’90s Interiors Were Eclectic, Fun & Free. Now They’re Back

Too much time at home over the last 18 months has encouraged an acceleration in interior trends as we look to the next, the next and the next thing with which to fill our flats. We've pressed fast-forward on revivalist interiors, juddering through the '70s and '80s quicker than a carpet burn on a shag pile rug. Logic (and Instagram) dictates that the '90s are next. A London-based Ikea archive project is collecting top dollar for its specialist throwback pieces, #ninetiesdesign has racked up 5,500 posts on Instagram and the same hashtag has over 180,000 views on TikTok.
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In general, '90s interiors get a pretty bad rap. For better or worse, as some '90s kids become homeowners and raid their parents' attics for starter furniture, that miraculously un-popped blow-up chair is bouncing back into action. Is there a way to embrace the good bits of the era without getting lost in a forest of plastic houseplants?
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In the UK in the '90s, outside of the home, culture was pushing outside of itself in all directions. Blobitecture became a thing, the scents of Joop! and Impulse mingled at the pub, Blur and Oasis were locked into an endless Britpop battle of the bands and Tracey Emin was busy unmaking her bed. Inside the home, there were fewer seminal design moments that punctured the decade. The '90s are often known as the ‘pick and mix’ homeware era, its defining characteristic being that it doesn't have one.
Senior lecturer in design at Goldsmiths University in London Corinne Quinn is interested in the nebulous nature of '90s homeware. "Nineties design is a real mix depending on where you look. You have the minimalist high-design – for example the white and beige, clean architectural lines of John Pawson’s Calvin Klein flagship NYC store – vs what was actually going on in people’s homes – a more decorative and co-ordinated aesthetic which involved prints and patterns, pastels and textures." This pull and tug between maximalism and minimalism, and an insistent bygone era retrospection, makes defining '90s homeware difficult.
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Is this why the era feels oddly at home in 2021? The 2020s already have a retrograde air to them, with nostalgic trends patchworking together to inform the way we like to decorate. It's the potpourri of '90s style that appeals to Quinn. "It feels more fun than the tasteful, grey-walled Scandinavian interiors that have been popular this last decade," she says. In a pandemic, when we have been living, working and breathing (read: cluttering) our homes, chic Scandi interiors have become boring at best and at worst, impossible to achieve. Bring on the chintz, if only to camouflage the mess.
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Quinn attributes much of this '90s interest to a global wave of nostalgic programming that saw Friends reunite in May and Addison Rae reprise the 1999 cult classic She's All That by way of recent do-over He's All That. "We spend a lot of time engaging with environments and interior worlds onscreen," says Quinn. "I'm sure, seen from our 20 year distance, reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reveal details and styles that we didn't notice or care for first time around."
Case in point: the release of Austin Powers in 1997 saw a resurgence in popularity of '60s homeware, with lava lamp sales up 800% that year in the UK alone. In July 2021, Netflix brought the Austin Powers movie trilogy back onto UK screens and lava lamps seemed to bubble back into the public consciousness, with Google searches increasing by 56% at the start of the year.
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Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images
90's bedroom at Madame Tussauds in Hollywood, California.
Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images
90's bedroom at Madame Tussauds in Hollywood, California.
Our renewed love of lava lamps can't be solely attributed to the International Man of Mystery, however. TikTok's #lavalampchallenge saw 500,000 people watch creators make DIY versions, alongside experimenting with neon lava lamp nail art, and lava lamp tattoos.
It was TikTok, too, that in 2020 helped train the global lens back on '90s fashion. Nineties icon Jean Paul Gaultier’s meshwork has been the talk of the Gen Z-driven platform for over a year now; at the time of writing, #JeanPaulGaultier has accumulated 97.4 million views. Pandemic lethargy helped steer us towards the freedom of slouchy '90s sportswear silhouettes. And where fashion goes, homeware dutifully follows. If '90s fashion was all about casual chic, '90s interiors soon followed suit with their own version of relaxed, friendly and unpretentious styles. Think: an abundance of wicker, stencilling, damask prints, beaded doorway curtains, fluffy toilet seats, neon signage and whole meadows of flower-patterned wallpaper – all of which have seen a resurgence in our homes and on our Pinterest boards over the last 12 months.
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Aside from the all-pervading influences of TikTok and TV, the other great interiors influencer this year has been the pandemic. In the late '80s, shifts in technology and communication were impacting home office spaces, which had to make room for the inaugural home computer (weighing an average of 7x more than a MacBook Air) with the advent of the 'computer station'. The concept of carving out dedicated space to work at home is familiar to many of us who have worked remotely through multiple lockdowns. We've learned to shove desks into bedrooms and turned sheds into shoffices. There might be something we can learn from the 'computer station' typology, though, which acts as a mini office, providing a dedicated corner to work, even if it's housed inside another living area. We love examples with useful bookcases, shelving and multiple drawers attached, especially those in a classic '90s pale oak. Spaces used for storing reams of cables and CD-ROMs are now the perfect place to store your ambient diffusers and desk gardens.
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Though we're keen to commit some elements of '90s design to the archive hard drive (fluffy toilet seats seem less than hygienic, for instance), we're even open to the idea of '90s grunge interiors re-emerging. Once associated with all things less than sanitary, the aesthetic formerly confined to the teenage bedroom has been picked up (and cleaned up) by stylists to the stars through warm concrete walls, rough plaster and barn wood panelling. Look to Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher's sustainable Los Angeles farmhouse for inspo.
The difficulty in pigeonholing one clean definition of '90s interiors is arguably down to the era's embodiment of individualism, freedom and self-expression. "Come as you are," as Kurt sang in 1991. Quinn agrees. "In the UK, '90s design may have something to do with the politics of the mid '90s and the optimism of New Labour. Our current political landscape doesn't offer much hope so perhaps our love for all things '90s in 2021 presents a return to that decade where that young creative generation could feel carefree, with a sense of hope and possibility." After all, there's nothing quite as optimistic as a blow-up chair.