It’s fair to say that most of us enjoy a certain amount of retro here and there in our lives. What that means depends on your personal tastes, and it is probably fair to say that “retro” as a term creates different pictures in the minds of different people. However, that being the case simply makes a retro makeover all the more fun. You get a broad palette to paint from (both literally and metaphorically), and the end result won’t go out of style (because, technically, it wasn’t in style to begin with).
Giving your home a retro makeover is a serious undertaking. There’s going to be a lot to do, but in many ways picking a theme helps to winnow down what would otherwise be an incredibly busy planning process. When you develop a theme, the job of making over a house becomes something of a curation project, not unlike planning a museum exhibit or a music festival. Your creative choices will decide whether it works or not – no pressure, of course! – and the end result will hopefully reflect something about you.
Because it is such a considerable task, it’s only right that you have some help in deciding how to go about your retro makeover. That help is here, in the form of some key pieces of advice, which are listed and explained below. With these tips in hand, your retro reno will be the envy of any visitor to your home.
Do you just want retro, or do you want a specific era?
“Retro” as a term refers specifically to the recent past, but that word “recent” is somewhat elastic. One of the most popular retro styles, the Americana diner look, is taken fairly faithfully from the 1950s. So there are at least seven decades that can be called upon, although a “2010s” look would probably just involve leaving everything as it was. For some people, retro kitsch itself is the thing – they won’t mind having Beatles album covers next to Spielberg movie posters in frames and even some 50s-style neon lighting.
This is where you need to ask yourself a question: is there a certain aesthetic that does it for you, or do you want to magpie different looks from different eras? Potentially, you could also break this down room-by-room – a 50s-style colorful fridge-freezer along with boldly patterned curtains and suchlike, while the living room could have a more Swinging 60s look, all deep-pile rugs and crocheted throws on the sofas.
What you don’t want, ideally, is to put things in place just because they are retro. It’s inevitably going to be a little bit jarring if you have Keep Calm And Carry On word art hanging close to sunset-patterned curtains. You can have different aesthetics, but be careful about where you put them. It can help to have a single word to sum up each decade – the 00s could be “digital” while the 70s were more “louche”, for example. Think about how the ideas fit together. 80s electronica could work with that 00s look, but the austere 1940s and the free-love 60s aren’t a good match.
Consider practicality ahead of period accuracy
A home makeover should be fun, and a retro home makeover has plenty of scope for that. All of us have a favourite aesthetic from the past and even eras that we’d immediately visit if science ever managed to crack time travel. With that said, we do, all of us, live in the 2020s right now, and the accuracy of our retro makeover can only go so far. The homemakers of the 1960s never really had to worry about a place where they could charge their mobile phone, for example, while the many TV tables that have existed more or less since the invention of that appliance were designed to support cathode ray TVs; they aren’t ideal for the plasma or LCD sets that account for just about every set sold in the modern era.
Essentially, your home still needs to be a place you can live – and, increasingly, work – in. That means taking account of all the little practicalities that we take as just part of life now, but which were not part of life 20, 30, or 40 years ago. We don’t imagine that anyone is actually going to light their home entirely with lava lamps, but it does need to be remembered that every item that has ever been designed was conceived with its particular era in mind.
Practical necessities mean something different to you than they did when your grandparents were the age you are now. So run every purchase through the “will this actually work in the 2020s?” test before you commit to it. A cool retro rotary phone might be a perfect conversation piece, but some models will have to be checked to see if they actually work as well as they should when dialling out. Although of course, if you just fancy it as an ornament there’s no harm in that.
Think like a pessimist
One of the attractive things about nostalgia is the ability to cast our minds back to a simpler time. Bear in mind though, that if you look back to the years of your childhood as “a simpler time”, then the reason for that simplicity may very well be the fact that you were a child then. If you ask your parents, they might have a different outlook on how well items from that time worked in reality.
In addition, if an item you owned in 1985 broke down and needed to be repaired, the expert who repaired it had the advantage of also being in 1985, when it was easy to get the necessary parts to fix it. The necessary techniques for repair were also common knowledge because 1985 was “now”. All of this is a slightly roundabout way of saying that most vintage technology and many vintage furnishings have become somewhat obsolete in the modern age, and getting them fixed may be either expensive or impossible. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy them, but you should factor it into decisions on what you’re prepared to pay.
It feels like much of this rundown has been concerned with the problems that can arise from a retro makeover, and those drawbacks do have to be considered. However, the point of nostalgia and of renovating your home is that it should be enjoyable and comforting. So remember that you’re not opening up a museum of homewares and appliances, and it doesn’t have to be 100% period accurate, nor does it have to fit anyone’s standards but your own. If you want to hang that framed A-Ha album cover on your wall, don’t let the fact that nobody did it in the 1980s stop you. This is your makeover.
The makeover needs to work for you, but that is the only practical test it needs to meet. Historical anomalies are not your problem. Think about it this way: plenty of people in the 1970s wanted to give their home some vintage chic by adopting styles from the 1920s. Do you think they worried too much about the fact that the average home didn’t have a television until after the Second World War? No – they made room for their TV on their stylish 1920s sideboard and got on with it.
On a budget? Go for homage rather than a full makeover
If you haven’t got the biggest budget for a renovation and can’t lay down what it takes to get all of the items you would like, think about a few touches that can pay tribute to the eras you love rather than trying to recreate the era in your home. Framed ephemera is always a good idea, and it can apply to any era – back to the 1940s with a Rosie the Riveter poster, while the end of the 20th Century was full of iconic films and albums to which you could pay tribute.
Retro appliances can also pay neat tribute to the recent – and slightly less recent – past. As already mentioned, a vintage-style telephone can work exceptionally well, whether it’s a rotary model or a clear transparent phone that evokes the 1980s. A record player is also worth a look. Some of the older models, like the classic Dansette, are design masterpieces all of their own, and that’s before you spin some vinyl on them for the first time to get an extra dose of retro.
Regardless of the approach you choose to pursue, a vintage makeover is a great way to personalise your home and pay tribute to the influences that have made a difference in your life. You’ll never be short of conversation pieces, and you can evoke the fondest memories from your childhood through to today. In addition, with the use of online shopping and freecycling sites, you can find some real rarities that will fit perfectly into your home, meaning you can add little flourishes to the renovation as and when.