Redecorating a '50s Bathroom

Our reporter gets advice from design experts for simple things to do to liven up an outdated bathroom.

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  1. Design 101

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Mike Morgan Photography

Mike Morgan Photography

On the plus side, the upstairs bathroom in our new house is a good size (10 feet long and almost 5 feet wide) and has a big window that lets in lots of sun. On the minus side, where to begin?

Let's start with the plaid wallpaper. It's not just plaid, it's garish plaid, in intense shades of black, brown, yellow and teal green. It's a large plaid. A loud plaid. The kind of plaid that actually makes you dizzy if you stare at it too long.

Then there's the tile. I assume it's the original 1950s tile. It's a shade of pale greenish yellow that, as my daughter says, is exactly the color of what you do in the bathroom. The tub, sink and toilet are all the same lovely color.

Let's not forget the sink! The sink stands on two wobbly metal legs, and has a faucet so tiny you literally can't fit a Dixie cup under it to get a drink of water. To top it all off, someone who was clearly just discovering the joys of a caulk gun has smeared thick, unsightly ropes of white caulk on every possible surface around the tub and toilet.

Our current budget doesn't include a major bathroom remodel. I'd like to make over our ugly bathroom without ripping up the tile or replacing all the fixtures, but wonder if that’s really possible. Here’s what several designers and design experts had to say:

Hide It

"If there’s something about a room that’s obtrusive, one of the best ways to deal with it is to hide the darn thing somehow," says Mark McCauley, a designer and author of Color Therapy at Home, Real Life Solutions for Adding Color to Your Life. But how do you hide yards of yellow-green tile?

It is possible to paint over tile, as long as it’s not next to the shower or tub or in any area where it gets wet. "It really comes out quite well," says designer Sue Adams, of Sue Adams Interiors in Andover, Mass., who suggests hiring a pro to do the job. Products such as Tile Doc are made specifically to cover ceramic tile, and ideas for painting tiles are available on many websites, including HGTV.com.

As far as hiding the fixtures, a less than picturesque sink can easily be transformed with the addition of a fabric skirt, or even PVC pipe, which can be painted or upholstered and then used to cover wobbly metal legs, says McCauley. Problematic bathroom floors are one of the easiest elements to change; they can be covered with carpet or laminate flooring, or even linoleum, which is making a comeback.

Still, hiding your bathroom’s ugliness should probably be your last choice. "No matter what you do to cover one thing, another ugly thing is going to pop up," says Adams. "You can put shirred fabric around the sink but then you’ve got the ugly tub and toilet. You’ve either got to cover everything completely, or don’t do it at all."

Paint the walls a color that is as funky as your tile color. "Don’t fight it because you won’t win," says Adams. "Find a color that balances but is equally strange-looking." Some suggestions: With gray and pink tile, tint the walls gray and use pink roses to pull some of that color out. If you’ve got 1970s chocolate brown tile, use latte or cappuccino colors on the walls instead of the orange so popular then.

The best color schemes are either analogous (next to each other on the color wheel), like yellow and green, or complementary (opposite each other on the color wheel, like teal and orange. McCauley suggests staying in medium to light tones on walls because dark values – and certain colors – can change skin tones and mess up the way you apply your makeup.

A few bathrooms, though, are definitely too ugly to celebrate and should be ripped out or covered up as much as possible. "The worst is really bad ‘70s remodeling," says Kohn.

Clean It Up

There are two big issues with ugly bathrooms, says Adams. "One is ugly tile color. The other is dirt." Often an ugly bathroom is mainly a dirty bathroom. With some dirt, even the most diligent scrubbing won’t bring the shine back. Filthy tile and grout, for instance, often have to be torn out. Serious mold and mildew problems also require replacement.

But if the bathroom is in basically good shape, as mine is, simply cleaning up and eliminating clutter can make a huge difference. "Some of us still have the hairspray we used at the prom," says Kohn. Her suggestion: Pack as if you’re going on a trip. Then go back to the bathroom and eliminate everything that’s not in your suitcase. Keep bottles outside the bathroom; give everyone a small travel case to keep their toiletries in and then keep those travel cases in the bedroom, not the bath. Find some beautiful bottles and fill them with your hand soap and shampoo and toss out the manufacturer’s packaging.

As for my ugly bathroom, I’m learning to love it. I’m going to add some sheer curtains to the window and a sheer shower curtain to cover up the ugly frosted-glass sliding shower door. I’m going to paint the walls a color that celebrates the yellow tile—maybe lilac, maybe a soft shade of magenta. I have some early 1950s calendars that I’m going to frame and hang on the walls, and I’m already scouring e-Bay for a vintage 1950s chenille bathrobe to hang from a hook.

As Kohn points out, "ugly is often synonymous with unloved. Sometimes a bathroom in a modest home should not be overly decorated. It should be clean and modestly appointed and it doesn’t have to make a design statement. We’re so addicted to style and design that sometimes we overdo it. Sometimes a modest room calls for simplicity, and that’s the best statement of all."

Distract From It

"Take attention away from an ugly object by calling attention to other things," says McCauley. Make a shower curtain from sheer material with a little glitter in it so your eye goes to that gleam and not to the tile.

HGTV design expert Joan Kohn, author of Joan Kohn's It’s Your Bed and Bath: Hundreds of Beautiful Design Ideas, saw one "very ordinary and plain bathroom" in which the owner had used broken tiles to create a mosaic on the floor of a fish spouting water. "It steals the focus," Kohn says.

Similarly, murals on the walls or painted faux finishes can draw attention away from the tile or floor or fixtures. "You want to do anything you can to draw attention away from an ugly floor," says McCauley, because people tend to look at the floor first. "Our eyes look down first without our even noticing it. That’s why women have nine million shoes, they know this."

Another idea is to develop a motif for the bathroom, says McCauley, who recently finished working on a kids’ bathroom that he turned into a jungle, complete with tiles with painted bugs and grasscloth wallpaper.

Go With It

The designers’ favorite recommendation, by far, was to simply embrace your bathroom’s ugliness, no matter how dated, and run with it. "Be authentic to the truth of the design," says Kohn. "If you have art-deco black and mint green tile in your bathroom, that might really freak you out until you add more black deco accessories and an Erte print to go with it. Celebrate what you’ve got!"

"If you go with it you can make it look like it’s really kind of funky," says Adams. If you remove the pink sink in your 1950s burgundy and pink bathroom and add a white sink, for instance, it’s only going to make everything else look pinker. "Even if you really dislike it, you have to go with it," Adams says.

For example, add design elements that say, "I’m into this." Look for accessories such as posters from the same era as your bathroom, vintage magazine covers or a 1950s chenille bathrobe to hang from a hook on the wall or door.

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