About those neon-screaming bathrooms of the 1950s — as the saying goes, you either love them or hate them.
And I do so love my own, which is bubblegum pink from walls to tub. Dark green trim sets it off.
When I moved into a rental last year, all that pinkness was a dream come true. As a lover of all things midcentury, I finally had ’50s tile glamour.
To say that not everyone responded with joy to the color-love of mid-20th century bathroom design, however, would be an understatement.
“The colors are unpleasant.” Those are the words Mike Helmstetter has heard often in his 40 years of specializing in bathroom and kitchen renovations. Clients will say, “I don’t like green, yellow, any color.”
Pink is the most hated, he said.
Out with pink, in with white, beige or gray, modern favourites. After listening to one owner’s tale of disgust, Helmstetter’s crew destroyed the tile.
The pastel construction that was once a man’s pride and joy soon fell to the ground, falling prey to maul hammers and cutting diamond saws. Helmstetter estimates he broke at least 50 of them.
A total redo is exactly what Elaine Forstall, a retired luxury drapery maker, thought she wanted in 2020 when she came across a 1950s bathroom in the condo she bought.
“Highlighter yellow” is how her son-in-law describes the yellow tile that is contained in the sink, toilet and tub. And that color certainly didn’t fit the off-white splendor Forstall envisioned for the condo’s full renovation to come.
“I’m going to use it all up,” Forstall said, “and spend another $5,000 to $7,000.”
But, later, he chastised himself for not meeting the creative challenge the bathroom presented.
“You’re a designer,” he reminded himself. “Do you really need another white bathroom that looks like everyone else’s?”
So he went to the fabric store. He planned to tone down the yellow with darker colors, and soon found what he wanted, a floral pattern with a black background featuring his favorite animals – monkeys. The monkeys on her shower curtain are so bold, in their pointy hats and nasty shoes, they practically squeal.
Then she found discarded artwork from a hotel renovation that matched the red floral patterns of the shower curtain. Later he found a rug that matched, and it was the size he needed to hide most of the original yellow mosaic floor tiles.
With mustard-colored paint and a new vanity, the makeover is complete. The yellow highlighter faded into the background, all for under $2,000.
“Very good. This is my favorite room right now,” Forstall said. “This is the only room with color.”
Mike Helmstetter’s brother and sister-in-law fell in love with the midcentury bathrooms they encountered when they first saw their home-to-be in 2019.
After a two-year search, Nancy and Jeffery Helmstetter found the home of their dreams. Located in their target neighborhood of Bayou St. John, with off-street parking and a large veranda, the Mediterranean-style home ticks every box.
“We were drawn to the bathrooms,” said Nancy Helmstetter, a retired English as a second language teacher. “We liked the tub tile because it also had tile on the ceiling, and it was in great shape.”
Their master bathroom is mint green with bull nose trim the color of sea glass. The floor is tiled with diamond-patterned mosaics.
It’s so unique that “you want to use it,” said Jeffery Helmstetter, a retired assistant superintendent of Jefferson Parish schools. “You want to open the door and look at it.”
Of particular note are the two pairs of original Art Deco vanity lamps. One pair lights the mirror over the sink, and the other pair hangs lower on the wall, the child’s height.
Their second bathroom is pink with black bullnose trim, a classic color combination of the season. This one includes liner tile in a pattern that resembles curling ribbon. A Society6 shower curtain with a midcentury design completes the vintage vibe.
After the setbacks of the World War II years, renewed optimism about the future fueled the color. The vibrancy of the 1950s inspired the orange Oldsmobile and the Cadillac’s rocket-shaped tail fins. Home design followed suit, and the white bathroom, inspired by the Art Deco movement of the 1920s and 1930s, began to disappear.
Millions of suburban ranch-style homes built to house returning veterans and their growing families include bathrooms tiled in pinks, blues, greens, and yellows. Contrasting color trims are common: sky blue with yellow, emerald green with black, coral with maroon.
“We’ve seen every color of the rainbow,” Mike Helmstetter said.
Today’s derided pink bathroom is one of the most popular colors, compared to the millions of them installed midcentury. Design historians say pink became popular after Mamie Eisenhower wore a pink ballgown with rhinestones to President Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953.
His obsession with pink found its way into the White House, and a year later Elvis bought a pink Cadillac. Talk about influencers. Today, pink paint and pink bathrooms of that era are often described as Mamie Pink.
A bathroom like this today, assuming someone asked for one, would be difficult to recreate. There aren’t many skilled artisans and masons left to do that kind of quality work, Mike Helmstetter said.
Made with masonry wire and two layers of concrete, “the things are bullet proof,” he said. The ones with tiled coves over the tubs look like bunkers. “If a tornado comes,” he added, “I’ll be in in two minutes.”
That old style of building is the art of “real, true masons,” and to destroy such masonry is dangerous work. “The wire behind the concrete is like a razor blade,” Helmstetter said. “Losing one of those jobs is brutal.”
Why does anyone want it?
In addition to color aversion, Helmstetter says today’s homeowners want spalike luxury. They also want a roomier shower and a taller vanity.
Bending over a 30-inch-tall, original vanity in my own bathroom seemed like a small price to pay, but when I first saw the bathroom, the walls were gray to match the gray-green, bull-nosed trim, thus toning down the pink color. Unlike Forstall, who painted her bathroom walls a darker color to tone down the yellow tile, I wanted to lighten the wall color to bring out the pink color.
I asked if I could paint again. The owners did it for me in my white of choice, Benjamin Moore’s Mascarpone, with enough yellow and red tones to bring the rose out of its corset.
A black and white midcentury styled shower curtain, a midcentury ceramic vase and some plants and voilà!
My Mamie Pink tile-palace is complete.