Retro is back – if it ever went away – and, more and more, designers are finding inspiration in the homes of the 20th century. ‘From the highly polished and lacquered glamour that characterised the homes of the 20s and 30s, the bright colours and Scandinavian sleek of the 50s, and the funky plastic furnishings of the 60s and early 70s, the 1900s was a seminal period for interior design,’ says Mezzanine founder Lee-Ann Bell.

The interior designer is quick to point out that the word ‘retro’ means different things to different people, and that there’s a fine line – and sometimes no line at all – between retro and antique, retro and kitsch, retro and vintage, retro and mid-century modern, and retro and good old second-hand.

‘The genre takes in everything from elegant Art Deco, streamlined mid-century modern, and the chrome-laden decor of the classic American diner. “Retro” relates to, or is reminiscent of things past, so could refer to pretty much anything that is older than about 25 years or so; but retro items shouldn’t be confused with “proper” antiques, which are generally accepted as having been made more than 100 years ago. Therefore, retro relates to anything from around the time of the First World War to even as recently as the mid-1980s.’

However, she emphasises that retro is about a lot more than just a date. ‘It is also the evocation, either subtle or strong, of a certain era. Retro inevitably induces strong feelings, whether of nostalgia, glamour, eccentricity, humour, or sophistication. It can polished or poised, chic and minimal or bold and bright.’

What is certain is that retro, however you interpret the term, has heaps of character and a unique sense of style. Here, Bell explains how to draw from the past to create a look for the future.

So much more than disco balls, shag carpets and, of course, the ubiquitous use of orange, the 70s inspired our fixation with crisp, modern shapes and easy, open-plan living.
Photograph: Zastolskiy Victor/

Mid-Century Modern

‘For the design aficionado, there’s no beating the style that emerged in the 1920s as a reaction to the Art Deco movement,’ says Bell. Indeed, mid-century designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen are the comeback kids of the new millennium, the sleek forms and minimal detailing of their designs as relevant today as they were nearly 100 years ago. ‘While a Barcelona or Womb chair is a must for serious retro collections, unusual pairings of fabrics and materials – think plush velvet and utilitarian timber – bring these classics bang up to date,’ she explains.

Updated for the noughties, mid-century classics are re-imagined in modern finishes and textures and used in new applications. Oslo Chair with solid oak legs, available in a variety of fabrics; R8 915 (price excludes upholstery fabric), Mezzanine

Colour Contemporised

Every decade in the 20th century seemed to have a defining colour scheme – for better or for worse. But there’s no need to decorate your living room in top-to-bottom orange and avocado for a 70s-inspired look, or pastels and chintz for an 80s throwback. ‘Instead,’ suggests Bell, ‘Give a nod to the trends of yesteryear by incorporating pops of colour and tempered shades to your interiors, toning down the colour clashes of yesteryear for a more minimalist spin.’

Clashing 70’s colours are given a contemporary edge in subdued tones, with isolated pops of punch-drunk colour for retro-inspired effect.
Photograph: DotExe/

Built to Last

Scandinavian pieces produced in the 1950s and 1960s were made in factories like Carl Hansen & Son and Slagelse Møbelfabrik out of the best quality rosewood and old-growth teak hardwoods. These pieces were handcrafted by artisans who had 20 to 30 years of cabinetmaking experience under their belts, and their customers paid good money for heirloom pieces that they would own for the rest of their lives. ‘The same respect held for the craft of furniture-making should translate into the pieces you choose for your home today,’ Bell insists.

Inspired by post-war simplicity and the beauty of natural shapes and materials, mid-century furnishings revere quality of craftsmanship above all else.
Photograph: Sutsaiy/

Talking Point

If the full 70’s experience isn’t for you, pick just one or two pieces or decorating options that are characteristic of the era instead, Bell advises. ‘The decade’s luxuriously oversized sofas are a case in point. The “overstuffed” look became popular towards the end of the 70s – around the same time the beanbag chair was born – and is seeing a major revival in Europe.’ The trick, she says, is in ‘the art of suggestion, not imitation.’

The oversized sofas of the 70’s had their moment in the spotlight again at this year’s Milan Furniture Fair, where Cassina’s era-inspired furnishings stole the show.

A Nod to Nature

The hippie moment of the 70s revered nature, which was why so many homes of the time had elements that brought the outside in. ‘Extra-large windows, lots of natural stone, indoor gardens, pine accents and wicker furniture dominated interiors of the day,’ explains Bell, adding that, if some of these features still feel a little dated to you, a simple gathering of potted indoor plants may be a great way to dip in your toe.

Today’s desire to bring the outdoors in with feature garden walls, large windows, and skylights is all thanks to the back-to-nature movement of the 1970s.
Photograph: United Photo Studio/

Update the potted plant with a timeless and elegant standing box from Ferm Living – R3,520 available at Mezzanine.

To see Mezzanine’s unique furniture and homeware ranges, which include a mix of local and European designer brands, visit the Parktown North showroom and retail store or go to or call +27 11 778 1200.