top of page
  • Writer's pictureThe PJ Team

Design Through the Decades: The 1970s

Concern for the planet spurs a shift toward ecologically and socially responsible architecture and products

This series looks at the stories behind iconic designs from each decade, starting in 1900.This installment covers ergonomic chairs, waterbeds, shag rugs and more.

Astronauts tell of experiencing a profound shift in perspective upon gazing at our precious blue-green planet afloat under a paper-thin membrane in the vastness of space — appreciating the interconnectedness of our fragile world and the imperative to keep it from harm.

Earthrise, Blue Marble and the other awe-inspiring photos the astronauts beamed back had a similar “overview effect” on many of us down below. The newfound eco-consciousness led in the 1970s to Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency, clean air and water acts, bottle bills and curbside recycling, the first federal wind R&D program and the first solar panels on the White House. Although petroleum-based plastics were here to stay, OPEC’s 1973-74 oil embargo against the United States took the sheen off them. In response, architects and designers embraced sustainability, energy efficiency, natural materials and earth tones.


With an architecture degree from the University of Cincinnati in hand, Michael Reynolds moved to Taos, New Mexico — about 50 miles as the crow flies from the atom bomb’s Los Alamos birthplace — and in 1972 built his Thumb House almost entirely out of beverage cans.

Reynolds’ subsequent experiments in radical sustainable housing gave rise to communities of Earthships, off-the-grid solar- and wind-powered homes made mostly of dirt-packed used tires (or any dense material with a potential for thermal mass) that can be constructed with minimal experience and expense. At their best, Earthships offer thermally regulated shelter, provide free, clean energy, produce food, harvest and filter water, and treat and reuse waste.

Reynolds’ tussles with dissatisfied Earthship owners and building authorities prompted New Mexico to revoke his architect license for a time. But when disaster — such as the 2004 tsunami in the Andaman Islands — strikes and dwellings made from readily available materials are urgently needed, who you gonna call? Garbage Warrior! That’s the moniker filmmaker Oliver Hodge gave to Reynolds and what he titled his 2007 documentary about the “biotecture” crusader, whom The New York Times dubbed Father Earth.

The Phoenix Earthship, pictured, contains three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, a dining room, a kitchen and a jungle with banana trees and grapevines. The lights, television, Wi-Fi and cozy indoor fireplace with a water fountain feature are solar-powered.

Geodesic Dome

The hemispherical structure composed of triangular panes that’s known as the geodesic dome preceded the Earthship by a couple of decades. Visionary U.S. polymath R. Buckminster Fuller developed the dome as a lightweight, cheap, sturdy and energy-efficient alternative to conventional housing, and he patented it in 1954.

The idea chugged along slowly, finding mostly commercial and exhibition hall applications. It gained steam when it was marketed as a kit to back-to-the-landers seeking to build their own houses, grow their own food and commune with nature. In 1972, Popular Science magazine recognized in a headline that “the great dome boom is on.”

Creative couple Kathrin and Brian Smirke spent nine months renovating and decorating this 1,000-square-foot geodesic dome in Joshua Tree, California, to use as a weekend escape from Los Angeles. They repurposed materials — an old door, a tree stump — to create interesting art and furniture. And they added five skylights for gazing at the stars in the pitch blackness overhead.

Papanek and Designing for Good

Fuller wrote the introduction to Design for the Real World, his friend Victor Papanek’s provocative 1971 book advocating for ecologically minded and socially responsible design based on genuine needs instead of evanescent wants. Translated into 23 languages, it remains one of the most widely read design books ever published.

Viennese-born Papanek came to the U.S. to escape Nazi persecution in the 1930s and studied with Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1940s. But he grew disillusioned with and became a vocal critic of what he saw as an industry merely kowtowing to a consumerist culture through such things as planned obsolescence and a beauty-above-all approach.

Papanek urged designers to instead use their knowledge to help the marginalized and build a better world. And he showed the way with such prototypes as a cube to help brain-damaged children learn motor skills, a chair for people with back problems and a radio for developing countries that was housed in a can and powered by dried cow dung. It wasn’t much to look at, but no matter: Grateful recipients in Indonesia personalized the radios with shells, stones and bits of fabric.

