Just say ‘no’ to vessel sinks, concrete countertops and bamboo floors

Lawrence Bill
sent me a link last Sunday to a New York Times story about staying neutral with your decor – especially the very basic, expensive stuff. In the very broadest sense, I tend to agree. A basic rule is, the more expensive the thing is – the more conservative your choice should be. Go crazy and trendy with accessories and stuff that’s relatively easy to switch out.That said, I do not think that all-white bathroom tiles, as one example, are your only option. In fact, that scares me. For your retro renovation, you can be confident in picking a nice colored tile – a soft blue, green, yellow, beige, aqua or yes, even BW Tile pink. Trim your 4×4 ‘field tiles’ with white 2×6’s, add a white tile floor (AO Chloe, one of the new Daltile mosaics, or maybe you can find something excellent locally.) Voila — you have a pretty, timeless backdrop that any one of many accessory color combinations would bring right over the top easily! And you know that means wallpaper, too.

And how about the 1957 Armstrong kitchen above. Wood cabinets. Black countertop. White walls. Pretty neutral, huh. But then how about that punch of chartreuse, the shapely dinnerware, the daisies – even the cutting board? Makes it a work of art. Decorating is so much fun.

If you know what is good for you, you will stay away from: prefinished floors, concrete counters, glass tiles, vessel sinks, bamboo floors, oversized furniture, humongous range top hoods, oil-rubbed bronze faucets…hmmm, what other ubertrendy items can I add to ensure that I offend every reader somehow? Read on.


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  1. iluvretro says

    A friend of mine has a kitchen still in the midst of the 1970’s which is very similar in colour to the one above, the black and white picture of the housewife on the phone – the fish on the wall reminds me of my aunt who use to have one that was the same on her kitchen wall 🙂

  2. Tikimama says

    Waaaah! I wish I’d found this blog before we started our remodeling!! I was looking for something light-colored and durable to replace the thick, dark brown carpeting in all our living areas, and we chose bamboo because of it’s “green” properties. I like the look okay, but it’s already bowed and looks almost scalloped when you catch it in the light right. At least I haven’t done the kitchen floor yet!

    Lisa (Tikimama)

  3. Lifterguy says

    In 40 years, someone will have a website (or whatever is the future equivalent of a website) devoted to saving the glass tile / vessel sinks / bamboo flooring (and perhaps IKEA cabinets.) I think if you love it, go for it, but just remember that no matter what choices you make, someone is going to think it looks “old fashioned” one, two or three decades from now. But if you choose wisely, perhaps someone will still appreciate your sense of style and decide it’s a look worth preserving for future generations!

    • pam kueber says

      I think you are right, Lifterguy, in that good design from all eras is and will be worth preserving. That said, this website is about building and sharing knowledge about mid-century design aesthetics. I have a pretty strongly held belief that when you go to renovate a house, you will be well served to understand its original design aesthetic and to make conscious decisions accordingly. If, after getting informed, you decide to add something contemporary because you love it — great!

    • Josephine says

      Yeah, I think you’re right. While some things could be disgusting to someone’s taste and even horrid, I have no doubt that a few decades from now there will be people trying to save these modern kitchen and baths of today and consider them treasures.

  4. says

    Question: so the glass block window above my -1958 stove was intentional? We bought a 1950 ranch, had one previous owner who kindly left us photos of lot before foundation built- drawings and a ping pong table.

