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3 North American Design Trends

The Three Big North American Design Trends to Watch Out For in 2021

In this office by designer Brynn Olson, the chair is made by hand in the Mayan

In this office by designer Brynn Olson, the chair is made by hand in the Mayan © Cynthia Lynn Kim

For years, minimalism and mid-century modernism have reigned in North American design, from private homes to hotels and restaurants. But the seismic shift created by the pandemic has ignited a fervor in consumers for bigger, brighter, and bolder design choices.

“It's interesting that whenever there's a big change in the economy—for instance, following the Great Depression and more recently the pandemic—people were always more drawn to brighter colors, sexier silhouettes, and elements for in home and fashion that were more fun,” says interior designer Becky Shea . “When you're surrounded by humdrum, it's inspiring to be bold and step outside the norm.”

These days, some of the most popular trends in North American design are all about making big visual statements. Maximalism has superseded minimalism; the striking shapes and patterns of the 1980s have returned; and handcrafted objects are in.

Maximalism: More Is More

There’s a time and a place for spa-like serenity, but after spending a year cooped up inside, people have had enough of it. “In the past I had so many clients tell me they wanted their home to feel like a calm respite from the bustling outdoors, but once people started to spend more time at home, they missed seeing different colors, patterns, textures, and shapes layered into their spaces,” says New York–based designer Emma Beryl . “I think that even now that things are open, and people are out and about again, this shift in the way people are considering their own spaces is sticking around.”

Within the framework of maximalism, designers are not only incorporating contemporary patterns, but also reviving traditional ones—a style known as “grandmillennial,” in which younger clients bring back their grandparents’ “outdated” patterns and products like chinoiserie and slipcovers. “I see chinoiserie being incorporated most into luxury residential and commercial spaces,” says designer Brittany Farinas of House of One Interior Design in South Florida. “Lately, I’ve been seeing this style incorporated into powder rooms, and as well as being integrated into applied wall moldings to create feature moments.”

Even designers who have a more subdued aesthetic are finding ways to tap into maximalism, using color and pattern judiciously as accents. “More minimal designers such as myself are becoming more enticed and open to fun wallcoverings, bold prints and patterns on upholstery and layering in louder tones like eggplant, chartreuse, and emerald into very muted spaces,” says Shea.

But more than ever, designers are willing to let loose when it comes to maximalism. “One of the most beautiful things about maximalist design is that you don’t need to exercise restraint in what styles of furniture you include,” says Beryl. “As long as your design is telling a story and carefully curated, it’s okay to borrow pieces from all different styles. This will actually help in making the room feel more interesting and collected rather than just maximalism for the sake of maximalism.”

Designer Isabel Ladd mixes patterns and colors in this maximalist bedroom.

Designer Isabel Ladd mixes patterns and colors in this maximalist bedroom.© Andrew Kung

Retro Decor: The ’80s Are Back

The 1980s aren’t necessarily the most lauded years of design history, but the decade’s retro styles are re-emerging with gusto. “With interiors as well as with fashion, what was popular 20 years ago always comes back into style. That is, what was popular in 1980 was also popular in the early 2000s and is again growing in popularity now in the 2020s,” says Beryl.

Despite the common criticism that ’80s decor is, well, ugly, the era’s designers did change the course of product design, particularly when it comes to using geometric forms in furniture and objets d’art. “The ’80s influenced the use of different shapes in furnishings and lighting fixtures, which we see a lot of in contemporary design today, from sculptural pieces that are primarily used to fill a negative space to puffy furniture pieces that have sculptural bodies but are more functional and practical,” says Shea.

Rather than embrace the ’80s in full, designers are more selective in how they’re bringing styles back—like keeping the retro shape but changing the materials. “For example, shell motifs were popular in the 80s in glass and colorful plastic, but now I’m seeing a lot of this shape replicated in stone or plaster,” says Beryl. Similarly, Ella Hall, founder of custom upholstery company Stitchroom , has noticed clients reupholstering vintage pieces from the ’80s, which gives their retro silhouette a more contemporary look suited to today’s tastes. “I attribute the growing interest in ’80s decor to the revival of ’80s TV shows, media, and nostalgia,” she says.

The trend isn’t just popular with in-the-know interior design aficionados who are tipping their hats to the Memphis Group, Ettore Sottsass’ seminal collective. “I am seeing a lot of it in cocktail tables and seating pieces from places like CB2, which means it’s hit the mainstream,” says Houston-based designer Mary Patton .

CB2 partnered with designer Kara Mann on an ’80s-inspired collection.

CB2 partnered with designer Kara Mann on an ’80s-inspired collection.© CB2

Handcrafted Objects: Supporting Independent Makers

In light of the pandemic, social justice movements, and the climate crisis, consumers are becoming more mindful about the products they buy, choosing to focus on who made them, how they made them, and why they made them. Aesthetically, that’s led to an increase in the popularity of artisan-made products in the home, from decor objects to furniture, particularly those by BIPOC and women makers.

“There's a sense of comradery in purchasing a piece that is one of a kind, handcrafted or made locally,” says Shea. “It's almost as if you're tethered to a community, and I do believe, especially after the year we've had, that humans need connection in real time. It's an important facet that we overlook because of how interconnected we are with technology.”

The power of design is that this sense of connection and community can be translated into the items with which we furnish our homes. “This past year reminded us to take stock in those loved and cherished things that provide us the greatest emotional and sentimental value,” says Byron Peart, founder of socially and environmentally conscious design shop Goodee, a platform for global artisans. Pert suggests that consumers are now looking to purchase design objects that tell a story, whether that’s the journey of the maker or the journey of the buyer.

“Ultimately, the products and stories presented on Goodee are selected because they go beyond the physical narrative of ‘what’ that we have become so accustomed to, especially online, and transcend to deliver the often elusive ‘why,’” says Peart. “Needless to say, it has been encouraging to see what truly feels like a sustained shift in not only awareness but activism in how consumers support small and independent businesses whose values truly align with theirs.”

And, as a bonus, handcrafted products are commonly made via sustainable manufacturing methods that do not often accompany mass production. “You also have so much more control over what materials you are using and how sustainable they are when you purchase something handmade,” says Beryl. “For example, you can specify that you want reclaimed wood or organic cotton instead of using whatever non-sustainable materials a larger producer might have chosen.” For a conscious consumer, that eco-minded process makes all the difference.

These woven baskets by Baba Tree / Goodee.

These woven baskets by Baba Tree/ Goodee.© Baba Tree/Goodee

Guest article by Stefanie Waldek, Design Milk