Learn How Owls Became a '70s Decorating Staple

The first-ever Earth Day and a rising handicraft movement affixed this bird on 'absolutely everything.'

Owls were the original put-a-bird-on-it trend, emerging in the 1970s when we got crunchy, crafty, and back to nature. We showcased the wide-eyed bird on lamps, planters, walls, rugs, pillows, and salt-and-pepper shakers, to start. "There were owls on absolutely everything," says Dr. Anna Ruth Gatlin, an assistant professor at Auburn University who teaches the history of interior design.

The owl trend flew in on the wings of the environmental movement, born shortly after Ohio's oil-slicked Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. The first Earth Day was held less than a year later, putting the country on track to create the Environmental Protection Agency and many major pieces of legislation protecting water, air, and animals in the 1970s. Around this time, Mr. Owl, the beloved Tootsie Pop mascot, reached televisions across America, securing the big-eyed bird as a household figure.

photo of Lady Bird Johnson with Woodsy Owl and Smokey the Bear circa 1970
Courtesy of Forest Service, USDA

Environmentalism Enters the Home

Soon after, our long affair with all things industrial ended. In the 1970s, nature became a bucolic escape from the manmade world where you could get back to your authentic self. We brought the outdoors inside with handmade, natural, and rustic materials. And with depictions of owls.

"There was a longing for nature, which is why owls were such a popular motif," Dr. Gatlin says. "You saw mushrooms pop up as a common decorating motif, too, along with owls, so it was about romanticizing the wild nature of the forest." Other interior trends that took their cues from nature included wood-paneled walls and color palettes of golds, greens, and browns.

Owls also represent spirituality and wisdom. "There was a sense we could learn something from nature and animals if we just listened," says Dr. Gatlin.

Enter Woodsy Owl, America's original and official mascot for environmentalism. He was created in 1971 by the U.S. Forest Service to teach kids to "Give a hoot; don't pollute!" Woodsy Owl showed up in animated PSAs on Saturday morning TV, educational materials in grade schools, and on T-shirts given out at community litter cleanups.

Yep, long before social media, the federal government played the part of influencer, making owls a now-iconic design element. The Fed is a big part of the reason your grandma or parents displayed some incarnation of those big-eyed birds.

gray macrame owl on white background

Macramé Takes Flight

One of the most popular versions of the 1970s decorative owl was the macramé wall hanging, made of knotted rope, wood beads, and sticks.

Macramé is a form of textile created by tying knots, rather than weaving or knitting. It originated in the 19th century with sailors who had knot-tying skills along with lots of rope and time on their hands. Sailors made everything from hammocks to belts while at sea and sold them in port for extra cash. However, macramé went out of vogue in the late 19th century when factories could make those goods faster and cheaper.

Dr. Anna Ruth Gatlin, assistant professor at Auburn University

Macrame owls combined the desire for nature with a rising handicraft movement ... There was a nostalgia for a time when you made things yourself.

— Dr. Anna Ruth Gatlin, assistant professor at Auburn University

But macramé experienced a resurgence in the 1970s, a golden age for crafts, with people crocheting afghans, sewing needlepoint, decoupaging furniture, and making string art.

Macramé was used to make plant hangers, bedspreads, and just about anything you could hang on the wall. "There was a nostalgia for a time when you made things yourself instead of buying everything," Dr. Gatlin says. "Macramé owls combined the desire for nature with a rising handicraft movement."

You could also buy kits for making macramé owls, and craft supplies like yarn, beads, and rope were accessible and affordable.

Owls were also part of a trend to personalize homes in the Me Generation. "You had all these Boomers who had been into the counterculture in the 1960s who now have homes," Dr. Gatlin says. "They didn't want their homes to look like everybody else's. They wanted their space to be their own." Making their own macramé owls was a convergence of environmentalism, individualism, and a romance for handmade items.

Owls made a small comeback in the 2000s, thanks in part to Harry Potter's Hedwig. The birds appeared in Jonathan Adler collections, at retailers like Anthropologie and West Elm, and as handcrafted items via the newly established e-commerce company, Etsy. As interest in secondhand and vintage markets continues to increase amid global ecological concerns, a market for owls remains. However, the 1970s remain the apex of the owl in interior decorating.

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