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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Comments

  1. 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).

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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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