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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Diana says:

    I so agree with Jackie. I have a 1940 kitchen that looks very similar to your’s. I feel very grateful that it is mostly intact. We had to replace the flooring as the original Lino had a really bad 80’s vinyl glued on top from a previous owner. I couldn’t decide between marmoleum and maple hardwood. We decided to go with the hardwood as hubby could install. My tile counter is also in poor condition but we r planning to replace with the same thing and retain the backsplash which is what our neighbor did. Their’s looks wonderful. I just can’t stand to tear out original elements. I just think how old this house is now and how long it’s all been here. We will re porcelain the sink. We also have an old wedgewood and love it. Fridge is stainless and too big for the space but oh well. I might opt for one of the retro looking fridges next time around though. Bungalow Kitchens book is excellent!

    1. Cynthia Lambert says:

      I absolutely agree with Jackie and Diana. If you are lucky enough to have original cabinetry, hold onto it for dear life. No new cabinetry will ever have that same period look. It can’t, because it is not the same. And the tile countertops are wonderful. Wish I had them.

  4. Jackie says:

    I have to disagree on gutting the kitchen. It’s so rare to find original cabinets like that–keep everything you can. Part of getting the right period look is getting the proportions and placement right. Putting in deeper modern cabinets and making it look more “fitted” with the stove and fridge will kill the period look quicker than granite and vinyl ever could.

    Take a hard look at 1930s and 1940s designs. Many pre-war kitchens tended to have “stand-alone” appliances. I find the variation in texture and depth preferable. And when I spill a pot of chili, it’s a darn sight easier to clean between stove and cabinets with a stand-alone versus a slide-in placement.

    I recommend taking a look at the book “Bungalow Kitchens” for great ideas. It spans a period that starts much earlier, but goes up into the 1940s. There was a fundamental shift in design post-war, but everyday houses didn’t catch up with all the new ideas for a while.

  5. Becky from Iowa says:

    I just want to know how everyone comes up with the cash for these remodels, in the first place! 😉 I’ve been hoping just to replace the floors (groady carpet, even in the kitchen) and countertops (currently “butcher block laminate) in our old farmhouse ever since we bought it, 11 years ago. My kitchen also is a cute, Fiesta colored 40’s style, but without enough cabinets and with hideous, frustrating grey carpet. Ugh! But after we pay the mortgage, pay the car payments and other bills, replace whatever broke (hot water heater going soon) or fix what needs fixing, POOF…the spare cash is gone again.
    I would dearly love to hear how people finance all these wonderful projects I see on RR. On a modest single income, here in rural Iowa, I just can’t figure it out.

    1. Carolyn says:

      I bought my home in 1991. Once I had it paid off in 2009, I continued to work and save money. I am 61 years old and with my mortgage paid, my retirement income (I was a special education teacher so it’s not much compared to other professionals), personal savings and the death of my beloved mother who left me with some inheritance monies (I would rather have my mother back!) I am finally able to pay for a remodel. That’s what it has taken me. Good luck. Work hard. Be patient. Pay your bills. Save money. Your day will come.

      1. Sabrina says:

        Hang in there, Becky!!! In many ways we are in the same boat as you: place that needs fixing up and a single income. We can’t afford to do it all at once so we are doing it step by step. I echo all that Carolyn says. Our strategy is to buy used where we can (ReStore, cgr list) and do the work ourselves, and budget for bigger purchases. I’d also advise always save something, even if it’s $2 a month. A little will grow! Creating a spending plan will also help with figuring out how you want to spend your $$. There are tons of frugal living blogs out there with good tips. MoneySavingMom.com is a good place to start. Good luck!

  6. Josie says:

    I admit it – I am that person (the one living person, it sometimes seems) who loves tile counters. Ceramic scrubs well, takes heat well, and has such a great classic look.

    And I don’t see them as exclusively ’50s at all. Or if there’s only a few ’20s-’40s tile kitchens…. I’ve seen most of them? But really not rare – at least as far as what’s held up all this time. Probably other solutions existed in the region, and were popular but more ephemeral than heavy-duty ceramic…

    Also I must say how excited I am to see a yellow kitchen in the works – it is my very favourite colour. Plus I love white cabinets. And Fiestaware, which I am hideously jealous of as they don’t sell Fiesta out here and I can’t afford it shipped. But anyway, love this!

    I do want to wave a flag for a sweeter, more gentle wallpaper though. The ’40s had a lot of “sweet” detailing. I do like the idea of a kitcheny print, there’s lots of pear ones or lemon ones that pick up the sunny yellow.




    Excuse please that this is a bathroom but another option for a black/yellow scheme could be keeping the yellow on the wallpaper and making the tile (incidentally less expensive) white with black bullnose? [url]https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/0e/92/ea/0e92ea2fe5e14bc8a594376d22a304c2.jpg[/url] Just a thought. I do like yellow tile.

    The shame of not looking at the whole thing carefully – I spent 5 minutes searching around finding Lauryn and Dennis’s kitchen, because I’m intensely in love with it and wanted to suggest it inspiration-wise, before realizing it’s linked at the bottom of the article. I really like the grounding floor colour btw. I swear I’ve seen a lot of billiard green used that way in period ’40s stuff too.

    1. Carolyn says:

      Great stuff here! Pam has suggested I tile up the walls and paint my cabinets white. Which color would you choose for what is left of our walls…after yellow tile with black liner and white cabinets?

