1940s decorating styleWhat are the key elements of 1940s interior design and decorating style? What colors, shapes, patterns and “feel” did we generally see in 1940s homes? And why? Based on the advertising illustrations and magazine articles that I’ve seen from the period, starting around 1946 to about 1953, what we typically call 1940s interior design  had these eight general characteristics:

  1. Innocent
  2. Sentimental
  3. Sunny
  4. Sanitary
  5. Patriotic
  6. Traditional-colonial revival
  7. Hollywood glamour
  8. Streamline Deco Jazz age

I write about each one of these design ideas in more detail below.

Special thanks to: Bradbury & Bradbury, which made this slide for me. It also showcases one of their 1940s reproduction wallpapers.

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.”

Recovering and rebuilding after World War II dramatically affected 1940s interior design and the size of 1940s homes

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.

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.

the Mt. Vernon 1940s kit house by an Aladdin Company 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 1953, 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 1940s interior design

    innocent 1940s colors in a vintage kohler bathroom When I look at some 1940s interior design and decor, 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, which, with its soft hand-painted illustration gets at the warmth and sentimentality of the period.

  2. Sentimental 1940s interior design

    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. In fact, there was A LOT of wallpaper in 1940s interior design — it’s an essential!

  3. Sunny 1940s colors:

    sunny 1940s colors shown in samples for church toilet seatsKind 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.

  4. Sanitary 1940s kitchen design:

    sanitary 1940s kitchen design in a st. charles steel kitchenWhite 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 and crumbs — and get rid of them.

  5. Patriotic 1940s decorating style:

    patriotic 1940s interior design elements in an american brand kitchenI see a lot of red-white-blue kitchen color combinations in the kitchens of 1940s homes. I also 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. 

  6. Traditional Colonial Revival 1940s furniture and interior design:

    traditional colonial revival 1940s heywood wakefield furniture designsMy mom, who grew up in the 1940s, 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.

  7. Hollywood glamour 1940s decorating style:

    hollywood glamour 1940s interior design in a bedroom by armstrong flooringThink 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.

  8. Streamline – deco – jazz age 1940s high-contrast color schemes:

    streamline deco jazz age 1940s high contrast design in a pink and blue tile bathroomIn 1940s homes 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). These high-contrast color schemes are a carryover look from the streamline jazz age era.

    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.

Which 1940s interior design style is your favorite?

    1. Eagle says:

      Thank you for this great article! We purchased our first home last year and I am researching its history. Your article is spot-on and terrific! Our floor plan is virtually identical to the Plan #2 less the basement stairs as we do not have a basement (just a crawlspace). Thanks again!

  1. Patsy Griffith says:

    What color would be good to paint over already painted brick on a house built in 1945? It’s a light gray now and the porch needs to be repainted.

  2. Daisy says:

    My parents’ home was built in 1950 and was more of the ’40s style. We moved out of a home built in 1900 with a claw foot tub, stained glass window on the stairway landing, and columns dividing the living room and dining room so our “new” house seemed very modern!

    The kitchen had yellow painted cupboards and a red countertop. The floor was a black and white swirly linoleum. We had a Formica and chrome table and matching chairs in red and had yellow Iroquois tableware.

    The main bath still had all the white original fixtures when we sold the house 55 years later with Spring green 4×4 tiles halfway up the wall. We had a powder room on the first floor which felt luxurious.

    The realtor told us to leave the pretty ceiling light shades in floral and starburst patterns as it matched the era. The hardwood floors had been covered with wool wall to wall carpet in 1960, which we pulled up and the floors were still pristine.

    So sad we heard the young buyer tore everything out of the bath and ditched the light covers. Wish I could have kept the house myself but I am enjoying this walk down memory lane!

  3. Tracy Tossing says:

    Two years ago I bought a house in a small town in north central Florida. It was built in 1949. Although I know these facts, I can find nothing about original floorplan, architect nothing. What I know is it was originally a 2 bedroom 1 bathroom and one car garage or carport.
    Its made of concrete block. Interior and exterior walls are all concrete block. It sits on a concrete slab. It has window lay outs that mimic older homes. They are wood sash style. Living room, and both bedrooms have 2 windows on each exterior wall. The ceiling has been lowered 3 times.
    I would love to restore it to as close as possible its original style.
    Any input would be greatly appreciated.

  4. Evan Degenfelder says:

    I know this is an older post but I just have to share. We’re restoring a 1947 ranch style home. I’ve FINALLY found the ‘plan’ for it. I would love to show it, but don’t know how. It’s very cool to find the exact plan for the house you’re restoring! Exciting!

  5. Ruth Vadi says:

    Just bought a small house built in 1948 just outside Baltimore. It has an asymmetric cat slide gable in front, which I think is somewhat unusual for the midAtlantic. It was a rental property for a number of years, so I don’t know much about it’s history. It has the dark baseboards of other similar houses I’ve seen built around the same time. It is very small – like a beach cottage, really, and the kitchen is tiny. We aren’t really near the beach, though – most of the surrounding area was farmland until recently, although of course Baltimore is a bustling port city that had a lot of factories back in the day. There are clusters of these little houses here and there not far away. Would love to learn more about it and connect with others who are interested in their history and preservation.

  6. Tammy says:

    I have a 1940s kitchen – complete with Shirley steel cabinets. At least the sink cabinet is, an Economy 54 model based on your other post on Shirley brand cabinets. But I knew it was older than 1952 because this house was standing long before 1950. There were no such things as building permits and detailed property records before then in these parts. Its a war bungalow sitting on part of what was once a dairy farm. Built next to the original house and before the milking barn. The sink section looks just like the 1948 St. Charles kitchen above. The other cabinets aren’t quite as old and have all handles in the vertical position, but they blend in quite nicely. They’re also much larger. The original sink top was long gone in the 60s or 70s replaced by a continuous gold formica counter and stainless sink, changed to a stone formica top before I arrived a decade ago. While I would gladly pull them out and replace them with wood that doesn’t rust, I’ve grown rather fond of them. You can get 1 handle style to fit them because the holes aren’t standard spacing, but spray painted black they look just fine in my farmhouse kitchen. Thanks for posting what you do and giving me a more definite date as to when my house’s kitchen went in 🙂

      1. Tammy says:

        Hi Pam – Your 1952 brochure post is the only one I found last night. That post led me to this one. If you know where there’s an archive of them, I’d love some direction!

  7. Lillian says:

    We have been given a 1948 2 story home. We will be moving it this summer. It is only 1,058 sq ft, we need to add-on. Adding to both sides makes the most sense, but I don’t want to lose the charm of the cottage. Any advice?

  8. Linda DeChaine says:

    I have a 1940’s kitchen with old gold formica counter tops that need to be replaced, but I am not sure if I should put formica back in or go to tile with a dark bullnose or even a stone or butcher block counter top. Our bathroom has tile with bullnose. I want to update my kitchen somewhat without losing the original character.

  9. Nina says:

    I have always like the bright tile and colors of older bathrooms. Regarding the picture that accompanies the streamline – deco – jazz age era – how common were double bathroom sinks in this time? I noticed they were very different in size. Were they just extra sinks so the family could get washed up quicker, or did the smaller sink have a different purpose?

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