1940s decorating style

What are the key elements of 1940s interior design? What colors, designs, patterns and “feel” did we generally see? And why? To my mind, based on the advertising illustrations and magazine articles that I’ve seen from the period, typical designs from the immediate postwar 1940s – say, starting with 1946 – through to about 1953, had this variety of characteristics: innocent, sentimental, sunny, sanitary, patriotic, traditional, Hollywood glamour, and carryover streamline-deco-jazz age from the prewar period. Special thanks to: Bradbury & Bradbury, which made this slide for me. It also showcases one of their 1940s reproduction wallpapers.

A number of readers asked if I could share more details about the content of my recent home show talks. I did not videotape them, because they are 30 minutes long or longer — and that does not make for good video. So over the next while, I instead will break the talks down into digestible, illustrated chunks. During my talks, I pretty much always strive to put mid-century design into historical context as I display vintage illustrations. And, I usually start at the beginning: the 1940s. Disclaimer up front: I don’t have a degree in this – I’m a passionate observer, who is still “putting all the pieces into place.”

In the immediate wake of the war’s end, there was a tremendous housing shortage. I’ve read that we needed to get 6 million homes built as quickly as possible. And I’ve even seen references indicating that the government was concerned that if we didn’t deal with the housing (and jobs) situation quickly enough, America’s young men would become restless and political – in a bad way. So we built houses as fast as we could. Usually: Very small houses by today’s standards, no more than 1,000 s.f. There were material shortages given all this construction… as evidenced in the 1946 Aladdin Homes customer letter, above. I also swear I’ve read somewhere that there were prohibitions on building more than one indoor bathroom at some point… I need to find the source.

Also, in terms of design, in this immediate postwar period, the “look” still tended to be similar to that of the late 1930s and wartime period. There had also been material shortages during the war, so manufacturers had put all their new-design work on hold. A good example: After the war, when Heywood Wakefield retooled its factories to again produce furniture, its Riviera line was really just the same, but with new handles, as the Rio line produced earlier.

Because of the shortage and ramping up from 1946 until 1952, these years are generally viewed at more “40s style” than “50s style.” (In his terrific book Populuxe, Thomas Hine looks at the 1953-1963 years, which were more exuberant.) So what did the 1946-1953 interior design look like? Here is additional explanation of the eight characteristics:

  1. Innocent: When I look at some 1940s design, I see a real sweetness. We still were a nation in which the masses did not have a lot of material affluence. No clutter, far less excess. Thanks to Kohler for this 1949 image from their archives.
  2. Sentimental: When the war ended, the nation was immensely grateful to have their men and women all back home. It had been five years of tremendous sacrifice. I see a lot of ads like this one, that celebrate the simple pleasures in life. Wallpaper is sweet, flowery.
  3. Sunny: Kind of same as above. There was so much to be grateful for, that we did not necessarily need “more stuff” to be happier. One other thought is that we still were a nation with a lot of farmers and apartment dwellers – the spaces were small, money was tight, and as a result, interiors and their decorative appointments were simpler.Sanitary: White kitchen cabinets, or wood. Remember, we still were a nation concerned about vermin and disease, including polio. When your kitchen is white, you can see the dirt.
  4. Patriotic: I see a lot of red-white-blue kitchen color combinations. In generally, I think I see richer colors – full-on primary colors and jewel tones – than in the later 1950s pastel period. I’ll attribute this to carryover 1930s preferences and to the influence of Hollywood, but there may have been other factors — there often are, often related to technological innovation.
  5. Traditional: My mom, who grew up in the 40s, says the furniture was all dark wood where she lived in Pennsylvania – the influence of Europe, she recalls. Of course, we also had Heywood Wakefield blonde – but we also had colonial maple from Heywood Wakefield, Cushman, Willett and scores if not hundreds of small regional manufacturers. The more I explore the history of interior design – of all eras – the more convinced I become that: We are a traditional nation.
  6. Hollywood glamour: Think Nick and Nora and the Thin Man. We did not get television until 1949… before that, our idols were often very glamorous. Remember women’s clothes from the 1940s – their hats and tailored suits and gloves and bags and hose, the whole very put-together thing? That’s the look I think of for 1940s bedrooms and living rooms – formal, very put together. In other rooms, we also may see large prints used on wallpaper and barkcloth pinch pleats, often tropical.
  7. Streamline – deco – jazz age: Through to 1953, I think I see more high-contrast bathrooms. That is: black bullnose (or dark green or maroon bullnose, depending on the field tile color). Post-1953, the bullnose is less likely to be black and more likely to be the same color or a similarly toned contrast color, e.g. pink and mint, pink and robin’s egg, etc.

