Neon decor home 43 Clicks North on Unsplash
Neon signs a-flashin' ... in 1980s homes Image Credit: 43 Clicks North/Unsplash

A complete rejection of minimalism, the 1980s style design is beloved because it came to life through pop culture that we still know and enjoy today – whether it’s Michael Jackson’s or Whitney Houston’s music videos or movies such as Blade Runner, Indiana Jones or Back to the Future.

The 1980s style neons of the time have taken root in retro-inspired Dubai interiors such as the RollDXB roller skating rink, Boxica, a boxing gym located in Dubai Studio City and the neon-lit arcade at the Brass Monkey entertainment hub at Bluewaters, Dubai.

During the ‘80s, furniture design style gives you the appeal of elegance and natural sophistication with playful approaches like neon lights and graffiti. During that time we were inspired by decades of crazy patterns, vibrant colours, and feathered hairstyles.

- Mark Leo Mirandilla, senior interior designer at HortonTech
Roll DXB
Image Credit: Supplied

Mark Leo Mirandilla, senior interior designer in the team behind Boxica at HortonTech, an interior design and fit-out company in the GCC, says, “During the ‘80s, furniture design style gives you the appeal of elegance and natural sophistication with playful approaches like neon lights and graffiti. During that time we were inspired by decades of crazy patterns, vibrant colours, and feathered hairstyles.“ The rise of MTV and pop music also saw people bringing styles they saw on-screen into their own homes.

There is a special tale you must know, that, decades down the line, was to set the tone for many fashion, interiors, social media and web design templates today. It decided the essential elements of the ‘80s look.

Fearless designers out to rebel

42 years ago, on a cold, wintry day in Milan, a group of 21 designers and architects from around the world met to discuss a radical new proposal. Ettore Sottsass, the Italian architect who had called the meeting, wanted to rebel against the somewhat uniform and corporate design that was taking over the world of interiors.

As it turns out, Nobel-laureate Bob Dylan’s song, ‘Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues again’ from the album ‘Blonde on Blonde’ had been playing in the background as they discussed their ideas.

One word stood out – Memphis. They took on that name, and for the next seven years wreaked havoc on all contemporary ideas of design. Does this look like a bookcase to you? Mirandilla says, “It is designed by this Memphis group that was really out of this world that time.” 

And this chair?

Mirandilla says, “It’s like a collection of luxury items, but of course, if you’re a person that is more on comfort, some of the furnitures feel kind of odd after five minutes of sitting there.

“They wanted to somehow give a new style out of the modernism because they think modernism is enclosed or like squarish or trapped in a jail. That's why we have all of a sudden, during that era, America got that idea to put those intricate furnitures with a mixture of leather fabric and different geometric shapes.” The furniture was a mix of kitsch, Art Deco (think pre-Depression era, lion-roaring intro of Hollywood) style layered geometry, bright colours and graphic patterns such as polka dots.

It spilt over into fashion too and was beloved by many at the time. David Bowie had a collection of almost 100 pieces, and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld’s house was filled with iconic Memphis pieces.

Memphis in fashion in the 1990s: 

• Neon signs
• Graffiti
• Memphis pieces, or graphic design on social media
• Chintz or floral-patterned wallpaper, sofa upholstery

The best ‘80s style additions to your home

Here are a few tips for a touch of beautiful retro 1980s style design in your home:

1. Neon signage and lighting from the ‘Neon decade’

Neon lighting at home 1980s retro style
Image Credit: Unsplash/S-o-c-i-a-l-c-u-t

Adding a neon sign in flowing rounded writing can brighten up any space for a fun look. Mirandilla says, “When you say neon, it should be vibrant, you know, you have striking blue, you have striking fuchsia, purplish light, and then they're like sort of this pattern that is flamboyant. You know, if you're going back to the history itself, it was derived also from the Art Deco era.” Think Whitney Houston’s legendary “I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ music video’s purple neon shades.

As for lighting, Mirandilla explains that spherical shaped light, with finishes in brass, black matte were common.

2. Memphis design in layered geometry, vibrant colours

Simply adding a geometric cushion in a bold colour, a spherical lamp, painting a bright geometric shape on your wall or adding graphic print upholstery can bring in the iconic ‘80s style Memphis design home. A small tip – if you paint a semi-circle behind a standing vanity mirror and desk, it looks part of the whole set-up.

Remember Marty McFly’s skateboard in ‘Back to the Future’ or MTV’s intro? They reflect the graphic print design style from the era.

Mirandilla says, “You have trapezoidal, you have triangles, you have semicircular shapes. You have these vertical and horizontal lines with a combination of RGB colors like red, green, blue.

“What is really distinctive about this era, is that it is all about vibrancy. So you have this hard red and then you have all of a sudden a hard black, hard purple.”

Here’s a few patterns that can bring in Memphis-style design home:

3. Wild wallpapers on an accent wall

Mirandilla says, “They use lots of wallpapers from the intricate pattern to a geometric to a zigzag, you know, pattern to an animal print, like a zebra thing. Wild wallpapers. Flowers, plants, leaves - something to do associated with fauna and flora.”

You can add this in an accent wall in any of your rooms.

4. Tropical flora and fauna

Flora and fauna prints spilled over to counters, cushions and upholstery on sofas, as well.

5. Accent plants

In ‘80s hotels and houses, Mirandilla tells us, a lovely big palm or banana leaf plant was placed in corners to accent the interiors.

6. Velvet highback sofas like ‘Friends’

Friends couch-1568014195417
A highback sofa adds a cozy, retro vibe to your space.

The ‘Friends’ Central Perk sofa – that housed the show’s beloved cast for all 10 of its seasons – is a great example of highback sofas in a velvety fabric that Mirandilla explains were quite common in the era. Leather was also a popular fabric.

He says, “Usually, it's like a velvety fabric that has an intricate design on its stitchings.”

7. ‘Granny chic’ chintz and ruffles

Far from neon and Memphis design - many 1980s’ homes also saw country-style chintz, or printed multicoloured cotton fabric, often in floral and leaf patterns, used for beds and upholstery.

Buckle up for a surprise – vintage chintz is actually making a comeback now under the Grand Millenial or ‘Granny chic’ style as more people seek comfortable, nostalgic aesthetics. Airbnb and Tiktok have counted this among their biggest design predictions for this year.

8. Pop art and geometric Memphis-style art

Mirandilla gives a few examples: “The MTV animation, the sketches of some Hollywood actresses and actors and rough finishes of crayons. Like a kid given a crayon, and all of a sudden, you draw something – and it’s more of a free movement.”

9. Custom graffiti

Retro 1980s graffiti
Choose any quirky graffiti of your liking for an art wall in your room. Image Credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons

From colourful geometric street art at Jumeirah Lakes Towers by Ruben Sanchez to fun graphics on City Walk’s walls – many works of stunning graffiti grace Dubai’s streets and landmarks today. You can take a leaf of out of that book and bring that home in a custom, quirky, graffiti print on your wall.

From neon and bold, geometric style shapes to your favourite flowery furniture reminiscent of Grandma’s home – decorate your home with lovely, nostalgic pieces because ‘Don’t stop believing! Hold on to that feeeeling…’

(Note: This article was first published in September 2022)