Create a 1940s style kitchen — Pam’s design tips — Formula #1

1940s vintage kitchenWant a checklist of key elements to create or recreate a 1940s style kitchen? Reader Carolyn recently wrote to us asking for ideas to help repair and decorate her 1947 kitchen. Long story short: I think that Carolyn has the need for a significant remodel on her hands. If she goes this route, to help I put together a list of key items for her to consider to get an historically appropriate look. 

vintage kitchenvintage kitchenCarolyn’s kitchen looks pretty adorable in these photos, but she told us that 60-year-old tile countertop has “twisted, cracked and the wood underneath has bent to expose the grout more than an inch on 2 sides of the sink. We had our grout cleaned and re-grouted just last year!”

vintage kitchenIn addition, the sink needs to be reporcelained… the lazy susan is broken and impractical… they need a new refrigerator… the cabinets need a new paint job… and the floor needs to be replaced.

vintage kitchen
Precautionary Pam notes: Consult with properly licensed professionals to ensure that placement and installation of appliances like thise one conforms to local building codes.

But two pieces of good news: Carolyn loves her 1940’s Wedgewood stove. “It is large for our kitchen but, it is a work horse, and I love how it looks”…

fiestaware collection…And she has plenty of color inspriration, in her big collection of vintage Fiestaware.

Carolyn, once you pull out that tile countertop and backsplash, I think you are going to be left with an enormous mess. In addition, your cabinets are not sized correctly to match up with your stove and a modern countertop-depth refrigerator. Since you are planning on replacing so many elements already, I’d say: Save your dough re mi and plan for a gut-remodel or near gut-remodel — and recreate a 1940s style kitchen set to endure for another 70 years. Just do what you gotta do.

Pam’s Design Formula #1 to Create a 1940s Kitchen

I think that the basics of a 1930s and 1940s kitchen are pretty easy to identify and pull together. I would even go so far as to say this is a “formula” — one that’s very adaptable, though, in particular as it comes to selecting colors, patterns and of course, decor. In addition, there are other alternatives (above and beyond those shown today) for sinks, flooring, countertops and appliances — I’ll do another design board with Formula #2 and maybe even Formica #3 soon…

But for this one, the impetus was Carolyn’s wants and needs. In our email exchanges, Carolyn indicated an interest in a yellow-and-black tile color scheme. I also think that yellow tile works well with her yellow Fiestaware. So that’s where I started with this Design Formula:

1940s vintage kitchen

  1. Wallpaper — This vintage wallpaper from Second Hand Rose looks like it would coordinate nicely with the yellow-and-black tile scheme… and, it picks up the other colors in the Fiestaware — but without competing or adding too much extra pattern to the small space.
  2. Tile edging — You can get black bullnose tile right from Home Depot or other big box stores.
  3. Backsplash and wall tile — Yellow 4″x4″ tile from B & W Tile. You can see all the color for B&W Tile at Clay Squared. You can buy from either place. Or, choose this lovely soft yellow tile from Classic Tile, I think it’s even less expensive. Note: It’s gonna cost more — but in a 1940s kitchen, in addition to tiling the backsplash, I would likely lean toward tiling the entire room. That is, tile about halfway up the walls, with bullnose trim.
  4. Cabinetry — White cabinetry is appropriate. This example is from Barker Doors, which can custom-size you anything. Yes, Carolyn, you can have glass in the wall cabinets — just know: You must keep what’s behind it super tidy — even “staged” — or else it will just look a mess. Note also: Soffits, please, above all those cabinets and the refrigerator, too, for a built-in (and easier to keep clean) look. I even believe: Soffits make a kitchen look bigger.
  5. Countertop — Linoleum. That’s what they used in the 1940s, along with tile and wood countertops.  Shown here: Marmoleum linoleum. I believe that black linoleum countertops were the #1 most common color in the 1940s. They would look great in the color scheme of this kitchen, I think.
  6. Kitchen sinkKohler Delafield with hudee ring. The kitchen sink o’ choice here on Retro Renovation. I did not specify a kitchen faucet — but peoples, enough with those goosenecks that sit super high — they are too splashy once the water hits the base of the sink. Me no get it. Here’s the faucet I have in my kitchen (affiliate link), and I love it, the spout is 10″ long so it sticks well into the center of my sink, and it is not high like a gooseneck, so I get minimal splashiness outside the sink:
  7. Countertop edging — For linoleum, I would likely go with stainless steel edging from New York Metals because this edging has a big lip to grab onto the linoleum.
  8. Refrigerator — Okay, it’s not retro looking — but I like this size and color of the this Fisher Paykel refrigerator I discovered when researching this story. It’s counter-depth, not too tall, not too wide. The think about small kitchens like Carolyn’s is that if you have too big a fridge, it just takes over like a big white elephant in the room. Yes: A vintage fridge from the 1940s or early 50s also would be great, if you have the patience and tenacity for it.
  9. Decor — When designing a kitchen, it’s always great to start with an inspiration item — a curtain fabric, a rug, whatever — to drive a color palette. In this case, Carolyn’s Fiestaware does the trick quite nicely. That said, I would pick only one color — in this case, the yellow, as described — to ground the whole look.
  10. Flooring — Carolyn said that the rest of her house has wood floors. So yes, continue them into the kitchen.
  11. Stove — Yum. This vintage Wedgewood stove = The star of your show. Lucky Carolyn! Be sure to consult with properly licensed professionals about placing and installing it in your kitchen in accordance with local building and plumbing codes.

