For a certain set of design enthusiasts, stockpiling savings to attain an iconic piece of retro furniture is a right of passage. Wooed by Womb Chairs and lured by Eames Loungers, these design die-hards are the types who have “retro furniture near me” bookmarked on their browsers and harbor no qualms about driving 100-plus miles out of the way for a promising prospect. Once they’ve scored their paragon, however, a new challenge ensues. How does one factor iconic retro furniture into their interiors? Is it necessary to craft an entire room around it? Or is it within the realm of plausibility to assimilate a design as distinctive as Finn Juhl’s Pelican chair with already-existing decor?

In truth, almost everyone finds it can be intimidating to decorate with such a prominent piece. Which is why we’ve collected a series of rooms featuring iconic 50s, 60s, and 70s retro furniture and mined them for their most helpful takeaway tips. Here, discover how top designers have expertly incorporated designs by Arne Jacobsen, Ray and Charles Eames, Dorothy Draper, and Warren Platner into perfectly harmonic rooms. 

Wood paneled room with green upholstered bed frame and teal rocking Eames chair
Design by Beebe Parker Interiors / Photo by Tamara Flanagan

What is Retro Furniture?

Before talking shop, it helps to know what designs fall into the category of iconic modern retro furniture. Most agree that retro furniture constitutes modern furniture designs from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. In some cases, designs from the 1980s may be included as well. These designs are made up of a wide variety of styles, including but not limited to: Hollywood Regency, Danish Modern, Mid-Century Modern, and Postmodern

The majority of the era’s most iconic designs are still in production today. and can be purchased from licensed retailers like Knoll, Herman Miller, Design Within Reach, and more. Nearly all of these new retro furniture models can be customized prior to purchase, which has led to a near-endless array of retro furniture options on the vintage market.

4 Ways to Integrate Iconic Retro Designs

Designers have a Poppins bag full of tricks to make iconic retro designs blend seamlessly with items possessing less ballast. Here, discover four ways designers have worked retro masterpieces into their spaces without letting them monopolize the spotlight.

Living room with tulip coffee table, natural fiber rug, and blue and white patterned Eames lounge chair and ottoman
Design by Daun Curry / Photo by Tim Hirschmann

1. Upholster it in the Unexpected 

Since its debut in 1956, the Eames Lounger has seduced the design inclined. Its kicked-back silhouette makes it equally accessible to interior buffs as comfort connoisseurs. Which is to say: it’s the kind of peace-making piece that has settled many a couples’ design debate. That said, with its rosewood armor and black leather upholstery, this 1950s retro furniture piece can feel oppressively office-like. One way to prevent an Eames Lounger from ruling a room? Making it less recognizable. For a residence located in Venice Beach, California, designer Daun Curry did just that, ditching the leather for a jubilant fabric. The fabric overhaul effectively rewrites the Eames Lounger’s narrative, transforming it from office throne to family-friendly seat. 

Sitting room with green-painted builtin bookshelves and tan egg chair
Design by Charlotte Lucas Design / Photo by Chris Edwards

2. Strike Up a Contrast

Arne Jacobsen’s Egg Chair was originally created for the SAS Royal Hotel Copenhagen hotel. Marvelously mod, the hotel effectively teams the pragmatism of Danish design with the swankiness of American Modernism. Designer Charlotte Lucas didn’t feel inclined to keep the Egg Chair in its natural habitat; however. For her makeover of an adults’ lounge, Charlotte stationed the Egg Chair in a classic—but playful—rainbow-hued library to prevent it from feeling like a relic. Outed from its usual minimalist surroundings, this 1960s retro furniture piece takes on new life. If you’re game to strike up a May-December contrast similar to Charlotte’s, consider 60s and 70s retro furniture that pays tribute to classic designs. For instance, the Egg Chair has undeniable links to the wingback—a library staple for centuries.

Bedroom with blue and white floral wallpaper and black side table
Design by Charlotte Lucas Interior Design / Photo by Erin Comerford Miller

3. Position it as Part of a Set 

Part of the worry with iconic modern retro furniture? That it will wrench attention from other elements in a room. To prevent a Dorothy Draper España chest from showboating in a restful retreat she designed, Charlotte Lucas elected to build a bedroom set around it. To complement it, she selected a four-poster bed cast in the same ebony hue as the chest and a chinoiserie mirror color-matched to the chest’s accenting beige-gold hue. Together, the suite effectively neutralizes the chest’s scene-stealing reputation. Regardless, there’s no denying the stand-out qualities of this 50s retro furniture piece. Charlotte pays homage to the chest’s visual virtues by opting for shams that mimic the quadrilateral shape incised on the chest’s drawers. It’s a pro move that underscores the chest’s design prowess but also downplays it by making it feel like part of a larger ensemble.

Bright contemporary dining room with marble tulip table and metal dining chairs with chartreuse cushions
Design by Summer Thornton / Photo by Josh Thornton

4. Couple it with Another Classic

One way to make sure your iconic 1960s retro furniture doesn’t commandeer a room? Partner it with an equally famous counterpart. For an exuberant dining room, designer Summer Thornton paired a retro set of Warren Platner chairs with an Eero Saarinen marble-topped Tulip table. The two designs—instantly recognizable to even the most casual of Mid-Century enthusiasts—hold equal weight. This essentially makes it impossible for one design to eclipse the other. Worth noting is that Warren Platner did design a matching table for his chairs. However, partnering the two together can result in a room that feels more period-piece than chic. A boho-inspired rug and pair of Postmodern abstracts further distance the room from any overly thematic connotations.

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Lead image: Design by Summer Thornton / Photo by Josh Thornton

July 2, 2021

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