The other day I happened to be walking through downtown Austin, Texas, when I passed a graffiti tag that read, “Down with the man!” Seeing the tag sprawled across the grungy street corner not only felt authentically “Austin,” but the phrase also took me back to the (not so) rebellious days of my youth when punk music reigned supreme. Between seeing the tag and driving home to hear a radio DJ announce the return of “pop-punk,” my mind began to wonder. Is punk back? Is punk interior design making its way into our homes? And, what happens when a movement against mainstream consumerism becomes popular and available for purchase?
As you may know by now, I’ve been taking time to complete a cross-country road trip to discover all-American interior design styles. It was clear to me that punk interior design was next on the list. (As an added bonus, the style has its own soundtrack to accompany me on the ride.) So here’s what my team of Austin interior designers and I learned about the elements of punk interior design, the influences on the movement, and the dichotomy of authenticity being available for purchase.
Punk…It’s Not a Phase, Mom
Years ago, I had a client who lived at The Four Seasons Hotel and hired me to redecorate their space. In addition to adding practical storage and function, I layered in lovely textiles and posh details that any punk worth their salt would surely mock. We placed TVs in the bathroom, hung oil paintings with gilded frames in the dining room, and splurged on luxury furnishings. It was a stark contrast to the stereotypical “punk pad” with a mattress on the floor and a poster taped to the wall.
As the project neared completion, my client asked me to frame and hang some of their favorite artwork. They instructed me to pick up the pieces and get the ball rolling. When I showed up, I let out a chuckle at the original concert posters from The Misfits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Ramones spread across the marble-top dining room table. I could hear the concert crowds shouting “yuppie scum” upon seeing the posh penthouse where these posters now resided. Trust me, the irony of a bougie interior designer framing posters from bands who are adamantly anti-establishment, anti-materialistic, and celebratory of the dirty side of life was not lost. Apparently, the punk spirit lives on, even when you move from a life of basement shows to days spent hovering above the town with a penthouse view.
It just goes to show — punk is not a phase, mom!
Elements of the Punk Interior Design Style
Authenticity & Self-awareness
Punk as a movement embraces authenticity and self-awareness. So, these principles need to be the basis of any punk interior design scheme. Recently, I finished a stunning Philadelphia home, which is perhaps one of my most thoughtful projects to date. This client and I have worked together for over 20 years, and the flow of ideas between us is old hat. We landed on using a Victorian desk note holder in her guest bathroom as a charming display for fingertip towels.
While this bathroom design was beautiful, it was starting to feel a little too serious and stuffy. I thought to myself, “How are we going to break up this beauty with a little self-awareness of our bougie style?” While this home was by no means “punk,” that didn’t mean we couldn’t embrace a dash of authenticity, self-awareness, and humor.
I found this grungy bathroom image where the phrase “you look fine” replaced the mirror. It was a perfect example of the punk style saying, “Stop being so concerned with your image.” While we concurred that the powder room needed a mirror for guests to powder their noses in between dinner courses, we did add our own little moment of punk realness with some tongue and cheek towels. All this is to say, keep your home true to yourself. (And, don’t be afraid to be a little edgy.)
Punk interior design embraces unexpected objects and collections. On any design project, I find myself drawn to breaking up our peaceful and beautifully designed spaces with something “ugly.” Maybe it’s a tarnished bowl sitting proudly on a polished marble table or a Sex Pistols poster hung on the wall of a sleek office. Providing an antithesis or contrast to luxury in a design only heightens the comfort and beauty of the space by comparison.
I had another client a few years back that allowed me to tag their new home with graffiti. For a day, I got to be the misfit in the alleyway with a can of spray paint. We created a cool urban mural scene celebrating some of the client’s personal interests — tagging the fireplace and a few interior walls. As you can imagine, this spree of anarchy was great fun for a preppy kid like me! When it comes to punk interior design, graffiti is a must. However, the graffiti look is becoming very mainstream (and high-end) in interiors today. For example, Kelly Wearstler has her own line of graffiti-inspired wallpaper. (The punks out there will gasp when they hear it goes for over $100 per yard.)
The punk look embraces piercings, studded clothing, and even safety pin accessories. Bringing these harsh metallic accents to one’s personal image was meant to disturb and outrage the more straight-laced fashionistas of the day. So, of course, punk interior design embraces metal accents and metallic faux finishes as a nod to the fashion of the movement.
Muted Monotones Or “In Your Face” Colors
The punk color palette can go one of two ways — muted monotones or bright in-your-face colors. On the one hand, you have punks wearing simple white tees paired with black leather jackets, jeans, and Doc Martens. On the other, you have bright purple or green mohawks loud enough to stand out in a punk rock concert crowd. Either of these palettes can make its way into the home. What makes them punk is the execution and ability to create a little shock and awe.
The Punk Movement vs. The Punk Style
Punk as a Movement
Punk as a movement set out to reject collective mainstream ideals in favor of individual authenticity. However, as someone who lived through the 80s, I also know that punk had its problems in creating an extremist environment. It’s no secret that Nazi skinheads embraced the musical genre, storming concerts and promoting hate. In some of my research into punk history, I found that the punk movement fought against hateful rhetoric. Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys even put out a song in 1981 titled “Nazi Punks F*ck Off.” The punk movement prevented the genre from being appropriated by fascist hate groups. However, it could not stop the aesthetic from being picked up, packaged, and made available for purchase in malls across the country.
Punk as a Style
While early punk fashion was homemade, designers eventually picked up the edgy appeal and continue to incorporate it into today’s clothing designs. Vivienne Westwood and others like her took the street look of punk and turned it into a global clothing genre whose influences are felt far and wide. The 70s punk movement went on to influence the 90s grunge look and even today’s style. Ugly is the new pretty. While an old-school punk may have spent hours waiting in line for a concert tee or adding safety pins to their leather jacket, the punk look can now be purchased from any designer online and delivered with next-day shipping.
Is Punk Interior Design a Sell Out?
It seems like punk as a movement and punk as a style work in opposition with each other. The punk movement pushes against the establishment and promotes individual authenticity while the punk style is sold by prominent designers and brands, making bank off the aesthetic. Would a real punk spend $100 a yard on graffiti wallpaper? No. Punk, at its core, reacts against the manufactured culture of the day, diving into gritty realism and authenticity.
While punk as a style misses the point of punk as a movement, we can still embrace some of the ideas in our designs. After all, punk reminds us there is opposition in the world — between the beautiful and the ugly and the authentic and the sellouts. While it may be an ugly world out there sometimes, we can find beauty amidst anything and always stay true to ourselves.