Other 1940s style kitchens with useful ideas for Retro Renovators:

We hope this is helpful to you, Carolyn, and to other readers working to design a 1940s style kitchen. A few more Formulas yet to come!

See all of our 1940s kitchen design boards here


  1. Carolyn says:

    As I mentioned, I’ve had an architect re-draw my kitchen for adding a dishwasher. By simply adding a dishwasher, I am forced to move 2 walls. One wall would become a pony wall into our dining room (I have no problem with that as it will serve to let in more southern light). However, in order to do the pony wall, I will need to sink the refrigerator into our living room, shortening the area around our fireplace by 30″. Thus our living room will be reduced from a small, “mid century modest” 15’x19′ to 15’x16′ living room. I have been doing a lot of hand wringing about moving our old plaster and lathe walls, replacing and with Sheetrock to enlarge our kitchen while diminishing our living room. All this just to have a dishwasher installed to the left of our kitchen sink. Ideas?

    1. Diana says:

      I agree with Pam. That is ultimately your decision. I will just say I have lived 28 years without a dishwasher and frankly I don’t miss it!

    2. Maria says:

      Late to the party but…

      Do they still make portable dishwashers? My neighbor growing up had one with a wood butcher block top. She used it as an island way before anyone had those, rolled it to the sink to do dishes, then rolled it back over to the side when it wasn’t in use.

  2. Jackie says:

    True, only you can decide what’s really best for your family’s comfort and lifestyle, Carolyn.

    I’m admittedly a pretty hard-core preservationist, and would caution from my own (very biased) perspective that a pony wall will dramatically change the feel of the space and will keep the space from being totally period.

    On a practical level, that’s a lot of change and expense! Losing 3 feet of your living room seems pretty drastic! I’ve lived with and without dishwashers. While I like having one, I’ve been fine without. (I’m also, apparently, the only person in the US who doesn’t need a garbage disposal, so you can take my views with a whole box of salt.)

    Have you considered a “compact” dishwasher, only 18 inches wide? If you really have to have a dishwasher, perhaps a smaller size could help resolve some challenges.

    Or, is there room to shift changes toward the utility space rather than changing the dining and living rooms?

    Could you create a period-correct stove alcove (if that doesn’t also eat up living room space–I don’t know floor plan), and thereby give yourself more room to rearrange the drawers and other bits to the right of the sink?

    1. Carolyn says:

      Thank you Jackie. I was hoping for a response with the exact opinion you have stated. It is hard to remain steadfast in my home’s period authenticity when dealing with new appliances. You are correct that it Seems like a lot of expense and a waste of my home’s functional architecture as built in 1947. My friends appreciate the charm of my current home. I love it. It just needs to be cleaned up in the areas shown.
      Yesterday Intold my contractor to think about this house as his Grandmother’s. “Would you dress your Grandmother in a crop top and skinny jeans?” And so, dear Jackie, Pam, Kate, and all my wonderful cohorts who have replied here at RetroRenovation, I thank you a million times over.
      Today, my husband and I are going out to buy a new dish rack! It was brilliant of you to suggest we use a portion of our laundry room. Thatvsuggestion makes the most sense. Still, no walls will be hurt in this production.

