Style Guide for Vintage Bathrooms

Love vintage baths? Today's hottest designers dish the details on four classic styles.
By: Abigail R Esman

Bathrooms are increasingly being used as a place to relax, to retire from our busy lives. They may be one of the few places we feel we can be completely ourselves. This leaves a lot of room for decorating fantasy — and fun. Are you, at heart, a true Victorian romantic? Do you dream of the art deco glamour of the '30s, love the sock-hopping '50s or consider yourself a flower child of the '60s? Today's hottest designers give you the skinny on the style, no matter what era you love.

Victorian: Violets and Lace

Flowers, embroidery, marble, stained glass and all things in abundance — these features distinguish the Victorian age, which lasted roughly from 1837, when Queen Victoria ascended the throne, to her death in 1901. Baths of the time, says Dan Ollis, a partner at the Los Angeles-based Swanson-Ollis Interiors, reflected the flamboyance of the era with whimsical, jewel-toned decor.

"The signature style reflected the wealth of the owner with layer upon layer of adornment," says Dan. Ceilings were enhanced with crown moldings, floors with hexagonal tile or marble and walls with wallpapers of green, raspberry or warm brown. Tiffany lamps added another layer of color, says Dan, and furniture, mantels and woodwork were graced with fanciful turnings, spires and brackets.

The invention of the flush toilet moved plumbing indoors, replacing the familiar chamber pot with walnut cisterns and china bowls, sometimes richly painted, glazed or braced against the wall with decorative wrought iron. (The best of homes boasted equally elaborate sinks to match.)

Indeed, notes Dan, "The most defining statement of the Victorian Era was the style of plumbing fixtures. The always-fashionable ball-and-claw bathtub in copper or beautiful multi-color baked enamel, along with the accompanying toilet with its high, wall-mounted tank and pull-chain flush, are at the heart of the Victorian-era style."

Decadent and Deco

"Glamour, glamour and more glamour," defined the art deco era of the '20s and '30s, says Dan. The art deco style emerged in the early '20s, fueled by the design explosion from the Bauhaus school in Berlin. It was modernism with panache, elegant yet sexy, drawing on sensual colors like burgundy, coral and turquoise.

David-Michael of David-Michael Designs in Orange County, Calif., says bathroom cabinetry design was often inspired by ocean liners. Glass drawer pulls complemented the sleek design, while chrome- and nickel-plated bathroom fixtures added sparkle.

The discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922 brought about a general fascination with all things Egyptian — a trend that harmonized perfectly with deco's emphasis on geometric forms, bringing sphinxes, pyramids and even falcons into the repertoire of motifs.

"The geometric rhythm of art deco inspired a whole new world in design," says Dan, and architectural spaces began to reflect this geometric impulse, with recesses and volutes (or scrolls). "Geometric ceramic and marble floor and wall tiles went full tilt," adds Dan, "with great, rhythmic patterns of chevrons and stripes. Bathtubs became large and sexy with roll-over waterfall fronts, with ripples cast into the sides." Lalique crystal lent a spectacular finishing touch.

'50s Flair

Although art deco glamour faded somewhat during the troubled years of World War II, 1950s optimism — and the accompanying baby boom — inspired an entirely new look in home decor. Growing families in need of larger homes instigated a housing boom as they rushed to newly established, modern suburbs, where houses offered larger and more plentiful bedrooms and separate baths for parents and for children.

"Color took the driver's seat" in the '50s, according to Dan, with turquoise, sea-green and pinks that ranged from bubble-gum to salmon. Color was especially prominent in the plastic tiles that lined the bathroom walls and in big, box-shaped vanities.

Victorian and deco styles often looked at history for inspiration, echoing Gothic, Rococo or ancient Egyptian impulses. In the '50s, everything was new and now, from TVs in the living room and Tupperware in the kitchen to the plastic tubs and towel racks adorning the family bath. Colorful cabinet and vanity drawers with chrome or plastic pulls, and wall-mounted (rather than pedestal) sinks in shades of flamingo pink or aqua-blue underscored America's post-war exuberance.

Poodle themes were also particularly popular, with wallpaper dotted with dancing poodles, or poodle-themed accessories like soap dishes and cups, often made of Lucite or plexiglass. "In general, everything was bigger in the '50s," says designer John Buscarello of New York's John A. Buscarello, Inc.

'60s Sensations

If color drove the '50s, "colorful" is the word that best describes the '60s, from psychedelic posters to hot pink lipstick by Mary. The Beatles created "Yellow Submarine," and Andrew Lloyd Webber swept up Broadway with a musical entitled Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

But for all the celebration, there were also sober moments: the Kennedy assassinations, the killing of Martin Luther King, the war in Vietnam. And with these, '60s culture took on a search for harmony, spirituality and peace.

While some chose green-and-yellow Peter Max designs and punchy Pucci dresses, others sought out tranquil beach scenes, collected driftwood and sea glass and joined the Pepsi generation. College students wanting co-ed housing left the dorms and got their own apartments, which they decorated to look nothing at all like their parents' homes.

"Cork flooring, metallic wallpaper and swaged wood light-fixtures" were the rage, says Dan. "All things organic were embraced during the '60s: cork, hemp, bamboo, sea grass, linoleum, jute and cotton shag." Color tones were either Day-Glo hues or brown, green and orange earth tones. Pink poodle shower curtains gave way to rainbows and peace signs, and shag carpets covered the linoleum-tiled floors.

Many in the younger generation also fled from the conformity of suburban life, leaving their parents' modern baths behind as they settled in city brownstones or rural farmhouses. The result was a bohemian eclecticism: ball-and-claw foot bathtubs draped with love beads, black-and-white tile walls illuminated by black light and arrangements of colored candles. Others went all-out modern with plastic and fiberglass furnishings, Pop Art prints and posters and rubber flower stickers (in place of mats) across the bottom of the bath.

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