bicentennial chic vintage ethan allenUpon 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.

patriotic wallpaper
From Hannah’s Treasures
vintage ethan allen bicentennial chic
Mid-70s Ethan Allen
vintage ethan allen bicentennial chic
Mid-70s Ethan Allen

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.
bicentennial chic vintage ethan allen
Mid-70s Ethan Allen
bicentennial chic vintage ethan allen
Mid-70s Ethan Allen
bicentennial chic ethan allen
Mid-70s Ethan Allen
Mid-70s Ethan Allen — those cabinets and shelves are from the awesome EA Custom Room Plan series. Fantastic stuff!

The colors of Bicentennial Chic: Red, white and blue color schemes — but not just….

patriotic wallpaper
From Hannah’s Treasures
bicentennial chic vintage ethan allen
Mid-70s Ethan Allen
bicentennial chic vintage ethan allen
Mid-70s Ethan Allen

… 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.

american pie needlepoint pillow
I made this pillow when I was a teenager in the 1970s.

Crewel: Erica Wilson was going strong in the mid-70s.

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.

bicentennial chic vintage ethan allen
This room — Ethan Allen Edition 70 catalog — is my personal favorite of the bunch. Such pleasing color harmony! But then, burnt orange is my favorite color.

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!

pine interior
No, this is not a 1970s interior. It’s from 1960. Early American style was popular for a longgggg time in America.

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.

early american decor
Early American decor in a Duco paint ad, 1952.

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.

bicentennial chic ethan allen
Mid-70s Ethan Allen. FOR SURE my grandpa had a recliner upholstered in fabric like this!

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.ethan allen quincy bedFor 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!

ethan allen classic mirror

Above: Ethan Allen Deep Profile Classic Mirror.

ginger jar lamp ethan allenAnd 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.

Readers, what interior design features do you remember
from the mid-1970s ala Bicentennial Chic? Let’s make a list!

Categoriesknotty pine
  1. All that dated colonial looking stuff reminds me when Lucy and Ricky moved to the “country” -Westport CT. Their living room is a time capsule of that look. I remember being fascinated by the Williamsburg catalog from back in the 60’s. My mother always kept a copy–treated it like the Bible!

  2. Melinda says:

    This is the decor I grew up with. Right down to a wagon wheel hub lamp and rust colored carpet. I never liked it. My least favorite house style is the colonial.
    Thank goodness those who like it can have it and I can have bright colors, Danish modern and a ranch house.

  3. Chad says:

    Oh man, I should find my mom’s old home decor scrapbook. It was this lock, stock, and barrel. Very graphic blue and white patterns. She went for very Colonial patterns in the end though.

    But I just furnished a bedroom with a mix of furniture that I think goes in this direction. Lots of navy blue and a braided rug. I am a little disappointed because fun paisley-esque blue and white prints were all over Target and IKEA a year or 2 ago and now they aren’t.

  4. Alice Ryan says:

    Wow . These rooms are exact replicas of the rooms of everyone I knew as a kid. I chalked it up to very bad taste in decorating. Now after reading here , and all the pictures ,i realize they were dialed in on the latest in home decor.
    I had 2 very old Aunts .that decorated in antiques and Art Deco. I loved to go to their homes and admire all their interesting belongings.

  5. MJ says:

    I ADORE Royal Barry Wills’ upper crust houses! IMO he would turn over in his grave at the thought of mid-70s Ethan Allen in any of his buildings.
    When I win the lottery, I will first buy a RBW house in New England. With what’s left I’ll furnish it in the real deal stuff, then figure out how to keep it for posterity.
    Thanks for the look back.

    1. pam kueber says:

      RBW’s personal home was full of colonial decor… as I recall, from photos in one of his books.

  6. Molly says:

    Even though I was a bicentennial baby (we’re all either 39 or approaching it which has us all *Yikes* almost 40!!!) the bicentennial style doesn’t appeal to me… Yet.
    What I really wanted to mention is that, I’m almost 100% certain that America’s bicentennial was also Texas’ sesquicentennial. How do I know that even though I was raised to h*** [edited] texans? I married one and his very best friend whose mother still lives across the street from where he grew up, still has a bicentennial room. Being texans, they call it the sesquicentennial room, but it hasn’t changed since we were born! I’ve got to get you a picture of that time capsule! Mama went all out for her 1976 baby!

  7. linda h says:

    Ok, this makes me want to add some red and blue to my brown and white early American cowboy themed guest bedroom; and maybe also a few eagles and flags, liberty bells and George Washingtons.

    1. linda h says:

      I made white dotted Swiss lampshades for the wood and dotted milk glass lamps in my cowboy guest room.

  8. Lisa Pildes says:

    Ha, ha. This brings back memories. My best friend got married in 1976. When we were shopping for bridesmaid dresses, we jokingly asked the saleslady if she had any in red, white and blue. Holy cow, if she didn’t bring about six different ones to choose from! We went with navy and white dotted swiss and red rose bouquets. Hurray for the red, white and blue! Happy 4th everyone.

  9. Karen says:

    I own a very old..100-200 year old house. I pulled off wallpaper last year and found the “early american” wallpaper, nearly intact underneath. My grandson now calls it the Philadelphia room. For now, I’m keeping it…my mother loved this style…and gave me the obligatory brass eagle to go with it! Pattern has independence hall, soldiers, cannons, Eagles….red, white, and blue…along with gold.

  10. Joe says:

    Sorry to resurrect an older post, but I recently tumbled upon this post on Bicentennial Chic.

    I grew up in the 1960s/1970s, in a nondescript salt box house that was furnished in middle of the road furniture design, with a few contrasting additions: a Danish Modern console stereo bought in the late 60s, and a colonial dining room suite from Young Hinkle (in dark pine), added in the early 70s.

    The high point was when my parents furnished my room in the Ethan Allen Custom Room Plan distressed dark pine colonial bedroom furniture. Bookcases, dresser, chest of drawers, corner unit, bed – I loved it.

    Too bad, that as an adult, the CRP just wouldn’t fit in the two houses that I have owned – I had to sell it at my parents’ estate sale. My first house was a 1920s bungalow, and my current house, built 100 years ago by my great grandfather both seemed to need arts and crafts style furniture.

    And now, a handful of years past my mid-century birthday, I am nursing a strong urge to gather furnishings from the early 1970s. The dark woods, the warm oranges, greens (yay, avocado!), browns and dusty yellows speak comfort and nurturing. Comfort food for the eyes and soul!

    The 70s have made inroads in my kitchen. Scouring thrift stores has allowed me to piece together a Merry Mushroom canister set (strange – I hated those canisters as a kid), and I found some new, yet vintage fabric for new kitchen curtains, the fabric being very much akin to that which my mother bought when she made new kitchen curtains in the early 70s.

    But I digress…

    I covet the Ethan Allen living room, pictured above (the one with the checkerboard game table in the foreground). It just won’t work here, but if I could build a family room addition…

    Thoroughly enjoyed the post!

Comments are closed.