As part of my recent blog update… and now that I’m back from the home show… I’ll be working to ensure all stories are in the right categories so that they will be easier to search up on the blue navigation bar. Meanwhile,if the 1940s are your thing, take a look at the 1940s stories up in Browse STORIES so far.

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    • pam kueber says

      hi Leah, the ‘baby’ sink was known and marketed as a ‘dental sink’ — i think it was promoting a second spot so more family members could share the bathroom, it also may have had sanitary implications.

  1. Michelle says

    Hi Pam,

    Thanks for the rundown. I saw you talk Friday night and wanted to see and learn more about the 1940s homes. My house was built in 1940, and as I paint and generally refresh the various rooms, I’m try to strike a delicate balance: I want to choose colors and textures I like but still honor the historic flavor of the house and bring about subtle improvements (i.e. repair and maintain the original pine beadboard that covers the walls in the original four rooms). The swatches are particularly helpful and cool to see. Thanks again!

  2. handyandy says

    Pam, I think I may have ‘lived another life’ in the 1940’s….that era .feels like home to me. My family lives in a 1944 Dutch Colonial. It’s taken us 20 years to recapture its simple, sweet and welcoming appeal. Am now in my second (or more) round of decorating. I so appreciate the effort and research you have done on this period and am devouring the information.

    By the way, a family story goes that when my parents married in 1945, they were forced to ‘fix up’ a rather large chicken house to set up housekeeping because of the housing materials shortage.

    Many thanks for all posts of the 40’s!

  3. kathleen says

    hi pam!
    10 years ago, my husband and I bought a 1948 cinderblock house in seattle. I really love your website and reading about the post war culture and how it affected the design of the homes and wonder if you have any info on the cinder block homes. we love ours, and your site has really helped me to appreciate the house for what it is.
    should add too, that all of the homes in our neighborhood have in floor heating that was original to the house in ’48! this makes them so cheap to heat and we love it (as do our pets!) any insight you might have to why builders used the radiant heated floors rather than forced air or what ever would be wonderful!

  4. Kathy says


    Thanks so much for focusing on the 40’s for this post. Our house was built in 1949, has a coved ceiling in the living room, scalloped crown molding in the kitchen along with the china hutch with my newly added shelf paper you posted a photo of a while ago. I just love my little house!


  5. Wendy says

    The childhood home that I strive to recapture was a family cottage on Lake Huron. Built in the 20’s, it evolved every decade, with the 40’s being especially influential. I love that the decor was layered, year by year.

    Anyway, my family was pretty frugal, so updates tended toward new textiles, dishes, and accessories. (Imagine the rooms above, except with formal turn-of-the-century furniture!) It’s a fun look to recreate.

    The decorating details of the 40’s seem subtle to me, so I really appreciate the review. Thanks again for the post!

    • Denise says

      Would love to know where on Lake Huron you used to visit. I live in a town right on Lake Huron. My husband and I just bought a 1945 Cape Cod home in the town I grew up in. Very few historical homes where we live, the entire town minus a few buildings burned down in 1911. I have always loved older homes, and this is the first older home to be for sale at a time I was looking to buy.

  6. says

    Pam, thank you SO MUCH for this excellent post! Our home was built in 1951, but it definitely seems to have a very 1940s ‘feel’ about itself. Thus, despite my love for MCM, more ‘traditional’ things often seem to fit better in some rooms, so we’re going for a mix.

    It’s funny seeing the red, white, and blue kitchen schemes so often here; our kitchen’s walls are turquoise, the cupboards glossy white, and all of the accessories & small appliances are red (my favourite colour). The effect really is quite cheerful, and everyone who comes in just loves it. We have a vintage 50s chrome-legged and Formica-topped table that is red, white, and beautiful; once we get the legs re-chromed it will look beyond fantastic. (Too bad our taxes jumped up, have to keep saving!)

