach a cultural saturation point with pastel homeware – where you can’t open your feed or visit a retailer without seeing soft, secondary shades and slowly, without consciously realising it, no longer feel the appeal. The combined flow of autumn to summer and our emergence into the not-quite-post pandemic future has drawn us to the brighter, bolder, earthier colour stories that began to materialise in 2021. Take the zingy Zandra Rhodes x Ikea collection, the maximalist Heritage Revival collection from John Lewis or the playful Studio trend from Habitat.
The re-emergence of earthy, tonal shades with the '70s revival was just the start. Liv points to brown as a particularly appealing colour. "In a world that's always competing to be faster, slicker, newer and sexier, brown feels virtuous, stable and humble. As we all crave deeper connections to the earth, to the handmade, to the secondhand, to the sustainable, brown represents soil, clay, wood, the unprocessed, the vintage."
That's not the only reason we're beginning to eschew pastels. David notes that colour positivity has become more important than ever as we’re drawn to energising shades like primary colours and maximalist clashes of brights and patterns. "We’re starting to see lots of bold, '80s-inspired primary colours which have really invigorated interiors and we’re expecting to see more of these block colours emerge."
Anthony Barzilay Freund, editorial director at 1stDibs, echoes this, adding that the lure of brash design and movement away from softer colours is inevitable. "After more than a year of lockdowns and social distancing, people are attracted to bold, extroverted furniture and fashion characterised by a bright palette, a distinctive silhouette and a wry, knowing or slightly subversive upending of expectations."
The shift away from pastels reflects an optimism that our homes are no longer a comfort but a jumping-off point. A place that can be social, or bold, and needn't adhere to a strict palette. And while the cycling of trends isn't inherently positive – hello, fast homeware – we need not see it as an invitation to discard or replace pastel pieces. The rise (and rise) of vintage homeware and our return to clutter shows how well a mix of pieces works – and pastels can actually make brighter colours pop better, David says. The shift to brighter, maximal style encourages us to celebrate eclectic, bold and clashing styles – both old and new – without relying on our home to comfort us like a port in the storm.
For a world slowly getting used to life with vaccination, what could be more optimistic than that?