The retro bathroom look – and how to get it

Whether it’s the fabulous fifties or swinging sixties that press your buttons, the past has always been a fertile source of inspiration for interior design – and the bathroom is certainly not excluded from that.

However, the smallest room in the house might seem one of the harder rooms to customise with a retro style twist. For one thing, contemporary bathroom fashions mean that an extremely limited range of palettes and styles is on offer when choosing baths and suites, especially at the budget end of the market.

For another, there’s not much flexibility about what goes in there and not a great deal of potential for sourcing vintage items second-hand. So, how can you get a retro look in this seemingly most modern of rooms?

First define retro…

So, what are we actually talking about when we discuss a retro bathroom look? Well, Chambers English Dictionary defines the word as “reminiscent of, reverting to, recreating or imitating a style or fashion from the past.” And the Oxford English Dictionary thinks the same: “imitative of a style or fashion from the recent past.”

There’s the important bit – recent past. When we talk about retro style, or its close cousin vintage, we tend to mean something quite specific.

We are talking about employing design elements from the 1950s and 1960s, in such a way as to incorporate modern comfort, sustainability and functionality, while perhaps escaping from the rather rigid contemporary notion that a bathroom must be a stark white, brutally functional room containing nothing that is not immediately necessary to your personal hygiene regime.

Go back any earlier than the 1930s and you’re into a style called ‘antique’. That means freestanding baths and porcelain with lots of style flourishes, glass accessories, bulky old-fashioned fittings and gold taps. Since it was predominantly the gentry and aristocracy who had the space for dedicated bathrooms in these times, the antique look seeks to emulate the bathing experience in a posh country house.

In the UK a room used solely as a bathroom did not really become routine in the homes of ordinary folk until the social housing boom of the 1920s, which then gathered pace with post-war rebuilding of the nation’s housing stock. The privations of the 1930s and 1940s mean these decades offer paltry pickings for anyone searching for style inspiration for interiors and decoration, although the fashions are iconic.

And while the 1970s have been rehabilitated by fashion, no-one is yet advocating avocado or bright blue bath suites, wool twist pedestal mats and those non-slip bathmats with holes and rubber suckers as the height of stylish bathroom design. Not even ironically.

Retro also, to our minds at least, carries the meaning of popular or mass culture. We’re not taking our inspiration for this look from high art or expensive objects that could only be enjoyed by the few who could afford them.

In contrast, the decades we are dealing with were about everyday objects and the idea that almost anyone could enjoy good design and cheap, exciting fashion. Keep that firmly in mind when searching for sources of inspiration for the retro look.

Patterns, textures and colours

In the absence of much flexibility over bathroom elements, and with few opportunities to source genuine contemporary products, retro style in a bathroom is going to be chiefly attained through the use of colours and patterns for decoration, and through accessories (which are also a possibility if your passion for retro revolves around junkshop rummaging). Luckily this is a very rich seam for you to mine.

A couple of pointers for making your choice. Here’s an easy trap to fall into – assuming that the colours used in mid-20th century design are bright, intense and bold. Not so. In fact, to our modern eyes, they tend to be rather faded and even slightly dirty-looking. You can blame this on the passage of time, of course, but also we should probably look towards printing, dyeing and colour reproduction technology of the time that was nothing like as sophisticated as our modern equivalents.

So, when picking colours, start with a bright tone but think hard about exactly what tint or shade to use – probably one that is more subdued than you might at first think. Check out our design resources at the bottom of this article to get your eye in for this task.

When dealing with patterns, remember that you’ll have to live with the results, so choose wisely. If it’s particularly strong, consider using it to create a feature wall and adorning the remaining walls in more neutral tones. We’d advocate doing a bit of research and fixing the style you want to create in your mind and then looking out until you see precisely what you want.

A lot of interior decor at the moment is focused on big, bold designs but that doesn’t make them retro-inspired. If you’re particularly handy or creative you may consider stencilling as a way of creating your dream pattern.

Some sources for retro style inspiration