  7. says

    What a great article! I have one question though … in the very last image, do you have any idea what’s up with the big sink and the little sink? I’ve never seen anything like that before … wondering if this is a house for the three bears, and Mama Bear’s sink isn’t in the picture. LOL

    • pam kueber says

      Back in the day, sink manufacturers tried to promote a smaller “dental sink”. I think this may have had to do with (1) the fact there generally was only one bathroom and (2) concerns about hygiene and spreading disease.

  8. says

    Pam, just wanted to tell you how delighted I am to see our little house in one of your blog posts! We live in a 1941 Aladdin kit home–but never would have known it if not for this lovely illustration! It’s the exact outside footprint with alterations made to the interior floor plan!

  9. martha1948 says

    Hi, I am excited to discover your site–yes, through the NYTs article. My husband and I own a house built in 1948. It was rented for 50–yes 5 0–years because the children thought they would return to live in it someday. Consequently, little has been done in the way of renovation. We are currently repairing windows and plaster. Your article explains why it has an odd combination of 1940s and 1930s fixtures; there must have been fierce competition for resources after the war. The kitchen was built on the fast and cheap: plywood cabinets, red and black linoleum tiles. The counter, appliances, sink, and faucet have been replaced in the last decade or so with rental quality items. We are trying to decide how to renovate and whether or not to open it up to the dining room in the current style or reinstall the swinging door, which is still in the basement. Advice welcome!

  10. Richard Douglass says

    Hi Pam,

    I grew up in the 1940s and 50s. What one must remember is that the vast majority of houses in existence in at the end of the war in 1945 were built in the 1930s and before. Unless people had a lot of money, (and we did not, although we were not poor by any means) they bought a house, perhaps painted inside, and brought whatever furniture they had with them. Then adding things as needed, money permitting. Our furnishings were an eclectic mix of family pieces, including pieces bought over time, some of grandmother’s antiques, and our house in no way looked like a 1950s retro style. OK, we did get a formica and chrome kitchen table set, but that was about it. (Wish i had it now!) The look was overstuffed 20s/30s to begin with, and as my parents could afford it, gradually morphed into something akin to Virginia colonial revival. The fact is, I cannot recall any of my family or friends having a 100% 40s or 50s style as we know it today.

    It is easy to put together a style once it has been defined, but when it was happening – that’s another thing entirely. Years down the road, someone might put together a 2010 style house/blog etc. How many of us are living in a place like that now? Likely less than 1%. Certainly not me! I am working on a 1930s updated style kitchen with colonial revival/beach/cabin casual in the rest of the house. Oh, I so need a designer to pull it all together!! LOL

    It was also very true that building supplies were extremely hard to come by during the first year after the war was over. Drywall, for instance was almost impossible. My father worked for a manufacturer, and made some good deals with people because he could get some.

    Great site! Lots of fun!

    Kent, Washington

  11. Jenny says

    Thanks for an inspiring site for me, who’s looking for typical 40s interior, colors and decoration for our home. I really like the 40s “red-lips-color”, and is thinking of that in my kitchen. Since I also love teak-furniture from the 50s, I’m trying to match it if possible. Regards from Sweden!! :-)

  12. Meaghan says

    Hello-! Do you know what the little vent/grate is under the 1940s kitchen sink cabinet? We just purchased a 1947 home and the metal grate on this vent is missing so there is a “hole” in this cabinet. I would like to replace it but don’t know what it is called or where I could buy or make one. Thank you!

  13. AndreaF says

    Thank you so much for this post! I just purchased a home built in 1946 and luckily the original hardwood floor, bathroom tile and kitchen tile and cabinets are in good condition. I would like to keep my home true to it’s time period and this article helps me tremendously!

  14. Pam says

    I have a hairsalon and im thinking of redecorating, i had a telephone that came from a houseclearance that looks retro(i think) and has inspired me to redecorate in a 1940’s or retro style, i have ideas but im not entirly sure the look i have in my head will be correct, can u offer any advise that you think might help, thanks

  15. Kelly says

    Thank you so much for your site! My husband and I live in a 1947 cottage style house in Fullerton, CA. It is so great to be able to see what the house looked like before. We still have the original pink tile in the bathroom! We love our little house!