The Vitra Design Museum in Germany this past year presented the first large retrospective about Papanek. One part of the exhibition looked at how contemporary designers are applying his ideas. Among them was Fernando Laposse, who developed this colorful veneering material for walls and furniture, called Totomoxtle, from the husks of Mexican heirloom corn. In doing so, Laposse gave Mexican farmers renewed incentive to grow many varieties of native corn using their traditional, natural methods for decent pay, instead of only hybrid yellow corn from abroad using industrial, chemical-heavy methods for a pittance.

He gave the farmers’ families and friends more opportunities to earn a living by teaching them how to transform the husks into the veneer. And perhaps the most far-reaching consequence of Totomoxtle is that the project is restoring soil fertility and plant diversity — insurance for all of us against climate change and problems we can’t yet see.

Mezzadro Stool

Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni’s Mezzadro stool also has agrarian roots. It unites a lacquered metal tractor seat with a steel stem and a natural beech crosspiece, and it takes its name from the Italian word for sharecropper. This white model of the chair, designed by the brothers in the 1950s and introduced by Italian furniture company Zanotta in 1970, is part of a sitting area on the stair landing in a modern Seattle housedesigned by Elemental Architecture.

After Pier Giacomo’s death in 1968, Achille continued to work on his own. Inspired by the Japanese seiza way of sitting — with calves neatly tucked under thighs and a straight back — he designed his Primate kneeling chair for Zanotta in 1970. It’s composed of two rounded pieces of upholstery connected by a stainless steel arm, with the higher piece supporting the seat and the lower piece supporting the shins. The idea behind the kneeling chair is to take stress off the lumbar area by redistributing weight to the legs. Some people heralded the Primate for its ergonomic approach; others ridiculed it as looking like a toilet.

Balans Chair

About the same time, Norwegian industrial designer Peter Opsvik and his colleagues began taking an interest in ergonomics, the science of arranging the workplace to the user’s needs. Research of the era pointed to the benefits of forward-tilting chairs that allow the user tomove around and change positions. By 1979, the Norwegians had exhibited several Balans chair prototypes at the Scandinavian Furniture Fair and had license agreements with several manufacturers. Opsvik’s Variable Balans chair from Varier occupies this workspace in a French house by architects Denis Boyer, François Percheron and Antoine Assus.

Tripp Trapp Chair

Opsvik achieved earlier success with his innovative Tripp Trapp chair, which he created in 1972 because he couldn’t find a chair that pulled close enough to the table to allow his 2-year-old son to sit comfortably with the rest of the family. Interior designer Sonia van der Zwaan-Barrigas paired this bright green model with a children’s desk she and her husband made out of metal pipes, clamps and a pine countertop in their simply styled home in the Netherlands.

The Tripp Trapp’s height- and depth-adjustable seat and footrest grow with the child to fully support the back and the upper and lower legs. The solid European beech chair is made by Stokke and comes in a variety of water-based finishes. With optional accessories, it accommodates infants to 242-pound adults, making it designed to last.

Opsvik and his studio continue to focus on designing products that solve problems. He is also the co-founder of the Minor Foundation for Major Challenges, which supports projects that promote climate change action, and Design Without Borders, a nonprofit that leverages designers’ skills to improve lives in developing countries.


Whereas Opsvik looked for alternative ways of sitting, Charles Hall sought to revolutionize sleeping with his 1971 patent for a waterbed. As a San Francisco State University industrial design student a few years before, he first tried making body-conforming, pressure-minimizing chairs by filling them with Jell-O and liquid cornstarch. When he turned the waterbed idea into his master’s thesis, it made a splash.

