A brief history of the pink bathroom
The pink bathroom first came to prominence in America during the reign of President “Ike” Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie Eisenhower, between 1953 and 1961. His presidency coincided with America’s post-war building boom with over 20 million homes being built, and Australian home builders were just as busy in our own post-war boom.
Prior to moving into the White House, the Eisenhowers had moved frequently due to his army postings around the world, so she had previously never owned a home she could renovate. When the Eisenhowers moved into the White House, Mamie had her first opportunity to redecorate their private quarters. The First lady was well known for her outgoing manner, her love of pretty clothes and jewellery, and her pride in her husband and home. As we can see from her photos her favourite colour was a soft pink, so this was her natural choice for the White House, and apparently, reporters nicknamed it the “Pink Palace”.
Magazines such as the October 1958 issue of “Life” had a colour feature of “The First Lady at Home”, with many photos wearing her distinctive pink, which became to be known as “First Lady Pink” and “Mamie Pink”. In the same issue of “Life” there were also lots of advertisements with the same shade of pink, ranging from cars, lipsticks and towels. We still see today how the mass media latch onto a fashionable colour, and suddenly it is seen everywhere in fashion and homewares, so “Mamie Pink” was probably the first example of this media-driven popularity.
The pink bathroom comes to Australia
Prior to the internet and reality television renovation shows, such as “The Block” most Australians sought their home design inspiration from magazines such as Australian “House and Garden” and Australian “Home Beautiful” as they were the only source of colour photos of upcoming design trends.
Looking through Secret Design Studio’s extensive magazine archive of these magazines through the 1930s to the 1970s it is easy to spot the increasing influence of American trends after WW2. Prior to this war these magazines were a lot more influenced by the staid British home trends of the 1940s.
Pam Keuber, founder of America’s “Retro Renovation” blog thinks that about 25% of the 20 million post-war houses had pink bathrooms, so about 5 million bathrooms. With the hundreds of mid-century houses that I have visited across Australia, and the thousands that I have seen listed for sale online I think that Australia’s proportion of pink bathrooms are a lot less – so they are a lot rarer, especially if they are in original condition.
One pink bathroom trend that is more common here in Australian mid-century bathrooms is combining pink with other colours. Pink/grey, pink/blue and pink/black bathrooms were a safer choice for many than the full pink everything option. I have seen some really striking combinations with pink/aqua and pink/green!
So we might see a pink wall tile, teamed with a blue enamel bath, blue porcelain pedestal basin and a matching blue toilet pan and porcelain cistern. Or the reverse, with a grey (or black) wall tile teamed with a pink enamel bath, pink porcelain pedestal basin and a matching pink toilet pan and cistern. Often in-built soap holders were contrasting to the wall tile and matched the bath. Quite often mosaic tiling was used, and these often included a pink tile, often mixed in with greys or blues, to give a random appearance.
By April 1961, Australian “Home Beautiful” magazine was publishing “Pink is today’s top-selling color”, which is also an example of the American influence in the spelling of “colour”! Some retailers were saying that pink bathroom fittings constitute 50% of their sales!
Can a pink bathroom be saved?
There is nothing as charming as an original pink bathroom, except if the tiles are falling off the wall, there is mould in the shower recess, there is wallpaper is hanging in shreds and the vanity cupboard has rotted out. Sadly, after 60-70 years of heavy family use, most are nearing the end of their usable life, and a retrovation can be quite a complex and expensive process.
Today, we have much more stringent requirements for waterproofing under tiles to minimise potential structural damage to a house if water gets under the tiles and rots away at the timber. This means that it is very difficult to partially renovate an old bathroom, and often wall tiles will break if you try to remove them.
The older toilets are often single flush and use a huge amount of freshwater from their large cisterns. Anybody renovating an old bathroom needs to weigh up the aesthetics of a charming coloured porcelain cistern and pan versus their water use and ease of cleaning.
Most tradespeople today would rather work on starting afresh with a bathroom renovation and taking everything back to the studwork, rather than a partial renovation.
There is no such colour as “Just White”
“I’m scared of colour, so I will play it safe with just a white bathroom”
The internet is awash with non-colour white bathrooms, which are often reminiscent of institutional bathrooms and hospital operating theatres. Often these are photographed in such a way that the subtle differences between whites cannot be seen on your screen. The main issue with the white-on-white bathroom is actually the way different whites are perceived when adjacent to each other. There is no such colour as “Just White”!
Newbie renovators often don’t realize that there are lots of different whites available, some with a blue undertone, some with a yellow undertone. Even porcelain fittings have different whites from different manufacturers. For a typical white on white bathroom renovation, you need to select bathroom sanitaryware, wall tiles, benchtop, vanity cupboards, floor tiles, wall paint, ceiling paint and trim paint for doors and architraves. All of these will look like a pure white when looking at individual samples but put them adjacent to each other and some will start to look more cream due to a yellow undertone. Others will look dirty and more grey due to a blue undertone.
The answer is to use some white in the bathroom, such as your sanitaryware fittings, but introduce other colours (such as pink) to wall tiles that are adjacent to your white bath and your white toilet. Avoid anything white which is immediately adjacent to another white element.
A new bathroom with a mid-century vibe in pink (or another mid-century colour) can be stunning and work really well in older homes, rather than a contemporary new bathroom, which will date. Leading-edge bathroom fashion items always date faster, which is how bathroom suppliers keep in business! Matte black tapware will look very 2020 by 2030, just as 1980s brass tapware looked very tired by the mid 1990s, but is coming back into fashion!
Can a pink bathroom improve your life?
The secret of why a pink bathroom can improve your life is gained from an understanding of how light and colour works. White light is made up of a spectrum of other colours. White is a combination of all colours, so when we see white, the object is reflecting all the colours of the light the same. When we see a black object that means that almost all of the colours of light are being absorbed.
When we see a pink bathroom tile then the tile is absorbing all of the colours except those that when combined make a pink. This is the secret of why a pink tiled bathroom always makes you feel good – the pink light, especially when you see yourself in the mirror. As a person with an anglo-saxon complexion I have found that it is a flattering light that makes me look (and feel) younger and healthier, as opposed to the much harsher and less forgiving light seen in white bathrooms.
So who doesn’t want to look younger and healthier when they check the bathroom mirror before they head out?
If you would like to talk to me about the options, the products, the suppliers and the colours that you need for your bathroom renovation then please book in a “Dr Retro Virtual Visit” via Zoom. Dr Retro House Calls will be resuming after Covid lockdown finishes.
If you would like to read more about contemporary trends and pink bathrooms please visit