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Originally published December 30, 2010 at 3:15 PM | Page modified December 30, 2010 at 3:23 PM

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Bathrooms: pretty in pink, again

Pink has come back in vogue, with more people embracing their vintage bathrooms rather than taking a sledgehammer to them.

The New York Times

When Nancy Burns and her husband, Thomas, moved into a 1959 split-level house in Fairfax, Va., three years ago, they tore up the cheesy shag carpeting and renovated the dark-paneled 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 midcentury America. But by the 1970s they were considered as saccharine as a package of Sweet'N Low. The color scheme in bathrooms then shifted from carnation and Pepto-Bismol pink — not to mention robin's egg blue and avocado green, which were also midcentury favorites — 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 color authority Pantone (www.pantone.com) this month decreed that hot pink will be the "it" color 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 color. While it is difficult to find colorful 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 color palette languished for years, and now I can't keep pink toilets in stock," said John Vienop, operations manager for DEA Bathroom Machineries (http://deabath.com/index.html), seller of salvaged plumbing fixtures based in Murphys, Calif. "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 midcentury design due in part to the popularity of TV's "Mad Men" (the Drapers' downstairs powder room is pink) and Atomic Ranch (www.atomic-ranch.com), 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 favorite 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, Mass., 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.

But some people with vintage pink bathrooms have left them intact, not so much because they are nostalgic or are in love with the color but because it is too costly to redo them. "For a long time, I hated it and planned to gut it but I was limited by my frugality," said Michael Heaton, 34, a stockbroker, referring to the pink tiled bathroom in his 1964 brick ranch-style house in Norman, Okla. "There wasn't a thing wrong with it except the color." After painting the walls a darker pink and painting the cabinetry black, however, his opinion changed. "Now it's the best room in the house," he said.

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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, Calif., and the author of "Bungalow Bathrooms" (2001). "It's extremely labor intensive and expensive to get rid of them."

That's not stopping Janice Friedman, 53, a legal administrator who lives in a 1954 brick ranch-style house in Wichita, Kan., from removing the tiles mortared into one of her bathrooms so she can replace them with pink ones. The original tiles were light green, she said, but were painted "a hideous off-white" by a previous owner. Although it will be arduous to remove them, she is determined: "I've ordered the pink tiles and told my husband we're tearing out the old tile as soon as the Christmas tree comes down."

While Friedman is aiming for a classic midcentury American look, 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 (www.laufen.com) and a stunning contemporary bathroom, by the Italian manufacturer Bisazza (www.bisazza.it), that is lined from floor to ceiling with pink glass mosaic tiles.

"Bath design has been trending toward pink over the past two or so years," said Scott Cook, manager of the Bisazza showroom in SoHo. "It's very warm and makes your coloring look better in the reflected glow."

Interior designer Brooke Giannetti, 45, and her architect husband Steve, also 45, achieved that warmth with nothing more than a coat of paint. They painted the bathroom of their shingled beach cottage in Santa Monica, Calif., seashell pink a few months ago; for years it had been a spa-like, all white. "You don't want to be assaulted by that kind of starkness first thing in the morning or right before bed, which is when you spend the most time in the bathroom," said Giannetti. "We've found the pink to be much more soothing and enveloping."

And pink is complimentary, too. Tamelyn Feinstein, a 50-year-old photographer, painted the bathroom in her Nashville condominium bubble-gum pink in 2001. She was so happy with how she looked in there that she used the bathroom as the backdrop for a series of 365 self-portraits that she shot daily a few years ago.

"It's very flattering," she said. "It's hard to be sad in a pink bathroom."

Similarly, Sarah McColl, 28, a freelance writer, painted the nondescript bathroom of her Brooklyn walk-up a vibrant pink last year; she remembered reading in Vogue when she was a teenager that the color made you look better. She also decorated it with pinup girl posters from the 1940s and 1950s, along with old album covers that have some pink.

"I think the article in Vogue said something like, 'If you paint your bathroom pink, you'll never regret it,"' she said. "And it's true."

FOR 66 YEARS, FAITHFUL TO HER HUE

The allure of pink bathrooms is old news to Nora Alcaro, 90, of Philadelphia. The bathroom in the row house she shared with her husband, Peter, until he died last year, has been pink since 1944.

"My favorite color is pink and his was blue, so we compromised," said Alcaro, a retired department store saleswoman. "The walls are pink, and the floor and trim are blue."

No one had seen anything like it at the time, she said. Not only was it pink but also, at 9 feet by 11 feet, it was big for a bathroom back then. As newlyweds, she and her husband had decided to expand the bathroom rather than add an extra bedroom to the house.

"It was my dream to have a big bathroom because, you see, I came from a family of 13 children and we shared a bathroom no bigger than a phone booth," Alcaro said. "God forbid you should gain weight, you'd have to leave the door open."

As if a time capsule, nothing in her pink bathroom has changed in 66 years except the toilet, which had to be replaced a few weeks ago. Alcaro said she never once wished to have it updated or painted another color.

"If you love something," she said, "it never goes out of style."

— Kate Murphy

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