Waterbeds had been around since the 1800s as a mechanism for preventing bedsores on invalids. Hall, in contrast, called his initial 8-by-8-foot version a “pleasure pit,” attracting customers including Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner, a nudist colony and a member of rock band Jefferson Airplane. The wave crested in 1987, when 1 out of every 5 beds sold contained water. Now, after nearly a half-century inventing inflatable kayaks, solar-heated camping showers and more, Hall is trying to turn the tide again with his more normal-looking, less jiggly Afloat bed.

In this Philadelphia apartment from Meadowbank Designs, a custom headboard and bed frame showcase the homeowner’s beloved waterbed. The client’s antique French writing desk got a cheerful coat of chartreuse paint to complement the whimsical wallpaper by Osborne & Little.

Falcon Chair

Opsvik’s compatriot Sigurd Ressell created this leather Falcon chair in 1971 while he was chief designer for Norwegian furniture company Vatne. It’s proudly displayed in the master bedroom of Adam Porterfield and Emily Katz’s house in Portland, Oregon. Porterfield renovated the 1906 fixer-upper with his father. Katz found inspiration for the bohemian-style interiors in 1970s design books.

Popsicle Coffee Table

Like the Falcon chair, the Popsicle table in their living room was a lucky secondhand find. The 1970s piece by U.S. designer Dan Droz has a glass top on a sticks-like base that collapses for easy moving and storing.

Droz, whose father made wood turnings for shelving systems, remembers always being interested in making things. He designed his first piece of furniture — a wood bench with a steel base — while still in high school, and he made all the furniture for his dorm room at Harvard University. Last year, he retired after 38 years as a designer, educator and marketing professional to pursue metal sculpture full time.


Porterfield and Katz’s dining room bursts with houseplants in macramé hangers crafted by Katz. She learned the art of knot tying from her mother, who sold similar hangers in the 1970s to earn money to buy a guitar. Now Katz has turned her hobby into a business, Modern Macramé, through which she takes commissions, sells supplies and teaches workshops in Portland and around the world.

Macramé is an ancient Middle Eastern art that traveled during the Arabian conquest to Spain, where it got its name. Nimble-fingered sailors took it up to make hammocks and other items during long days at sea, spreading the art to Asia, Australia and the Americas. Macramé was especially popular during the frilly Victorian period, when it was used as embellishments for tablecloths, bedspreads and curtains. Like quilting and other handicrafts, it surged again in the natural-fiber, DIY environment of the 1970s.

Still, “hoo” could’ve imagined the national obsession with macramé owl wall hangings that took flight after Woodsy became the U.S. Forest Service’s mascot in 1971 and implored, “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute”?

Wood Stove

Woodsy’s anti-pollution message didn’t quite jibe with well-intentioned Americans’ efforts to reduce their dependence on foreign oil and cut their energy bills in the wake of the 1973-74 oil crisis. Many people who didn’t already have an open fireplace or wanted something that heated the home more efficiently installed airtight wood-burning stoves. They were like the old potbellied stoves in that you could heat a kettle or a Dutch oven on them. But unlike the leaky potbellies, these stoves had openings that could be almost completely closed once the wood was alight, resulting in longer, hotter fires. Unfortunately, these slow burns proved to be smoky and polluting.

Since then, stricter EPA regulations and technological advances have produced cleaner wood stoves. Design-build firm Mafcohouse divided a corrugated-steel-clad Ontario home’s open plan with this EPA-certified stove and flanking wood storage. Tongue-and-groove Douglas fir covers the ceiling and walls, while engineered wood covers the floor. A Le Klint 172 pendant light hovers behind the stovepipe on the right.

Le Klint 172 Pendant Light

The Klint family made traditional straight-pleated lampshades that were reminiscent of George Nelson’s plastic Bubble collection and Isamu Noguchi’s paper Akari collection of the 1950s. Then Danish architect-designer Poul Christiansen threw the Le Klint company a curveball by using the mathematical principles of sine waves to fold sheets of polyvinyl chloride origami-style into ethereal light sculptures.

Here his most famous design, Le Klint 172, hangs over a vintage teak-and-laminate dining table in a 1920s Tudor home in Portland, Oregon, from Risa Boyer Architecture. The Succulent wallpaper, by Portland graphic design collective Makelike, is hand-screened with water-based ink on recyclable paper. The floor is rift-sawn white oak.

