Vintage Bathrooms

Top design experts help you choose the right style for your classic bath.


When Lisa Ramaci was looking for a sink to suit her American Colonial-style bathroom with its cast-iron tub, exposed brick walls and wide plank floors, she tried everything from a cast-iron pedestal model she found on the street (it was too big) to a cast-iron wall version that caused the entire bathroom wall to collapse.

While standing in her kitchen, staring at an antique wooden bowl she'd bought years earlier, she realized her sink had actually been there all along. "I drilled a hole for the drain in the bottom," Lisa recalls, "had a plumber run pipes into the wash stand, and installed a faucet and handles." It was perfect.

Your own period sink may not start off life as a salad bowl, of course. Sometimes, in fact, you may start with a single fabulous feature, like a grand Victorian ball-and-claw bathtub, that inspires the decor of the rest of the room. Or you find your dream house, which is perfect — except for that enormous, black square tub.

To make the most of what you've got, good or bad, work with it, not against it. Like Lisa, understand the look you want so you can find your inspirations in even the most unlikely places. And pay attention to the most seemingly trivial details. Often, it's the accents that define success.

Mix and Match

But does a vintage bath demand a vintage house? Not at all, says John Buscarello of John A. Buscarello, Inc. in New York, a design firm that specializes in kitchens and baths. "The idea of one style carried through the house is out the door," he says.

John recommends linking rooms by color, for instance, or compromising a bit on a look, perhaps adding a Tibetan rug to a Victorian-style bath, rather than an Oriental one. The idea is to keep a theme between the rooms, he says: "It's good to have a flow."

Viva Victoriana

Think "more is better," says celebrity designer David-Michael of David-Michael Designs in Orange County, Calif. "A Victorian bath should scream opulence: an elegant claw-foot tub, glazed floor and wall tiles in a highly decorative pattern and colors, and a crystal chandelier."

If chandeliers aren't your thing, look for the Tiffany-style stained-glass lamps that graced so many Victorian baths. For more shine, add brass cabinet hardware, doorknobs and sconces or hanging lamps.

Though John says that new reproduction models of these elements may be difficult to find — trends in bathroom fixtures change, and markets now focus on a minimalist look — you can easily find the real thing by scouring flea markets, tag sales, eBay and online vintage hardware outlets.

As there have been considerable technological advances since Queen Victoria's day, John recommends not getting carried away with the need for authenticity in plumbing fixtures. Rather, he suggests combining the authentic look with more modern conveniences or incorporating contemporary details, like replacing the ball-and-claw bath with a free-standing tub with modern feet.

Add a beautifully upholstered mahogany chaise lounge and a thick bouquet of peonies, then sit back and relax.

More graceful Victorian details:

  • Decorative tile borders
  • Stenciled walls
  • Brass and frosted-glass lamps
  • Gilt mirrors
  • Heavy cornice moldings

Deco Drama

"Nothing can ruin a deco-style bath more than not knowing how to show design restraint," says designer David-Michael. This bath should reflect the era's minimal use of ornamentation, for example, by placing the tub directly on the floor, instead of on claw feet.

Repetition of form is also key. Set geometric tile designs in rhythmic, regular patterns, and pay attention to the physical shape of the furnishings. In fact, deco is an ideal style to consider when confronting that black square bathtub you inherited when you bought the house; it reflects both the geometry and the predominant ebony-and-ivory color palette of the time.

For furnishings, look in antique shops and at flea markets where you can still find period vanities in walnut veneer or plastic-framed medicine cabinets crowned with black, green or red pyramids. "The mirror over the pedestal sink is especially important," says David-Michael.

Strong color accents complete the look. Hal Swanson, an interior architect and partner at Swanson-Ollis Interiors in Los Angeles, recommends green, gray and burgundy, in particular, though John points out that French deco tended more towards pastels like salmon and aqua.

An added benefit of a deco bath, John says, is that because deco straddles the Victorian and Modern eras, the style lends itself easily to both. While you may be shocked to find a Victorian bathroom in an Italian post-modern boudoir, for instance, a deco one would work just fine.

Glam it up with:

  • Pyramid patterns, Egyptian motifs
  • Lacquer cabinets with strong geometry
  • Wall-mounted sconces
  • Frosted glass

Funky '50s

"Utilitarian with a touch of spunk" is how designer David-Michael describes the styles of the '50s. You may even find that the fixtures in your house are already of this era when you move in. Don't fight them — play with them, and make them work for you. Pale blue bathtub? Pink pedestal sink? Terrific. Add features in similar ice-cream colors with shades of pistachio, strawberry and pale, vanilla-yellow. "Think of that poodle skirt," designer David-Michael says, "and have a little fun with the countertop laminate selection — it, too, can be pretty in pink."

Earth-friendly linoleum — particularly popular these days with the emphasis on green design — makes just the right floor, and can be found in almost any color you can think of.

Says designer Hal Swanson, "Big, boxy vanities took on a large presence" in the 1950s, with "creative hardware in colored plastics and Lucite. Some of the vanities were built to the floor with tall, recessed bases, or were even supported on chrome legs — a style that has made a big comeback in today's modern/retro rage."

This can also be a fun place to showcase '50s memorabilia. Put your Barbie collection on the vanity or frame a couple of Elvis LPs. And don't forget the Burma Shave!

Fabulous '50s touches:

  • Pastel colors
  • Plastic and chrome furniture
  • Framed covers or advertisements from period magazines (often available from antiquarian booksellers)
  • Vinyl-topped stools

Get a '60s Beat

It's the Beatles! It's Woodstock! It's peace signs and love beads and psychedelic everything. It is also, however, the era of "avocado" — the color of the moment for everything from refrigerators and countertops. If you're really looking for a '60s feel, you'll want to bring that back — or keep it, if it's already in place — along with orange, yellow and even (in limited quantities) brown.

Details? "Stripes, checks, circles and solids on clear plastic shower curtains," says designer Hal Swanson, "fuzzy seat covers and rugs, chrome and glass and best of all, Formica." One advantage to doing a '60s look, notes John, is that it's easy to find things reminiscent of a '60s look in stores now. On the other hand, as with a '50s bath, "you don't want to give the impression you never got to renovating that room!"

Make sure it looks created, not dated. Try combining the look with some more modern fixtures, like a steam shower or contemporary lighting. Or you could overdo things just a little bit: Add a happy face clock, a set of love beads or a bulky A.M. radio. Wall coverings can be especially fun: Look for Andy Warhol wallpapers with a glint of silver in them — and don't overlook the chance for a silver ceiling!

What's groovy?

  • Bright colors
  • Ceramic tiles and chrome
  • Peace and back-to-nature themes
  • Pop Art
  • "Peanuts"

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