  16. Dana says

    We live in one of the many brick “bungalows” built in the D.C. suburbs during the post-WWII period. It’s a great house with good “flow”, nice size rooms, lots of storage, original wood floors and even a garage! Definitely built to last…and it has…and it will! We’ve “updated” the kitchen and 1 bath, staying as true to the house as possible. My final “update” is to a bath that is immediately inside the front door. It has original glass block windows and shower walls and the “seafoam green” and black tiles. I love, love, LOVE the tiles! Since this is the very first thing someone sees when they come in the house, I want to remain even truer to the style than in any other room — though I will compromise in favor of storage by going with a vanity rather than a pedestal sink. That said, the floor has me baffled! Black and white? Black or white or green linoleum (supposing one can even find the right green)? Any suggestions or pictures would be greatly appreciated!

  17. Marcel says

    Me and my wife purchased a 1942 cape cod in Southfield, MI a year ago. We have been updating the exterior over the past year and are now ready to begin renovating the interior. We have no clue of what theme/style fits the home the best. The original owners put a lot of money into the house. Every time has items that would not be found in normal homes. The roof was even practically all copper!

  18. says

    The Mt. Vernon has the closest floor plan and exterior to my 1940’s beach cottage! What a relief to see it. My house has been overhauled and turned into basic housing over the decades. It needs a lot of love. A lot of the original features of the house have been ruined or pulled out entirely. We’re hoping to revive it. Seeing your readers’ comments and this post is encouraging (I may have gushed before).

  19. Mere says

    History Check: Television sets were first sold; as well as programs broadcast for them; in 1939 by RCA. The first successful television image was shown in San Francisco in 1927 by a guy named Farnsworth, he was 21 yrs old.

  20. martha1948 says

    Re bathroom floor: I have a house built in 1948 with two bathrooms. Both have black and white tiles. they are small, 3/4″ x 1 1/12 inches, They are set in a kind of basket weave pattern.

  21. Pauline says

    Hi Pam, your website has inspired me tremendously! I recently purchased a house built in 1941 in Honolulu, upon first glance of the interiror/exterior I thought it was very unattractive….however, the house is located in a highly desirable part of town, smack dab in the middle of town where I could walk to the beach, restaurants, etc….so I fell in love with the location and was thinking of knocking down the house. Since I read up on your website, I am now going to spruce up the kitchen with the gingham/rooster motif and ask a handyman to make the white cabinets easier to open/close. I see the beauty of the walls/windows now and will seek to refinish the windows rather than replacing! I got the ktichen/bathroom down….and I am browsing to see what the living room and bedrooms should look like!! Thank you so much Pam!! And I love it because to me modern homes with modern furnishings are nice, but not homey at all. With a ktichen/bathroom like the ones in the 40’s, it feels very cozy and homey!!

      • Pauline says

        Hi Pam! So….since I got the bathroom/kitchen down….I now need ideas for the bedrooms and living room. I’ve been looking at pictures on your website and also elsewhere, but I guess it’s not as easy to put together as the kitchen, where I get a very clear picture of what to do and the same with the bathroom. For the bedroom, floral wallpaper? or the colors suggested on your website? For the living room? What type of window covering would match? And the furniture….to bad all the nice/inexpensive stuff is on ebay on the E.Coast! But I’m sure It will all come together, I just need suggestions on the bedrooms and living rooms. Thanks Pam!

  22. Maleah says

    Thank you for this! I am in the long, slow process of restoring my 1942 800-odd sf childhood home. I have a couple of unfortunate 70’s remodels to undo and am happy to find some guidance out there.

  23. Susan says

    I’m so glad I found your site. My best friend just bought a house that was built in 1940 using the Mt. Vernon plan no. 3 above, I think. She has red laminate countertops and steel cabinetry in the kitchen and mostly original windows. Previous owners have done some “upgrades” but it retains much of the original feel. Very cool!

  24. Janice Price says

    I lived in a house built in 1946 in Maize, Ks for 29 years, (’65 – ’94), then moved into a school that was built bottom half in 1944, top half with indoor plumbing 1948 & a gym, stage area in 1957. Our house in Maize was small but very well laid out. The kitchen in the school had been gutted and divided into two rooms (had become a radio station). We returned it to one room. My wall hung refrigerator is turquoise/pink interior with chrome. My stoves are pullout Tappan’s from 1961 & 1962 (Yes, two of them). We have a Craftmaster table for eating. I collect kitchen appliances dating from 1892 up to 1960’s. At this time I am working on refixing a kitchen in a house that was built in 1877 and then added onto more than once before 1900. We are having lots of fun and doing it with a zero budget.

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