  5. Nick says

    This is an interesting thread for sure. I am amused by and respectful of the die-hard purists. I do plenty of restoration work as a hobby and can be quite obsessive in that regard. However, when it comes to kitchens and baths, there is a functional aspect which cannot be completely ignored. Clearly, advances in functionality have been made in the last 75 years! Two years ago we did an upgrade in one of two 1958 baths — the long vanity had a medium blue tile top which was in great shape. However, the permanently mounted undermount white sink only got worse and worse. We made the difficult decision to cut it out, and actually sourced exact-match tiles to repair parts of area surrounding the hole — and then went with a simple rectangular surface mount vessel sink from Kohler. It looks fantastic, and quite in keeping with the design of the bath, even though such sinks did not exist (to my knowledge) in 1958. Far more important is that we retained the extensive blue and white original tiles. Where I’m going with this: as a designer, I think that often the best solution is a combination of retaining whatever original stuff still works (functionally, aesthetically) while replacing/augmenting with new stuff that works better, yet still works aesthetically with the original period materials, etc.

    • pam kueber says

      Hi Nick, Your bathroom sounds lovely. I will quibble, though: In the past 70 years — and especially the past 60 years — I don’t think that “clearly functionality has advanced” much at all — in fact, I would argue that the dimunition in quality means products are functionally (if you include longevity) worse today! Our bathrooms and kitchens are designed pretty much the same now as then. Yes, there have been a handful of technological advances that created new products: Solid surface countertops… microwave ovens… some window treatment designs… fiberglass doors… but golly, now I am out of ideas of any more. Maybe: Double-pane windows argon gas low e windows today — and more energy and water efficient appliances — alas, the windows won’t last as long as the better, old growth wood of the mid-century era and the appliances made today break much faster in many folks’ experience. Of course, functionally, things can wear out. The the actual components – pretty much the same then as now. What do you think? What’s really available today for a kitchen or bathroom that was not available in mid-century America?

  6. says

    I sell vintage furniture and have been a massive fan of retro for over 20 years.
    The definition of Retro (in regards to interiors) has revolved slowly over time, but one thing stays true: it never strays much beyond the era of the 50s-70s. There is lots of cool 80s stuff I love but it wasn’t mass produced and its of only niche appeal. Beyond that it gets even more niche.
    In short there will never be widescale returns to interior styles beyond say the 70s or 80s because it doesn’t have the same cultural resonance.
    Also mass produced styles beyond the 70s were so cheaply made that much of it just breaks, and 90s/00s/beyond stuff was not made with a ‘cool’ design aesthetic as in previous eras, they were/are made to be as inoffensively bland as possible.
    With topics like this thread, the ‘people in the future treasuring Ikea stuff from now’ argument doesnt work because the Ikea bathrooms aren’t part of the old house’s original design. it would work better if the argument were regarding new contemporary builds, but Retro Rennovation is really about people who truly respect the original design motivations and approaches behind MCM builds.
    If people consider those who feel like this to be ‘purists” or use the vaguely mocking term ‘I dont want to live in a museum’, I think they should leave retro properties alone (vintage fixtures and fittings are finite things and more often than not irreplaceable when ripped out) to people like Pam et al who ‘get’ the whole thing.

    • Richmond2000 says

      I think some of the newer styles will be collected / replicated BUT most housing/building stock is NOT of a trendy/designer design making the modern stuff rare to start with before it goes through the
      old BUT not collectable stage

  7. Richmond2000 says

    I agree and disagree with this article
    I agree throwing “designer” / trendy items into a room is bad including inappropriate “retro” stuff
    but believe where there is a PROPER plan end to end those modern materials can and DO look awesome and WILL be looked back on in the future
    I think part of the attraction to MCM is most MCM homes/rooms where ground up designed as such due to the housing boom where as a LOT of later designs often got added with out proper design insight and is made worse now as there is NO defining design in “NORMAL” spaces using these modern materials

  8. Holli says

    Thank you for this gorgeous photo! I’m renovating a 1960 midcentury modern and the original cabinets are the same walnut shade. The original formica counter and backsplash was pretty beat up, so I found a vintage matte white mosaic tile on eBay, and was waffling on the countertop material. I loved the idea of solid surface Paperstone because of its durability and green properties, and they have a color called Slate that basically would match the look in the photo. Dilemma solved! Now to find some of those counter-height walnut chairs…

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