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Design lessons we can all learn from the 1990s

From high theatre to unusual paint effects, we discuss three ideas to take from this decade of contrasts and incorporate into the interiors of 2024.

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By House & Garden | June 18, 2024 | Design

It could be argued that few periods have seen such aesthetic contrast as the 1990s. This was a decade that took us from the frill-tastic hangover of the 1980s – incorporating theatrical flourishes and a generous use of fabric, pattern and paint – to the less-is-more practicality and minimalism that characterised the early 2000s. Having perused the House & Garden archives from January 1990 to December 1999, Rémy Mishon highlights distinctive ideas that could work just as well today.

Lesson 1: introduce a theatrical look

As seen on this cover from August 1992, bedrooms were often the crowning glory of houses in the early 1990s, providing an opportunity to create elaborate fabric arrangements and to fill the space with pattern and colour. The best examples retained a sense of drama, while also being comfortable. But these treatments were not always confined to bedrooms.

In the Paris apartment below, the hallway has been transformed into an opulent space that creates a sense of anticipation for the rooms beyond. Walls and doors lined in tightly pleated red and green striped fabric provide a sumptuous backdrop for antique furniture and a large painting, while a pair of kilims stands out on the black-painted floor.

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The Parisian home of American actor and model Marisa Berenson (below) has a charming extravagance. In front of the sweeping, double-swagged bed hangings in the same Braquenié floral print as the walls is a scroll-armed daybed she inherited from her grandmother Elsa Schiaparelli. Together with the under-curtains and lamp, the plain upholstery balances the strong pattern and ensures it does not overwhelm the space.

Wendy Nicholls of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler has enhanced the architectural features of this Palladian-style villa in Barbados (below) with an elegant vaulted bed canopy, which mirrors the curved lines of the french windows. The delicate blue trim and sheer organza curtains with darker blue rosettes are complemented by a Simon Playle chinoiserie fabric on the headboard and valance.

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The four-poster bed (below) conjured up by the German interior designer Nona von Haeften offers a theatrical take on a classic romantic look. A pretty pink and white colour scheme is established by the canopy in an Ian Mankin stripe, echoed by the seat cushions on two antique wooden chairs and a rug in similar hues. With white-painted walls, the bed becomes a striking centrepiece

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Lesson 2: embrace relaxed maximalism

Before social media, houses were not designed with photo-ready results in mind. Instead, the focus was on creating impact through a sense of authenticity and real-life atmosphere. The sitting room pictured on this cover from February 1990 has an effortlessly layered look that transcends time and trends.

Reflecting the popularity of a relaxed Provençal aesthetic, the conservatory kitchen below is decorated with market finds and trompe- l’oeil cupboard doors by artist Michelle Pearson Cooper. The atmosphere is enhanced by the spare chairs hung on the wall, which suggest the casual coming and going of friends.

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A sense of relaxed eclecticism pervades this kitchen in the former Manhattan home of late decorator J Allen Murphy (below). Ivy trellis wallpaper by Brunschwig & Fils, a dresser stacked with Wedgwood’s ‘Napoleon Ivy’ china and simple quarry tiles have been cleverly combined with leopard-print upholstery on dark wooden chairs.

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The owner of the Pimlico flat below enlisted the help of a family friend, designer Veere Grenney, to lay a decorative foundation, which she built upon by introducing more personal elements and treasured pieces. She opted for strong colours to ‘stand up to dull light’ in the drawing room. Walls in a green-lacquered finish reflect the glow of the lamps, making this a particularly inviting spot in the evenings. The matching sofa is set off by cushions and a rug in earthier shades.

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Lesson 3: try paint effects on white walls

From borders and stencilling to sponged walls and full-scale trompe l’oeil, paint effects were all the rage during the 1990s. In some instances, these ideas were pared back and used to add a subtle and refined finish – like the delicate golden borders seen on this November 1994 cover – while other examples reveal a bolder approach that can completely transform a space.

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Wide blue and white gloss stripes on the walls have been combined with blue-painted floorboards and exaggerated curtains in this smart dining area in the west London house below. It is a relatively simple idea but has real impact. A similar design could easily work today, though a sturdier chair design might give the scheme a more contemporary edge.

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In the casual loggia dining area (below) of a Spanish revival house in Palm Beach, by Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, a blue-painted recess provides a central focal point, flanked by a pair of ornate metal sconces by Addison Mizner. This is an excellent way to add a splash of colour to a light and airy white-washed space.

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French interior designer Frédéric Méchiche used artisanal techniques to great effect in the main bedroom of his perfectly understated Paris apartment (below). Subtle trompe- l’oeil swags enliven the off-white walls, echoing the window drapery made of plaster in the adjoining dressing room. Classical references are scattered through the rooms with columns, plinths and urns. The result is imaginative and rather ethereal.