Last year, Man Repeller’s Amelia Diamond wrote this brilliant article about the weird prescience of the clothing choices in “Napoleon Dynamite”. The wheel of fashion is always turning, and suddenly, more than a decade after the movie’s release, some of Napoleon’s strange, frumpy getups are the height of chic. Which got me thinking: I wonder if the same thing has happened for the movie’s interiors? The fact that Napoleon’s grandmother’s house is basically a relic from the ’70s is supposed to be a sign of his outsider status, but ’70s interiors are suddenly very hip again. Are grandma and Uncle Rico the design pioneers we never knew we needed? I decided to re-watch the movie and find out.
One of the questions I kept asking myself, as I was watching, was: when is this movie supposed to take place? Napoleon’s grandmother’s house has a distinctly ’70s vibe, but other interiors in the movie feel closer to the early ’90s. Summer Wheatley wears a scrunchie, and Napoleon’s brother Kip has some rudimentary form of the internet, which he pays for by the minute. All this seems to place the movie sometime around 1995, which was a guess I felt pretty satisfied with until near the end of the movie, when Summer and friends perform a dance routine to the Backstreet Boys’ “Larger than Life,” which, problematically, wasn’t released until 1999. (The song that Napoleon dances to, Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat,” also came out in 1999.) Are Napoleon and his friends supposed to live in a strange Midwestern town that exists outside of time? Or are they all just really, really behind the times style (and technology) wise?
As it turns out, I should’ve been looking much earlier in the film for the answer to my question. The Wikipedia article about the film pointed me to the opening credits, where Napoleon’s student ID is clearly marked for the 2004-2005 school year. This makes the characters’ fashion choices particularly puzzling: how to explain a high school where, in 2004, even the popular kids dress like it’s the early ’90s? I prefer to think that Napoleon Dynamite exists in an alternate universe, one very like ours but with a slightly different style timeline. It’s really the only explanation (that, or the filmmaker’s jab at culturally rural “Middle America”).
With that said: on to the interiors! Since that’s what you’re here for.
With the exception of Kip’s computer, Napoleon’s grandmother’s house is like a perfect time capsule from the ’70s. All the details are there: the brown cabinets, the avocado dishwasher, the stretched-out phone cord.
These couches are about a year and a half away from appearing in an Urban Outfitters catalog. Mark my words.
I could see these chairs appearing on one of those Instagram accounts about ugly things that everyone secretly thinks are cool.
Napoleon’s grandmother’s house is liberally provided with wood paneling, perhaps the most memorable design element of the ’70s. Wood paneling has had a certain retro-cool feel for years, and I could totally see this same design in a Brooklyn bar, maybe with slightly different artwork and accessories.
Other people in the film seem to have progressed, decor-wise, at least to the early ’90s. These affordable French provincial-style sets might be a staple of thrift stores now, but there was a time when they were the height of chic.
At Trisha’s house, the early ’90s are in full swing. Blonde oak cabinets! Overstuffed furniture! Fake flowers! There’s definitely a difference between Napoleon’s house and those of the cool kids, but even at the time the movie came out, in 2004, they both looked pretty dated, which contributes to the film’s quirky, almost surreal quality.
These are actually pretty sweet decorations for a high school dance.
At the home of Rex Kwon Do, where Uncle Rico makes an ill-fated stopover, we’re back to the ’70s again, with a red sink (very patriotic) and wood cabinets.
Probably my favorite detail in the whole movie is the portraits of Kip and Napoleon that hang over the sofa, in that double exposure style that was popular for reasons nobody can now ascertain. It’s little details like these that make the movie such a delight — and such a puzzle. What decade does Napoleon live in? Are ’80s-style double portraits destined to make a comeback via a quirky Instagram plugin? We can only guess.