Nakashima Table

Wood featured prominently in 1970s homes as fireplace fuel, flooring, paneling and furniture. Legendary woodworker George Nakashima had a special affinity and reverence for the material — “I feel that there’s a spirit in trees that’s very deep,” he said.

Nakashima, a descendant of Japanese samurai, grew up in the lush rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula and studied forestry at the University of Washington before switching to architecture. He spent the 1930s traveling and working in France, North Africa, Japan and India.

Shortly after his return to the U.S. in 1940, he was confined with his wife and baby daughter in an Idaho internment camp, where he learned traditional Japanese carpentry techniques and the patient pursuit of perfection from fellow internee Gentaro Hikogawa.

After his release, Nakashima established a woodworking compound in Pennsylvania that his daughter still helms today. A 1973 commission of 200 pieces for Kykuit, the Rockefeller family’s estate in New York’s Hudson Valley, cemented his reputation as one of the nation’s best 20th-century furniture designers.

Nakashima believed in letting each piece of wood tell its story. “Instead of a long-running and bloody battle with nature, to dominate her, we can walk in step with a tree to release the joy in her grains, to join with her to realize her potentials, to enhance the environments of man,” he said.

The Nakashima coffee table in this living room in a Manhattan duplex reimagined by West Chin Architects & Interior Designers displays signature characteristics: the organically shaped American black walnut slab, live edge and butterfly joint. The Falling Water suspension light above the staircase is by Tobias Grau. The photograph of defrocked heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali as third-century martyr St. Sebastian, which ran on the April 1968 cover of Esquire magazine, is by Carl Fischer, the father of one of the homeowners.

Caldas Chair

Self-taught Brazilian architect and furniture designer José Zanine Caldas relinquished his teaching position in Brasília during a coup and returned to his home state of Bahia, where he was horrified by the deforestation around him. Inspired by local craftspeople who carved boats from felled logs, he began sculpting these 1970s solid wood chairs and other pieces of what he called “outcry furniture” from salvaged wood when possible (and planting trees when not). In doing so, he brought attention to the environmentally destructive practices upon which his industry had been based.

Today, Zanini de Zanine, Caldas’ son, continues his father’s furniture-making legacy, using industrial byproducts and materials repurposed from demolition projects in innovative ways.

Wiggle Chair

Fellow Pritzker laureate Frank Gehry created a furniture collection with an environmentally conscious bent years before he designed the Vitra Design Museum, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. He used a humble material for his low-cost Easy Edges line of 1972: biodegradable cardboard. “I discovered that by alternating the direction of layers of corrugations, the finished board had enough strength to support a small car, and a uniform, velvety texture on all four sides,” he told The Christian Science Monitor that year. “I found I could cut these edgeboard sections into geometrical forms, or bend them into sculptural, ribbon-candy folds.”

The technique gives the collection’s famous Wiggle chair the appearance of corduroy. It occupies a spot near the window of this contemporary family room in a Manhattan residential complex designed by Workshop/APD.

Gehry House

In 1977, Gehry bought an early 1900s pink Dutch Colonial in Santa Monica, California, for himself and his family. It wasn’t quite big enough, but rather than adding another story or a rear addition, he expanded it in places by building a new house around the old one, using unconventional materials such as raw plywood, chain-link fencing and corrugated metal for the siding; retaining the asphalt driveway as the kitchen floor; and exposing electrical wiring and lightbulbs.

The home’s raw, industrial and unfinished look was intentional — “a structure in process is always more poetic than the finished work,” Gehry said. His neighbors, however, tended to disagree. Today, Gehry House is considered one of the earliest examples of deconstructivism, a dismantling of architecture into fragments that have no apparent harmony or visual logic. The American Institute of Architects recognized the home’s contribution to design history with its 25-year award in 2012, noting that “the exposed structure, chaotic fusion of disparate materials and aggressive juxtaposition of old and new communicate a sense of real-time formal evolution and conflict.”

