This story is part of picture 11, “Renovation”, where we examine the architecture of everyday life – and what it would look like to tear it all down. Read the whole issue here.
An original bathroom is a rare species. An essential place of unnameable things – in many ways its purpose is clear, unchanged. And yet the bathroom is the second most renovated room in a home after the kitchen, so it’s always a surprise — and a thrill — to find a historic bathroom untouched.
My sister’s bathroom is one of those relics of mid-century ceramic tile, the kind that still exist in Los Angeles, tucked away in stucco apartments and modest bungalows, in Spanish-style villas and Hollywood Regency townhouses. This was the first I’d ever seen and didn’t know existed; after a childhood in a tract house in the valley (818 forever!), a place with this kind of history and character came from another world. With its pale yellow tile and glossy black trim, an old medicine cabinet with mirrors and a slit to dispose of razor blades in the back, it seemed of its own kindquirky and somehow a perfect match for my intense but chill Scorpio sister.
The second time I saw a bathroom like this was in what would become my own apartment – this time peach-colored tiles with gray trim. The bathroom had the same thin, horizontal tile detail that looks both completely redundant and very intentional, the same antique built-in wall heater with exposed electrical coils that looks like a safety hazard but works like a charm. Built-in stoves of this type were first introduced by Thermador in the 1920s. Mine was part of the 1930s “Skyscraper” series, a design moment when even wall heaters could have Art Deco aspirations.
The specificity of these historic LA bathrooms is reflected in the features – what has been preserved. The bathrooms often have colors you no longer see – a quirky touch of pink or mint – with a contrasting trim and sometimes even a few hand-painted pieces in the mix. There is usually only a tiled counter and bathtub. But in some bathrooms, tile spreads out from surface to surface, covering the walls and floor, allowing the bathroom itself to extend, a stand-alone shower to separate from the tub, each with its own curved, tiled niches. The other fixtures, those necessary accessories – the soap dish, the cup holder, the towel rail, the toilet paper holder – are also tiled. It’s an immersive experience. Standing in one of these bathrooms makes you realize you’re a Total artworka total work of art.
Even if a pink bathroom isn’t to your liking, it’s easy to appreciate something that has integrity, is timely, committed to wearing well. Vintage tiled bathrooms come with other bygone luxuries: tidy mortar that lasts forever, a bath stopper that stops the water and the holy grail itself, high water pressure.
In a world where the past exists on an ever-shrinking scale as buildings are erected and torn down, mid-century LA bathrooms feel anchored to a certain lineage.
In the Victorian era, bathrooms were all about plumbing, dominated by white subway tile, all the better for spotting and removing grime. The 1920s brought pastels, which became saturated and decorated in the 1930s, influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. The wars made everything white again, this time in an endless square grid of 4 by 4, while also bringing with them industrialization, standardization and the beginnings of cheaper – and less sustainable – ways of building.
In the 1950s, post-war optimism brought color back for good, with pink and peach being the most popular bathroom colors (hat tip for Mamie Eisenhower’s pink bathroom), but this time it wasn’t just the tiles, but the sinks and sinks. toilets pink as well – or mint, or baby blue, or sunflower yellow.
The ’60s and ’70s kept the color and threw it all in: pattern on pattern, wallpaper, faux wood paneling, carpet! Then came the heavy stone of a faux Italian villa and ultra-expensive yet utterly dull seamless, white surfaces, as well as artisan chic with tactile materials and tasteful colors – tiles came back roaring!
You can see some of the history scrolling through vintage tile Instagram accounts; these modern archives act as the architectural equivalent of peeking into someone’s medicine cabinet. See @vintagebathroomlove for candy-colored tile porn, historic appreciation, and modern retro renovations (the opposite of @ZillowGoneWild); see @vintagetilepreservation for behind-the-scenes stories and if you have your own vintage tiles to preserve.
For this project, I wanted to pay tribute to the vintage LA tile bathroom through a work of my own. This piece, “splash splash flowers in the bath” (2022), limits all aspects of my artistic practice: flowers, architecture, gardens and installations that delve into what surrounds us, whether natural or constructed. The work is set in a 1931 Spanish-style interior. This bathroom has original ceramic tile in dramatic purple and black with Art Deco style and all over, curved alcoves for tub and shower, all tile fittings. It is utilitarian but stylish, cramped but extremely luxurious. It is designed and built for living, with the daily habits of the resident already thought of and foreseen, a sanctuary that anticipates your wishes.
I wanted to respond to the decadent, quirky, golden age of Hollywood glamor of it all. I used traditional flowers in non-traditional shapes — storybook red garden roses, dark trumpet-shaped calla lilies with white edges as grout lines, bright orange poppies that recalled “Wizard of Oz” (also from the 1930s, remembered as one of the first regular films in color), graceful lavender lily-of-the-valley but combined with black rattlesnake grass, farmed nasturtiums and their leaves like miniature water lilies swimming in a milk bath, suggestive glimpses of houseplants taking a shower, as if they were illicitly showing a nude catch naked. I wanted to capture the drama, the contrasts, but I also wanted it to feel like someone had just stepped out of the picture, someone lives here.
They say nothing lasts in LA. This is the land of eternal youth and reinvention. But consider this piece a love letter to the past, showing how sometimes an old matinee idol can find an admiring new audience, because we just want to be entranced, transported to another time.
Krystal Chang is a writer and designer of flowers, landscapes, installations and public art based in Los Angeles.