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Vintage trivet.
A vintage trivet with a touch of psychedelia.

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Welcome to the Suburban Psychedelic

Exploring the brief moment when middle America adopted the hippie aesthetic

The foyer stretched up two stories, with a staircase curving down and walls covered with a yellow-on-orangey-yellow floral wallpaper that looped and swooped in an oscillating oval design that somehow evoked peacock feathers. I wanted to stay and gaze at it forever, but the flow of the estate sale propelled me along. The good news was the pattern wrapped around into an adjacent nook, where a generation or two of extraordinarily sunny breakfasts had been served. The bad news was that the people behind me were talking loudly about how much they hated the wallpaper, the kitchen, the walls themselves. And they’d just bought this perfectly preserved time capsule of a house.

The colors and patterns of the hippie era made a short-lived foray into home decor, which was mostly quickly extinguished—save for the much-derided and occasionally re-celebrated avocado stoves and mustard refrigerators. For a brightly colored interval, everyday people across the country could capture some of the Haight-Ashbury and Soul Train style sensibilities and bring those aesthetics home.

Imagine a 30-something design magazine editor in 1967, maybe a new parent, maybe starting to wonder how trends had drifted so far from what they know. What happened to Richard Neutra’s accessible modernism and the oh-so-classy Kennedy-inspired Camelot classics? They look at the riotously patterned record cover of the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Incense and Peppermints” and think, We’ve got to get on this groovy psychedelic train! But we can’t do that.

So they cherry-pick and water it down—instead of a dozen different prints together, just a handful; redo a girl’s room in not just pink but electric pink—and come up with something that is spirited, colorful, and palatable to your average home decorator. Let’s call it Suburban Psychedelic. It’s the excessive, endearingly imperfect opposite of midcentury modernism.

A living room centered around a couch upholstered in Marimekko-like fabric.

I have a book from 1970, Better Homes and Gardens: Creative Decorating on a Budget. Better Homes and Gardens has always been a place for the cost-conscious middle-class consumer—I mean, it’s not called Best Homes and Gardens. This book is black with yellow endpapers and yellow highlights on the cover, which features a living room with a black-and-white sofa in a busy tree and bird print (cranes? eating grapes?) topped by, among other things, a basket-weave pillow. Why those two together? Clashing patterns—all the kids are doing it!

It’s a feast for the eyes. And it’s just the beginning, because the cover is only printed in black, white, and yellow. Inside there are colors, everything from holy-shit-that’s-bright yellow to electrocution pink. There’s a color wheel that tells you to match yellow, red-orange, blue-green, and violet. There’s a creepy red-and-black kitchen and living rooms in every shade of green.

Brightly colored and patterned furniture from the 1960s and ‘70s.
The cover of “Creative Decorating on a Budget,” published in 1970.

It’s speaking my language. Maybe I saw a few too many Sid & Marty Krofft reruns while growing up in gray, Colonial New England, but I’ve always preferred lime green to off-white.

Suburban Psychedelic embraces bright colors on walls, furniture, rugs, window treatments, kitchen cabinets, floors, and ceilings. It spreads patterned wallpaper on walls and bookshelves and headboards and window shades. It features boldly patterned drapes, chairs, couches, linoleum, sheets. And rugs. And paintings. And knick-knacks.

It crams all these things together, incongruously, with an enforced moderation. My book explains, “With practice, knowledge, and command of the design elements—form, line, space, color, and texture—you can easily learn to decorate your home without the aid of a professional, on even the tightest of budgets.” Can you? Trying to combine this sensible approach with madcap psychedelia isn’t easy. But I love its attempt to pack excess into ranch houses. So much more fun than another white-walled apartment with three perfectly placed succulents.

A photo of a living room with bright green walls, green wall-to-wall carpet, a green brocade corner couch, and matching curtains is captioned, “A room should reflect the personality and life style of its occupants.” (“I guess those were envious people,” someone quipped on Twitter). Another living room photo is so acid green that the color corrector must have been actually doing acid.

Aye, there’s the rub. Taking inspiration from LSD-laced visions for people several degrees removed from the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll world meant the design lost its organic flair. That’s the bad news. The good news is these living rooms didn’t reek of patchouli.

In a room I’d be happy to have in my house with a few tiny tweaks, there’s a couch covered in a knockoff Marimekko pattern of blues and greens between two towering shelves, a citrus chair, a blue-green shag rug, a shaggy matching blue chair, and a very Lack-ish coffee table in enamel green against vivid yellow walls. Just turn down the yellow a skosh and move that shag-covered chair away from the carpet so it doesn’t look like it’s being eaten by it like that episode of Star Trek: Next Generation.

A bedroom done up in a variety of pinks and reds.
McCall’s home-decorating pamphlet from 1968.

Better Homes and Gardens wasn’t the only straight design publication that went on a psychedelia kick. I have a 1968 pamphlet from McCall’s with directions for doing over your daughter’s bedroom top to bedroom in electric pink or, in your otherwise unchanged living room, tie-dying the floor-to-ceiling drapes. The disconnect between the wildly creative antecedents and the ready-for-your-cul-de-sac actualities was probably as obvious then as it is now. And yet, people tried.

That’s one of the things I love about Suburban Psychedelic. It’s a lot easier to live with a slightly off-cream living room than the wrong shade of mustard yellow. It’s a lot of work to get the wallpaper onto your dresser so it matches the wall. It takes a brave creative leap to add color and pattern to your home, and then add some more, and then some more.

It’s endearing and risky, yet determinedly accessible.

There was a brilliant excess to the ’60s, and how do you dial down excess? You could keep your glass coffee table and bronze lamp, thank you very much, while going for it with tie-dyed drapes. You might paint the hallway walls and ceiling tangerine orange, for a while. Or you might find the most cheerful near-psychedelic wallpaper ever and fill the front of your house with it. Maybe you’ll be bold enough to keep it until your dying day.

Welcome to the Suburban Psychedelic. I’m happy you’re here.

Yellow wallpaper
Suburban Psychedelic-style yellow wallpaper, purchased by the author from an estate sale.
Image courtesy of Carolyn Kellogg