    2. Amber says:

      Houses in the late 30’s and 40’s have tile counters where I live too, and tile in the bathroom as well if they were fancy! My sister rents a late 30’s house with something I have not seen before, some kind of fake tile thing they attached to the wall, to give the look of tile. It’s hard to explain, it looks like some kind of manufactured material with grooves pressed into it to mimic the look of those common square tiles. The surface is shiny and somewhat glazed looking, it goes part way up the wall the same distance regular tile would, then I think there is sort of a wooden piece that goes over the top, like you’d see on bead board.

      My take on this is that they must have felt the tile look was stylish, but not been able to afford to put tile in at the time. So I think tile counters are fine for that period, from what I’ve seen of houses here I associate tile as having a period of popularity before peak laminate, and then again after it.

  7. Sabrina says:

    Absolutely adore the 40s retro style, it’s so sweet and the colors are great. Carolyn’s kitchen made me smile since it reminds me of the late 40s kitchen we had in my house growing up.

    The floor was streaky green vinyl tile, the cabinets were white wood with chrome handles (and sink vents!) the countertops were white laminate (with a pattern?) And we still had the big white 40s stove! Not very colorful but the stove was cool!

    This is also good tile counter top inspiration! I’d say go for dark grout so it hides the dirt. Black/dark grout isn’t “retro” but it could make a nice contrast with the black edge tile.

    Marmoleum (or wood) are excellent choices if you want a retro floor from a natural material or have sensitivities. It’s made from linseed. While you can’t recycle Marmoleum, it should biodegrade unlike vinyl tile.

    Vinyl (PVC) comes in lots of cool patterns but I’m not keen on how it can off-gas air pollutants (VOCs). For anybody wanting to test the VOCs in flooring, take a sample, seal it in a jar for a day, open and see how the fumes make you feel.

    There are lower VOC flooring options I’ve heard of and vintage perhaps off-gasses way less but it’s something people will have to research for themselves to decide what will work for you.

    1. Carolyn says:

      Thank you! Sustainability and the use of only healthy materials are a paramount reason why it has taken so long for me to approach changing my current time-capsule kitchen. Sigh.
      Finally, the “icky” factor of my old tile put me over the edge. And, here we are.

      1. Sabrina says:

        You’re welcome! I definitely want to change our countertops to tile. Best of luck in making a healthy retro kitchen!

  8. Emily says:

    I LOVE this, but am admittedly biased: Pam’s recommendations are so similar to what my husband and I chose for our kitchen a year and a half ago:

    We have that exact fridge (and love it), a similar stove, and the wood floors, white cabinets, yellow walls – even the jadeite knobs one commenter noted. I love the look of the tile and wallpaper – kind of jealous! Painting was so much easier I never even really considered the alternatives.

    I have to laugh at all the comments about wood floors being too trendy – our wood floors are the only original part of the kitchen left (over 110 years old)! To me they are the definition of timeless.

    1. Carolyn says:

      I love your kitchen! I Especially like the placement of your breakfast bar. It is brilliant.

      1. Emily says:

        Thanks! I can’t take credit for the breakfast bar; that part was already there.

        Pam, it turns out you’re a terrible influence. I’m in the middle of building a play kitchen for my daughter and this put me over the edge. I’m now looking at marmoleum countertop, chrome edging, and a tile backsplash for my not-even-2-year-old’s toy. Who am I kidding? Mama’s toy.

  9. ineffablespace says:

    Tile was probably (at least regionally) popular from sanitary kitchen days in the 1920s-30s until the 1990s as a relatively impervious countertop material. In the 1990s granite took the place of tile for people who wanted something that was more heat resistant than laminate. I’ve seen granite in kitchens that were installed as early as the late 1970s, and I am sure it was (very rarely) installed before then, but its the one material that I just done see working in a vintage- or period-referential kitchen.

      1. ineffablespace says:

        I am doing Corian countertops and sinks and a Corian shower base in my 1965 period-referential bathroom renovations. I think it’s a great material.

        1. pam kueber says:

          I need to go look at their website. I really like the idea of a Corian shower base. But you know me, laminate for a countertop! Although in a bathroom…hmmmm…Corian?…. maybe! It’s not so cold, like stone or marble. Which is a good thing, in my book! Or, on my blog!

          1. ineffablespace says:

            The one bathroom is so small (4 x 6’9″) that I needed a custom shower base and a custom vanity top with a shallow front-to-back sink. (And an undermount seamless sink in a bathroom is great anyway). I am using Silver Birch which looks like terrazzo, and I have decided to use another Corian in the other bathroom to match the Ice Grey tile and plumbing fixtures. Corian is not quite period, (1970s vs. 1960s) but I think it works.

  10. leslee says:

    use Blue Ridge pottery for your vintage kitchen. It is a beter value than fiesta, is still useable for every day and was made from the middle of the 1930s to the middle of the 1950s. Way more vintage vibe than Fiesta. I have a houseful of Blue Ridge (look on the back of hand painted dishes to find the label that says Blue Ridge hand painted under glaze. I’m planning my kitchen redo around my favorite dishes.

    1. Carolyn says:

      Congratulations on your Blue Ridge Pottery collection. My Fiestaware has been careful collected. I have pieces dating back to the beginnings of production in the 30’s. All pieces are the result of someone’s grandmother having left the items behind. I check the bottom of each piece to verify it’s authenticity. What small part you see of my larger collection is but an example chosen by Pam. I dearly love Fiestaware for its wild colors and beautiful patina of age. I appreciate knowing of another vintage pottery as I collect pieces from an assortment of old California makers. It’s my thang.

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