Earth Tones

Manufacturers responded to the public interest in the environment with earthy palettes of browns, rusts, yellows and greens — and some of the Harvest Gold kitchen appliances and Avocado bathroom suites from back then are still kicking today.

During a first-floor renovation of a Colonial house in Massachusetts, Leah Luczynski Interior Design had a small budget and a big request: to make the original 1970s Harvest Gold range and hood feel like part of a cohesive kitchen. A creative paint scheme did the trick.

Togo Sofa

This gold sofa is part of the famous Togo collection, designed in 1973 by Michel Ducaroy for Ligne Roset, a French manufacturer known for its contemporary furniture interpretations despite getting its start in the 1860s making walking sticks and umbrella handles.

The collection was novel for its casual, low-to-the-ground profile, modern materials (foam encased in quilted polyester) and modularity. Armed, armless and corner pieces offer a multitude of configurations. They’re arranged in an L in this living room in Pond House, a weekend retreat in the Arizona desert designed by Will Bruder. The architect trained under Paolo Soleri, who in 1970 began building Arcosanti to explore “arcology,” an integration of architecture and ecology in a new kind of high-density city that conserves resources, reduces pollution and connects people with one another and nature.

Aarons Photography

This gold midcentury-style sofa was the first item Christopher Johnson, left, and Dane Kealoha selected for their 1959 William Krisel-designed ranch house in Palm Springs, California. They pulled the color from their beloved collection of Slim Aarons photos, which was the jumping-off point for the home’s color palette.

Aarons was a New Hampshire farm boy who enlisted in the Army at age 18, photographed military maneuvers at West Point and then rose through the ranks of photojournalists. The carnage he witnessed as a combat photographer during World War II was enough. He came home and did an about-face, turning his lens on celebrities living the good life for top magazines such as Life, Vogue, Holiday and Town & Country. “I’ll only do a beach if it has a blonde on it,” he famously said when approached to cover the Korean War.

Aarons took the photos above the sofa during a 1970 pool party thrown by socialite and philanthropist Nelda Linsk (the woman in the yellow dress in the left-hand photo) at the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, designed by Richard Neutra in the 1940s. They’re examples of what was then the new genre of environmental portraiture, in which people are depicted in their milieu to illuminate their lifestyles. Aarons published some of his photos in his 1974 book, A Wonderful Time — still a resort-look resource for interior designers and art directors today.

Shag Carpeting

The hand-woven shag rug in Johnson and Kealoha’s living room is part of an eclectic, 1970s-inspired collection of furniture and textiles. It rocks an earthy palette of cream, carbon, taupe and brown New Zealand wool.

The shag — both the floor covering and the hairstyle — was a hallmark of the 1970s. Shag rugs trace their origin to the flokati rugs of ancient Greece, which were woven from long strands of goat hair. The name came to encompass carpeting made of any kind of yarn that loops up to form a tall pile. It’s comfortable to sit and walk on but requires frequent vacuuming or — for true period authenticity and energy-bill savings — raking with a vintage rake made for the purpose.

Breeze Blocks

Architectural screen blocks, aka breeze blocks, had their last hurrah in the 1970s — at least until the current comeback. Sun-deflecting screens have been used in Indian, Arabic and Japanese architecture for centuries, and these pierced concrete stacking blocks were particularly popular in America’s Sun Belt cities in the middle of the 20th century.

Krisel, who also designed this 1959 Palm Springs home, called breeze blocks “functional ornamentation” and used them extensively. During the home’s 2017 renovation, Joel Dessaules sheltered the building even more with Hawaiian lava stone veneer to absorb and radiate heat and a cantilevered steel shade structure that gives the illusion of a butterfly roof.

Sunken Living Room

This vacation villa was completed by SUKYF & Architects and Design 4 Corners on the Indonesian island of Bali in 2016, but it exhibits many of the features of U.S. style in the 1970s: breeze blocks, organically shaped honeycomb tiles, natural wood, greenery and a sunken living room like the one immortalized in the 1970s TV sitcom The Brady Bunch.

