The Midcentury-Modern Colored Tile Bathroom Is Back, Thank God
This story is part of Pretty Ugly, a package celebrating design that’s so bad, it’s good.
The first house I sublet in Los Angeles had the tiniest, greenest, most precious little toilet I’d ever seen. Of course, its best friend was the matching green sink by its side. Can you imagine which color the tiles were? The exact, satisfying same celadon green. And can you imagine that some of these tiles, in the standing shower for example, went all the way to the ceiling, creating an impression of an endless cascade of matching pale green all around you? Thank you for imagining, because that’s what they did.
And that across Los Angeles there were lots of matchy-matchy coordinated bathrooms, with perfectly coordinated little sinks and tiles and baths and toilets and shows, available in every shade? Because there were and it was one of my top favorite things about the city.
Indeed, something about the housing stock proliferation and the rhythms of renovation in Los Angeles created—in my experience—the greatest proliferation of bright, tacky, weird, adorable, funny midcentury bathrooms I’ve ever encountered.
"Midcentury-modern [architecture] was popular all across the nation, but it was especially popular in California," says Alan Hess, an architect and authority on Southern California Modernism who works with the Los Angeles Conservancy. And at this time, "colorful tiled bathrooms were a major selling point in midcentury houses." In the decades before WWII, says Hess, "the prevailing style of bathrooms in new homes was black and white, like a hospital." Home buyers in this era prioritized a clean, rigorous, "scientific" aesthetic. But after 1945, luxurious bathrooms came in flashy, coordinated colors. And then, in later decades, Los Angelans were less itchy to gut these bathrooms than people in other cities. "Midcentury-modern architecture is more widely appreciated—and so preserved—today in LA than any other major city," Hess claims.
Katie E. Horak, the principal of the Architectural Resources Group, adds "we also had a lot of tile manufacturers here in Southern California (Pomona Tile, B&W Tile, and many others)." Of course, it’s not just Los Angeles—Southern California’s postwar housing boom meant more monochromatic bathrooms. Though "other cities with similar postwar economic prosperity have great tile bathrooms too," Horak explains, mentioning that she’s seen amazing bathrooms in Detroit and Minneapolis.
The second house I sublet in Los Angeles was even better than the first. A bright orange tub-shower combination made of long vertical tiles took the place of soft greens. The bathroom was tomato orange-red, "atomic orange" as my stylist roommate called it. The tiles paraded up, from the bottom of the tub all the way to the ceiling. It felt like bathing inside a slippery orange envelope. This bathroom—my favorite truly of my life I think—also had secret compartments by the sink. If you tapped these metal pieces, a little unit with a toothbrush holder would fling out. No contemporary, chubby toothbrush handle could fit inside, but you know what? It was there to provide a delightful surprise and it did.
There’s something magical to the feeling of being inside a color.
"I also love how many midcentury bathrooms also include built-in touches whether little like a toothbrush holder fixture or big like a vanity," says Ariel Norling, a designer and writer who runs the great ‘cool homes’ newsletter I Know a Spot. You know someone is into aesthetics when they’ve made space for a vanity. "The iconic midcentury bathroom to me is one where most of the room including the built-in vanity and shower are tiled in the same tile and the toilet, sink basin, and tub are all glazed in the same color."
Each new bathroom I discovered had some wild, going-for-broke color scheme. A favorite friend had a bathroom with an extremely ‘gender reveal’ scheme of baby-blue-baby-pink tile pattern, all interwoven with a tiny decorated tile of rose petals. But most of the time the tiles weren’t patterned; their formidable colors were enough. "To me, a midcentury tile bathroom isn’t complete without the matching porcelain fixtures!" says Horak. "We often see midcentury houses with two or three bathrooms, each with its own color scheme."
People learned of my fixation, and started to send me photographs of bathrooms they visited, which was great because I’m nosy and love to see what hand soaps and face brushes people have stacked on their sink. My phone was full of photos of adorable Tiffany blue tile-glazed sinks or coordinated carnation pink tile walls and bathtubs. I even started a now-defunct fan account for bathrooms in L.A., which I only neglected because of general inability to remember my social media. But my passion for these bathrooms never waned.
Bathrooms with outrageous tiles also seem braver about their layout. The white subway tile bathrooms seem to prioritize clean lines and the orderliness of hygiene. But an ostentatious lavender purple bathroom is not romanced by the cult of sterility! It doesn’t want straight lines! It wants a curvy arch over the stand-up shower! The tone of these bathrooms is generally pastel, and the mood is usually blissful. Bright and preppy Lilly Pulitzer schemes or fixated, single-minded monochromes of bright margarine, cherry blossom pink, honeydew pale greens. Rain-jacket yellows! Periwinkle!!!
Nothing is better than these shades. I hope this perfect shade of light teal-blue green, that I’ve maybe only seen in a bathroom, flashes through your brain right now. It’s almost invariably trimmed with onyx black rim at the top and a matching black towel rack. And the people have spoken—they’ve said, we miss these colors! At this moment, bathroom plumbing and tile company Kohler is holding a poll for customers to choose two of six archived vintage colors, which they will bring back for us. (I’m picking Lavender and Avocado, don’t let me sway you. It did break my heart not to select Peachblow.)
I think it’s the coordinated quality that I like the most in these bathrooms. Because bathrooms are usually a smaller chamber, the effect of monochrome seems more intense. It makes you feel entirely contained in a color. While a classic all-white bathroom has the smooth, empty cleanness of a blank piece of paper, being inside a vigorously coordinated all-pink bathroom isn’t so characterless. It’s got an individuality, and mystique. It’s like someone waved a wand, voila! The world is now turquoise! There’s something magical to the feeling of being inside a color.
Two years ago I moved into a Victorian-style house from the early 20th century in Philadelphia. The neighborhood is filled with houses from this era so it’s easy to compare which original elements were retained and which were replaced. We’ve gotten medium lucky. The diamond pane windows: we got them. An inviting, secretly uncomfortable window seat: she’s there. A clawfoot tub: she remained! But the bathroom tile from the last renovation (mid-aughts, tragically) could make me cry. Slate gray floors, random marbled stone in the shower. When describing the house to distant friends and family, I spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the bathrooms. When my mom finally visited, she was surprised.
"Oh there’s nothing to complain about, Maggie," she said. "It’s perfectly neutral."
Neutral was the problem. I wanted the weirdest, oldest, most special thing, the thing you can’t really get anew: the colorful midcentury baby green sink, matching toilet, matching walls, matching everything. I wanted the cherry blossom pink, honeydew pale green, rain-jacket yellow, avocado, periwinkle. Just one shade, of course, but I wanted the whole thing.
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Top photo by Found Image Holdings/Corbis via Getty Images
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