  3. Carolyn says:

    Here’s what we have so far: I bought NOS ceramic 40 sizzle strips on EBay from a fellow RetroRenovation-er. The steps have a white background with a maroon ribbon and small mauve dot detail. For our counter and backsplash, I am placing yellow 4×4″ tile with a maroon surround from B & W tile.
    I have asked our contractor to place pie-cut display shelves on either side of our window cabinets. The cabinets will be white with some glass fronts to show our Fiesta and BAUER pottery. Vintage BAUER pottery features a beautiful maroon.
    Thanks to the inspiration from Lauryn and Dennis’ sunny kitchen on this site, we decided to buy a small LG refrigerator/freezer (9.4. cu. ft.) in place our our current behemoth. This way we can enjoy an area where, instead of the current bookshelves, we can place shelving or art work on the wall beside the refrigerator. We can also or instead build a rolling cart with drawers and storage options topped off with a butcher block top. This might become our tiny baking center.
    I am thrilled to have been a benefactor of all your incredible support & knowledgeable guidance; RetroRenovation’s bloggers and readers/commenters alike.
    Our kitchen is about to be gutted. Pictures to follow.

  4. Jackie says:

    Carolyn, I’m glad you’re finding solutions that both suit your needs and satisfy your desire to preserve your home’s beautiful features! We can be a herd of very opinionated people–and it’s clear that we don’t all agree on approaches and design–but we all love these old houses and want to help one another find ideas and materials that a lot of designers and contractors will tell you “just aren’t done anymore.”

    Have fun with it!

    1. pam kueber says:

      rue, you kitchen is soooo much bigger than hers….

      Carolyn, this reminds me (as I have been noodling your kitchen all week) — talk to your architect about door locations. This could make the wall with your table on it (currently) more usable — like a true galley kitchen. That is: Center door to laundry. Put door to garage in laundry.

      1. Carolyn says:

        Thanks for all your noodling. I am consistently inspired by you and your readers.
        We just saved $5,000 by deciding not to tear into our living and dining room walls to make way for a retro refrigerator. Our counters are only 23″ deep. Hence, we decided to go with a 9.4 cu ft fridge which leaves room to spare.
        I love the idea of a galley kitchen with a breakfast nook in our laundry. I visited this idea…moving the wall behind our stove, centering the door and stacking our washer/dryer set to the side. My husband grumps me with every change I make to our extant walls. Still, it ain’t over ’til it’s over…I am re-considering a breakfast nook in our (relatively) giant laundry room. I love, love, love the arched look featured in rue’s post. That sort of roofline would be problematic but, we could still invite the idea of going to a galley kitchen with a breakfast nook. Unfortunately, our existing water heater takes up enough room in the laundry to make this change difficult but not impossible. In for a penny, in for a pound. (Sorry for all the cliches).

        1. Carolyn says:

          Pam: BTW, none of our kitchen or laundry doors got to our garage. Our house has a breezeway and a separate garage attached only by the roofline over the breezeway. Our laundry room is north of the kitchen and the room to the east (with reddish stained cement floors) is our family room. I can send you my architectural drawings for our house. Perhaps you might find the time to continue noodling with our kitchen design within the confines of our original ranch architecture? Thank you so much for all you have already done for us.

            1. Carolyn says:

              Yes. I have headed your sage advice. I have read and read that particular RetroRenovation post. I started this project many years ago. It wasn’t until I found your web site with inspiring remodel stories, resources, advice and fellow retro appreciators that I was able to consider pulling the trigger on this remodel. First I had an architect measure and draw my house. The first contractor took 3 months to get back to me and when he finally found time gave me an astronomical bid including 20k just for tile! We are happy with our second and current contractor. He is building a 240′ studio for me in our backyard. He visits or speaks with us twice a week. He responds to every change of mind. He doesn’t try to sell me on sources other than those I’ve found here or on my own. (A great example of this is following the advice given in your article on B&W tile vs. Clay Squared orders).
              I told my current contractor , “Think of this house as your Grandmother. You wouldn’t put your Grandma in skinny jeans and a crop top, right?”
              Still, research continues daily. I have tread all over the map of kitchen products and possibilities only to circle right back home to this site. Thanks Pam and Kate.
              BTW: there are 3 doors in and out of our kitchen: one to the living/dining room rectangle, one to our family/back room rectangle, and one to our laundry room square. To the East of these rectangles are two bedrooms at opposite ends of a hallway, a “pink” bathroom and 2 closets, one on either side of our bathroom. We have many, many doors in our house! My favorites are the Dutch door between our kitchen and back rectangle and the mullioned door between our back area ( with built-in cabinets), looking into our front living area rectangle. There is a shared brick fireplace structure between the front and back areas, with the fire box side in the living room.