Curtis Jeré Metal Sculpture

All this isn’t to say that the decade was entirely devoid of fun and flashiness — it was the disco era after all. Hanging a Curtis Jeré mixed-metal sculpture was a favorite way to adorn a monolithic masonry fireplace wall. The brand was a mashup of the names Curtis Freiler and Jerry Fels, brothers-in-law who designed costume jewelry together for two decades before launching Artisan House to make mirrors, lights and other decor.

In this 1969 home in Southern California, Dessaules floated his client’s vintage Curtis Jeré sculpture in front of the living room’s slump block wall, painted white (Dunn-Edwards’ Swiss Coffee) to contrast with the beams (Sherwin-Williams’ Van Dyke Brown). The yellow screen, green tufted sofa, brown leather chair and nailhead-trimmed daybed are from Dessaules’ eponymous collection of furnishings. The vintage Monteverdi-Young coffee table has cast brass legs, a metal leaf-pattern base and an acrylic top.

Soft Seating Collection

The acrylic bases under the fiberglass shells of this sofa, chair and table make the pieces seem to float. They’re part of the 1970s Soft Seating collection, variously attributed to Warren Platner and William Andrus, by Michigan office furniture maker Steelcase. The set forms a seating area in a 1959 house in Dallas.

Umbo Shelving

Along a nearby wall stand shelves and an X-shaped magazine rack constructed from pieces of ABS plastic that snap together in combinations limited only by the imagination. U.S. designer Kay Leroy Ruggles created this modular Umbo shelving system for New York-based Directional Industries, which introduced it in 1970. It came in four colors — orange, yellow, white and brown — and had early success, especially among apartment dwellers. But rising oil prices contributed to the system’s downfall.

A wrist-bangle radio and a space-helmet television of the era sit on top on the Umbo unit, along with a molecule-inspired lamp.

Broadhurst Wallpaper

Florence Broadhurst’s globe-trotting life ran the gamut: cattle rancher’s daughter in rural Australia; chanteuse and charm school director in Shanghai; pseudo-French couturier in London; wife and mother; painter and designer; and, ultimately, victim of a still-unsolved murder in her Sydney studio. In the years leading up to her tragic death in 1977, the flamboyant founder of Florence Broadhurst Wallpapers became a household name in her native country and exported her wallpapers and textiles around the world.

By coming to design when she was already in her 60s, Broadhurst was able to draw upon a wealth of experiences and influences for her vibrant handprinted patterns. She also developed washable vinyl-coated finishes, printing methods for metallic surfaces and a rack for drying large quantities of wallpaper.

One of Broadhurst’s signature designs is of large-scale peacocks printed on silver Mylar, the filmy polyester of birthday balloons that was new back then. She designed this glamorous gold wallpaper in the early 1970s for French Canadian designer Yvan Méthot.

Joanna Bean’s Luxury wallpaper for Flavor Paper — which the company calls “an iconographic swirl of 1970s extravagance” — channels Broadhurst with rainbows in fuchsia pink (a favorite Broadhurst shade) on a Mylar background. It also throws in muscle cars, airplanes, birds, clouds, stars and diamonds for good measure.

Interior designer Alison Damonte and her adventurous client found a spot for it in this powder room of a 1970s-era San Francisco Bay Area house built by Joseph Eichler.

Disco Ball

In the living room, Damonte flanked a set of period coffee tables in glass, brass and Lucite with vintage sofas on chrome bases.

The oil painting is by Angie Crabtree, a Bay Area artist who captures macro photographs of diamonds and other gemstones on canvas. With her work, she explores light, optics, the allure of luxury culture and the commodification of nature.

Meanwhile, sunlight streaming through a skylight bounces off the disco ball in the fireplace and scatters stars across the ceiling.

Share: Which designs from the 1970s would you highlight? What are the standouts of the 1980s? Let us know in the Comments.

Victoria Villeneuve August 14, 2019


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page