Upon the most recent celebration of our American Independence, I learned that there is now a design trend called “Bicentennial Chic.” This amuses me to no end. Bicentennial Chic seems to me to be a lovely bit of wordsmithing meant to upmarket “1970s Early American” decor and fashion. Not that I am opposed, whatsoever. If it’s design done well, it’s design done well, an American Eagle by any other name would look so grand, and all that, you know. So how to define “Bicentennial Chic”? I could not find an official definition online, so, calling upon my own experience including the fact that I LIVED THROUGH IT THE FIRST TIME, let’s take a look at this what’s-old-always-comes-back-again trend. Above: Vintage Ethan Allen catalog edition 70 from the 1970s, from my personal collection.
What is Bicentennial Chic?
Seems like first and foremost, Bicentennial Chic would most precisely refer to any circa-mid-1970s decor or fashion that includes patriotic American iconography. Yes: Put an Eagle on it, to start. That said, I’ll further broaden “Bicentennial Chic” to include any combination of mid-1970s furniture and decor that gets the colors, scale, patterns, furniture and accessories “right” in evoking a Granny Ranch — circa-mid-70s, of course!
Motifs appropriated into Bicentennial Chic decor celebrating this era would include Early American / Colonial American:
- Soldiers and horses…
- Emblems, flags, the Liberty Bell…
- Spice racks, weathervanes, maize…
- Butter churns and crocks and the like turned into table lamps…
- Spinning wheels plopped into your living room as art…
- Oxen yokes turned into mirrors…
- Braided rugs…
- … Lotsa anything you could imagine the original Patriots having in their homes and lives, but served up as Art.
The colors of Bicentennial Chic: Red, white and blue color schemes — but not just….
… I’d also include the prevalent decorating colors of the day — the lovely avocado greens, harvest golds, rusty reds and oranges and rich browns and coppertones. These colors would have been even more popular among accessories and fabrics to decorate the home.
Metal finishes: Antique brass, pewter, copper and wrought iron.
Wallpaper: Heck to the yeah, here’s where you see Bicentennial Chic at its very finest.
Architectural forebear: Royal Barry Wills. I repeat: The most influential residential architect of the 20th century — and unless you are a longtime reader of this blog (and why aren’t you, pray tell?) you probably never heard of him. His influence was immense, and is still apparent today.
Furniture: Ethan Allen absolutely epitomizes this look! I own several vintage Ethan Allen catalogs. They are marvels. For this story, I went through Edition #70 to find some telling examples. I am not sure of the year of this issue. But I know it’s pre-1979, because I have a later edition that includes that date.
I found plenty of examples in the wonderful Ethan Allen catalog that show us how to pull together a Bicentennial Chic interior. Beautiful rooms!
There were many decorating Colonial Revivals in American history…
But here’s the thing: I’m not sure that I can really see much of a fine line between what might be called “true” circa-1976 “Bicentennial Chic” and plain old Early American decor, which had been popular already throughout the mid-century period. In my first story on Early American decor, which I wrote in 2009, I found an academic source which discussed the first Colonial Revival in America. This first revival spanned 1890-1940, it said.
However, from what I’ve seen in American homes and marketing material, the Revival continued pretty darn strong all the way into the 1970s. In fact, call it “Colonial*” or “Early American*” (*I know that I am throwing these terms around very cavalierly; of course, collectors of true antiquities can discern keen differences among the many years of early American design history) … change the wallpaper and the upholstery schemes… but this American traditional style seems to have been in style throughout most of American history.
I’m thinking it really didn’t fall from favor until — ironically — after the 1976 bicentennial, when I’m thinkin’ people just topped out. And of course, the marketeers wanted to dissatisfy us with what we had and sell us something new. Seriously, by the 1979 Ethan Allen catalog, I’m not seeing a single cast iron eagle anywhere in sight. Duck decoys and ceramic chickens are creeping in, and I am just not ready for the small-flower-prints-on-pastel-fields upholstery and wallpaper yet. But no eagles.
So here we are… it took 40 years of visual recovery… and now we are ready to smile again at Bicentennial Chic.
What does Bicentennial Chic look like?
I would think that today’s “Bicentennial Chic” “should” not be subdued — it “should” be eye-popping, much like the 1970s take on the style. Well done, today’s Bicentennial Chic “should” combine lots of color, pattern, contrast, layers and line, pushing right up to that fine line between “genius” and “tacky” then backing off a wee bit to be sure to end up in “genius.” Of course, I put “should” into quotation marks because what the heck do I know, I only learned about this like four days ago. And besides, you can do whatever you like, it’s your retro flashback.
In the 1970s, Colonial Revival interiors got pretty darn bold, it seems. The portrayal of the emblems of colonial America were even heading toward “camp”, in the sense that we already had Andy Warhol showing us how to take bits of American pop culture and make them into art. That said, I’m gonna say the mass of mainstream middle-class Americans who embraced 1970s Colonial Revival styles and decorated their homes thus, did so with zero irony, no tongue-in-cheek at all. They lived through the privations of World War II and took their American iconography very seriously. So even though it’s tempting to look at these 1970s interiors and maybe giggle, at some of them, I ain’t gonna. This was just another style, and style is just fashion, and we’re susceptible to its siren song, to some degree or another. And, these rooms — in the Ethan Allen catalog, in particular — are really put together well! So they get my respect, for sure..
Early American / Colonial Revival decor: I would say it was the single longest running style trend in 20th century America. Way more popular than mid-century modern.
Why is Bicentennial Chic chic again today?
Oh, those wacky youngsters. When what’s hot (mid-century modern and high style Steampunk, today) gets too hot and therefore out of their financial reach, they look for style where others aren’t. They put their own no-baggage eyes on stuff with low price tags, snap up deals at estate sales and thrift shops and grandma’s house, give their new found vintage treasures a fun new name — “Hey, let’s call it Bicentennial Chic,” tee hee — and before you know it, newly made knock-offs begin appearing in the furniture catalogs we get in the mail.For sure, you can find all the elements of Bicentennial Chic locally, vintage. But for fun, I also jumped over to Ethan Allen’s website to see whether they still had anything to fit the trend. Today, Ethan Allen is most certainly marketing to the large, mainstream market. But, I found a few things that might fit the Bicentennial Chic groove…. For example, I love their Quincy bed, above. This modern take showcases the delicious lines of Early American furniture. This bed comes in a number of colors — you can even get it in aqua!
And this might be one of the most timeless table lamp designs ever — Porcelain Ginger Jar table lamp, Ethan Allen.
It always happens: What’s old becomes new again. Heck to the yeah to Bicentennial Chic! Now, I am going to look for my calico maxi dress. I’m pretty sure I saved it. Rock on.
- Also see my story: Renovating 1970s houses — the next big thing