Expert Gerard Splendore takes us back in time to when pastels and metals dominated the design world for kitchens and baths in the 1950s. This amazing time in design changes is still very popular today with those who love vintage fixtures

Houses and apartments built in the middle of the 20th Century, termed ‘mid-century modern,” are highly valued in today’s real estate market. The existing substantial housing inventory from this time is joined by more coming on the market as sellers age out of these houses and downsize.

While associated with the building boom of post-World War II, the mid-century incorporates the period from roughly the 1940s to the 1970s. The baby boom, resulting from returning soldiers, and the GI Bill – which allowed millions of veterans to purchase homes – increased the inventory and housing development during this time.

 Designed for the younger buyer

Real estate agents who are sensitive to the mid-century modern design elements and can identify its architecture are guaranteed success with younger buyers.

It is vital that as housing stock from this period hits the market, original design details, including light fixtures, doors, windows, hardware, kitchens, and baths, remain intact without updating or modernizing.

If sellers try to remove its detail, The character and flavor of this period will be compromised. The term “appropriate” when describing floorplan, finishes, and appliances was never more important than in mid-century modern homes.

 The post-war 1950s were a time of optimism, hope, advancement, and belief in the “American Dream,” unlike any other time.

Two influences are the vibrant pastel color palette of blues, yellow, mint green, and pinks and the streamlined modern lines of stylized exotic florals and geometrics such as the boomerang Formica pattern so prevalent during this time.

Turquoise, a shade of blue/green previously unknown in America, became a mid-century staple. Like Rock’ n’ Roll, highways, cars, televisions in every home, and modern air travel, 1950s design is energetic and vibrant.

 Heavy metal

During World War II, steel was in high demand for weapons, tanks, and airplanes. Post-war production facilities turned to metal cabinets for kitchens and baths and home appliances.

Frank Lloyd Wright, the great American architect, adapted metal cabinets in kitchens early, as they were sanitary and vermin-proof. Mass production was in full swing, as the New York suburb of Levittown supplied housing for more than six million people.

The home dishwasher was introduced at this time, both freestanding, which was rolled up to the kitchen sink via hoses or built into the kitchen’s base cabinets next to the sink. Kitchen sinks were still white enamel over steel, with a built-in drainboard, but the days of handwashing dishes were over. 

 American Industrial designer Raymond Loewy was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in October 1949, recognizing his far-reaching innovative designs.

Clean, curved lines, seen in kitchens and bathrooms, and the innovation of the dinette set of tables and chairs for kitchen dining are attributed to Loewy.

Plastic laminate became commonplace in kitchen design, despite a limited color palette of seafoam green, yellow, fiesta red, and blue. Kitchen cabinet salespeople worked with sales kits containing miniature metal kitchen cabinets that enabled them to design kitchens, to scale, on the spot, whether on construction sites or in existing homes needing upgrades. So standardized were the cabinets and appliances that the kitchens adhered to 4 basic shapes: the “L,” the “U,” the “I,” and the “H.” Mass production, perfected during the war, fed the home construction industry with products desired by modern homeowners.

 Metal cabinets, particularly those under the kitchen and bathroom sink, were vented to allow air to circulate, preventing musty odors and mildew. While cabinets were available in various colors, hardware was always chrome.

Clean designs with a Scandinavian influence were also popular in mid-century design. Wood paneling, especially knotty pine, and built-in cabinets in dens, recreation rooms, and living rooms were born due to this Scandinavian influence. Home bars in lower-level recreation rooms, built of knotty pine, became a staple of American life.

 Kitchen appliances began to adapt to a more modern feeling with the advent of two-door refrigerator-freezers and wall-hung stoves and ovens. Automatic kettles, deep fryers, and nonstick pans debuted in the 1950s. 

Pink, burgandy and black 

If there is one feature that real estate agents will repeatedly see in 1950s homes, it is the pink bathroom. Pink, in every hue from pale shell pink to a flesh or coral tone, was seen as the symbol of luxury, leisure, and pleasure.

Americans loved that they appeared healthy and happy in their pink-toned bathrooms. Pops of darker colors and borders of burgundy, black and gray toned down some of the vibrancy.

American standard porcelain fixtures, including tubs, sinks, and toilets, were manufactured in “fashion colors” like regency blue, Manchurian yellow, and tourmaline green, which added to the five most popular colors: persimmon brown, platinum gray, tang (t’ang) red, Ming green and coralline (pink), with matching glazed floor and wall tiles.

Bathrooms of this time featured built-in hampers and vanities with seats and decorative towel bars.

 Houses built in the mid-century exist across the country in various states of repair, upgrading, and decay. There is a strong market for a well-cared-for home of this period with original details. The savvy real estate agent will be able to find these hidden gems and introduce a new generation to the lifestyle popular in the middle of the Century.

Gerard Splendore is a licensed associate real estate broker with Warburg Realty in New York. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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