Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
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amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971
“Young People Are Having ’80s Parties” AntiqueWeek 41 (April 20, 2009) Recently, a young co-worker mentioned that he hosted a 1980s party.  “We ate pasta alfredo and watched Blue Velvet,” he said. The idea is not as original as he seemed to think. You hear more and more about these 1980s parties being organized by hip millenials. The girls wear leggings and tease their hair into a big frizzy mess.  I’m not sure what the boys wear.  The point seems to be a jokey take-off of the decade’s parochialism and pretentiousness.    It’s startling to think that the years of one’s adolescence have been claimed for ironic re- enactment. I’ve been thinking a lot about the 1980s.  I work for an online vendor of estate antiques in Brooklyn.  We sell a little of everything.  Our inventory is not exactly museum quality, but we offer a nice range of silver, porcelain, and glass. Every week I visit the Upper East Side dealer who supplies us with our stock. He’s been cleaning out apartments for 50 years.  He passes on to us not only the Victorian tureens and Art Deco letter openers but the newish stuff, a category made up, largely, of unused wedding gifts.  While the Tiffany candlesticks and Lalique vases tend to linger in our eBay store, the china is a fast sell.  Especially popular are the dishes with colorful birds and flowers on black ground—very crisp and very 1980s.  It is the antiques, however, that remind me most of that decade: Vermeil fish knives, little porcelain boxes, and papier-mâché screens—all the superfluous gewgaws that signaled the rediscovery of luxury are crammed in there.  The dealer has entered the hoarding phase of his career, so finding new inventory resembles an excavation.  The silver is kept in old brown grocery bags and the showcases of Meissen are hidden behind large portraits. Most everything else is piled pell-mell; that too evokes the zealous acquisitiveness of the 1980s.  His indifference to Modern design is another marker. Teasing things out of him can be a challenge, but while he is retentive of the Sèvres cachepots, he lets go without protest of a Midcentury tea service. There were many influences on home decoration, but it is the English influence that I remember most vividly. Beginning in 1981, when Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer, the 1980s were characterized by an enthusiasm for all things English.  In 1982, there was Brideshead Revisited, the 11 hour miniseries that was filmed at Castle Howard in Yorkshire.  And three years later, the blockbuster exhibition The Treasures Houses of Britain opened at the National Gallery of Art. For connoisseurs of historic interiors, the pickings were rich.  Anglophilia is one of those fashions where the superficial flourishes side by side with the serious.  In France, in the 1780s, the English taste reflected the desire for political freedom and reform on the eve of revolution. It was, at the same time, the moment when the mahogany dining table came into fashion in France. The 1980s, likewise, were a time of danger and anxiety.  Angus Trumble, who is a curator at the Yale Center for British in New Haven, is one of the people I spoke to about those days. “The Soviet Union was breathing down the neck of Western Europe,” he says.  A resurgent Great Britain, under the leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, gave hope to the West.  The new opulence also coincided with fierce policy debates about the role of government in helping the poor. “People forget how bitter those divisions were,” he says. Not that the decorator picking out lampshades was necessarily thinking about any of these things. But what must have been obvious, even to the sporadic shopper, was the lavishness of furnishings and decoration. Sharon McCormick, an interior designer in Durham, Connecticut, remembers the style well. Back then, she had just finished her MBA and was working as a CPA. Socially, she ran with other young professionals, who aspired to good jobs and nice homes. “This is when life started getting really busy,” she remembers.  Many women sought to combine a career with the responsibilities of motherhood and homemaking. While there was more running around there was also, thanks to the second income, more money for decorating. Their career choices may have been ground-breaking, but their tastes tended to be traditional. The predominant style was inspired by the English country house.  The models were not only Castle Howard but Chatsworth and Badminton—historic stately homes that were featured in magazines, like Architectural Digest. The American version of manorial chic was fussier, brighter, and more cheerful than the real thing. Another trait: The density of ornament. Not since the 19th century have rooms been decorated with such a quantity of patterns. The sofa alone, crowded with chintz cushions, might count a half-dozen patterns. Every space was filled.   Walls were papered, stenciled, and tiled. Window curtains, at the start of the decade, were unobtrusive panels that ensured privacy and warmth.  They metastasized into cascading folds of silk held in place with tasseled tiebacks.  For the adventurous—and masochistic—there were the DIY decorating manuals that were published by Laura Ashley and Conran’s, two English design firms that were in their heyday. Tenting a room was one of the spare-time projects that could be attempted.  “Just think of a theme and choose the fabric that best expresses it,” cheerily begins one set of instructions, followed by pages of dense type and diagrams that assume Nobel-prize caliber spatial-visual skills.                                                                                      The new way spilled over into the related activity of collecting.  The serendipitous pace of accumulation was replaced by something more concentrated, McCormick recalls.  Weekends were spent (in her words) “on the hunt” in auction houses and antiques stores. The competition was strong for Staffordshire figurines and other English curios, which were displayed en masse in the home. “They had to be all out together,” she testifies. “Every single tabletop was covered with books and figurines.” And the table, most likely, was covered with a short square cloth draped over a ruffled floor-length one. Has the antiques trade ever benefited from a more congenial style? By the 1990s, the look was hopelessly out of date.  Maintenance was onerous. The dusting alone took hours. Inevitably, there was a reaction in the form of plain white dishes and boxy taupe sofas. I feel nostalgic because I make my living selling antiques—but I wouldn’t want to live that way.