Bathrooms: Pretty in pink

When Nancy Burns and her husband, Thomas, moved into a 1959 split-level house in Fairfax, Virginia, three years ago, they tore up the cheesy shag carpeting and renovated the dark-panelled rumpus room but spared the pink-tiled bathroom with a matching pink tub and toilet that their real estate agent had thought would be a deal-breaker.

“We had the opposite reaction,” said Nancy Burns, who is 37 and a computer technician. “When we saw the expanse of pink, we knew this house was it.”

Pink bathrooms were a common feature of homes built in mid-century America. But by the 1970s they were considered as saccharine as a package of Sweet’N Low. The colour scheme in bathrooms then shifted from carnation and Pepto-Bismol pink – not to mention robin’s egg blue and avocado green, which were also mid-century favourites – to more muted tones like almond and ecru until, more recently, plain old white predominated.

But within the last five years, pink has come back in vogue, with more people like Burns embracing their vintage pink bathrooms rather than taking a sledgehammer to them. Moreover, interior designers are now advocating flattering, rosy hues for new or renovated bathrooms and manufacturers of bathroom tiles and fixtures have been introducing more pink options. Noticing the trend, the colour authority Pantone in December decreed that hot pink will be the “it” colour of 2011.

“Pink makes you happy,” said Burns, who plays up her pink bathroom with a pink poodle shower curtain, ceramic pink poodle figurines, pink towels and even a vintage pink bathroom scale. While pink bathrooms started appearing as early as the 1930s, many credit Mamie Eisenhower with popularizing them in the 1950s. She decorated the White House with so much pink when her husband assumed office in 1953 that the staff began referring to it as the “Pink Palace.”

Pastel pink or “Mamie pink” soon became the era’s iconic bathroom colour. While it is difficult to find colourful plumbing fixtures today, back then manufacturers like American Standard, Crane and Kohler all carried pink toilets, tubs and sinks (albeit in slightly different hues).

“That colour palette languished for years, and now I can’t keep pink toilets in stock,” said John Vienop, operations manager for DEA Bathroom Machineries, a seller of salvaged plumbing fixtures based in Murphys, California. “We’re shipping them all over the United States.”

It’s unclear what is driving the recent rethinking of pink, but one factor could be the high visibility of mid-century design due in part to the popularity of “Mad Men” (the Drapers’ downstairs powder room is pink) and Atomic Ranch, the retro architecture magazine.

And since pink bathrooms are associated with a time of prosperity, perhaps there is also an element of nostalgia for rosier times, said Pam Kueber, who started a blog, savethepinkbathrooms.com, in 2007. Of the more than 500 people who have left comments on her blog, many fondly remember a grandmother, great-grandmother or favourite aunt who had a pink bathroom.

“There’s a lot of sentiment tied up in pink bathrooms,” said Kueber, 51. She lives in a 1951 brick ranch-style house in Lenox, Massachusetts, that would have a pink bathroom if only she had known where to get pink ceramic tiles when she renovated it in 2003. She went with the next closest color she could find – pale peach. “One of the reasons I started the blog was to help people share information on sources” for pink tiles and fixtures, she said.

Ceramic tile work done before the 1970s was usually of very high quality, according to architects and architectural historians. The tiles themselves were often more substantial and less prone to crack and the so-called mud job, or the way tiles are set in place, was more careful and adhesive.

“The tiles back then were laid in real mortar, which is why so many of the pink and other wild-colored bathrooms survived,” said Jane Powell, a restoration consultant in Oakland, California, and the author of “Bungalow Bathrooms” (2001). “It’s extremely labour intensive and expensive to get rid of them.”

High-end European designers of bathroom fixtures and tile have recently begun offering arty lines that are predominantly pink. Examples include a hot pink and white bathroom by the Swiss company Laufen and a stunning contemporary bathroom, by the Italian manufacturer Bisazza, that is lined from floor to ceiling with pink glass mosaic tiles.

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