        1. rue says:

          By the way, I wasn’t trying to step on any toes. I was just excited to see another kitchen from an era I love so much and jumped in.

    2. Carolyn says:

      OMG Your kitchen is drool worthy. I love your kitchen sink, vintage refrigerator and your breakfast nook! Well done. You obviously worked hard to collect the hard-to-find fridge, sink, and clock with salt and pepper shakers. I adore your color palette. I am marveling at the button-look treatment on your breakfast nook benches.

      Congratulations on a fabulous architectural design? The arched ceiling is dreamy. I would copy everything you have done if I only could.

      1. rue says:

        Thank you, Carolyn! Actually the kitchen was already laid out that way and original, I just had to paint and then redo the floor tile, the countertops and sink that had been remuddled in the 70s or 80s. As I said above to Pam, I was trying to show you what I did.

        Oh and the button treatment, was just a bit of whimsy on the spur of the moment that I added to nails that were painted over 🙂

        I know everything will work out with Pam helping you. Don’t fret too much 🙂

    3. Mag says:

      Rue, I love your kitchen, and I feel like it will be at least another year before we find a house for ourselves. Our first and only house was built in the 1920’s. We sold it 11 years ago.

      Due to the chronic headaches that I and our son have, my husband is regularly talking about us moving. We pay month-to-month on rent, so we can give 30 days at any time. It’s hard to house hunt when husband thinks the best thing for us to uproot, plus, so many older houses here have been gutted or torn down, and that sucks. I live vicariously through everyone’s pictures shared here on RR dot com.

      You all help me to dream sweetly.

  5. Carolyn says:

    P.S. Advice I would offer to others who might be considering “updating” their kitchen: Sign up for real estate listings. As a result of doing this I’ve had the opportunity to view hundreds of kitchens and how they’re put together. I have grown a whole new appreciation for my little ranch home with all its kookiness and homey feel. Now, I just need to rid myself of the icky factor.

  6. AmyS says:

    Pam &Carolyn my sincere apologies, I know this question doesn’t apply to this thread, yet I somehow lost the page on which Pam gave a kitchen design example w/ the Formica table & chairs w/ red vinyl seats,a fabric back rest& the BEST legs? I scored on a table from an old diner which looks like the one in your photo, mint condition & weighs a TON! ( the base certainly makes it feel like a ton; it’s completely solid! ) I love this table & have had it over a year , yet no chairs( I’m assuminng it was a booth set-up). I knew I didn’t want the typical vinyl chairs,& have looked all over the place; to the extent I’d almost given up hope & was going to give into The quirky mismatched chair fad. As my dream is to have a 40’s-50’s kitchen, I know I’d sigh 🙁 every time we sat down to eat. This site is so awesome! THOSE CHAIRS ARE PERFECT. I did a happy dance! Enough excitedbabbling already. Could you please tell me where I can find them? They are simply **swoony**
    P.S. Congratulations Carolyn, on *your* kitchen coming together! =^_^*=
    Again, my apologies for posting this in your’s & Pam’s brainstorming space.

  7. Emily says:

    Hi Pam,

    I thought you should know your design board inspired some craziness on my behalf! I built a play kitchen for my daughter and put a lot of the details shown here into it: faux marmoleum counters with chrome trim, real tile backsplash with contrasting bullnose, vintage fridge, rounded shelves, and chalkware accessories… I was just starting to plan things when you posted this, and it took four (plus) months to come to fruition, but I’m pretty smitten with the results. Here are photos if you’d like a peek:


    Thought you and Kate would be able to relate with my obsessing, given all the dollhouse work you’ve been doing, although I imagine it’s easier working at 1:2 scale, rather than 1:12 like you ladies.

    Anyways, thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Carolyn says:

      You are a genius! I wish my mother had been as crafty as you are. What a wonderful transformation of an old piece of furniture into a one of a kind toy for your lucky daughter. I love the period details. (Pam is also a genius.)
      P.S. I followed Pam’s design board for my real kitchen remodel. I will try to send you pictures.

      1. Emily says:

        I’d love to see! I’m such a sucker for the vintage yellow look. I just think it’s so warm and fun but elegant at the same time. Do you have photos on Flickr or anyplace online?

        1. Carolyn says:

          Like so many others in my age bracket, I fear that I am an immigrant in the world o tech. The natives are our children. That being said, I don’t have Tumbler, Flicker or Twitter accounts. But, you have given me reason to look into doing so.
          Great idea Emily. I’ll let you and other readers here know when I get that done. Thanks muchly.

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