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The Arts & Crafts Bath:
The First Modern Bathroom
J. M. Edgar, CMC, CRC

In the early part of the Arts & Crafts era, the bath was merely a continuation of the Victorian bathroom with its stand-alone claw-foot tub and wall-mounted lavatory sink. This was often a very monochromatic room — with a subway tile wainscot, white floor tile and painted white wood trim.

Most arts and crafts bathrooms were small. A bathroom was considered a utility area, made as small as possible to as to not take away space from more important rooms. It was made just as large as it needed to be, and no larger. Still, as the century moved on, they became increasingly refined, bright and cheerful spaces, pared down to functional essentials with a minimum or ornament.


Most of the classic designs in plumbing fixtures were created in the first three decades of the 20th century, and have become the standards that are still used today. This makes it very easy to find sinks, faucets, toilets and tubs that fit well in a restored Arts & Crafts bath. Pedestal and wall hung sinks were predominant, a holdover from the Victorian period. The modern vanity made a modest, tentative appearance, in bathrooms of the late 1930s, but the vanity did not really come into its own until after the World War when it became the standard.

Most sinks had separate hot and cold faucets. The mixer faucet did not arrive until the 1930s. Mixing faucets are now required by most local plumbing code because they are safer. There are a great many styles to choose from that are suitable for an Arts & Crafts bath. Two-handle faucets are the most authentic — the single handle faucet was not available until after the World War.

White and off-white, the "sanitary colors", were favored until the late 1920s when pastel sanitary fixtures were introduced which led to experimentation with pastel tiles and tile borders. These new colors, including turquoise, peach lemon-lemon and hot pink, were to become closely associated with post-war modernism in tens of thousands of Cape Cod and post-war Colonial houses. However, most of these bathroom colors actually originated during the late Arts & Crafts era.

High-tank toilets began to be replaced by two-piece standard siphon toilets just after the turn of the 20th century, and by 1920 the high-tank toilets were rare in new installations. the low-profile two-piece toilet was not only much quieter that the high-tank model, but was less bulky, making the bathroom seem larger.

Kohler introduced the double-walled apron alcove tub (what you think of as the standard bathtub) in 1911, and it quickly replaced the claw-foot and pedestals tubs in use since the 19th century. Moving the tub to one wall, instead of in the center of the room, made more space in the bathroom for other things, like modest vanities, which at the time were often furniture rather than built-in cabinets, or built-in cabinets designed to look like furniture.

Heavy, bright chrome was the most common finish for faucets and white enamel for sinks, tubs and toilets. Chrome was a relatively new finish at the time, and expensive. It was much more durable and lasted much longer than the polished nickel plating that had replaced brass in the late 1800s, so it quickly became the standard. Today's more durable nickel plating and polished brass would also work well.


Flooring should be ceramic tile. By far the most common, and most often reproduced, flooring choice was white 1" hexagonal tile. It might have been accented with black hex tiles in a flower, diamond or dot pattern. The penny round tile was another frequent choice, as were herringbone, basketweave and running bond patterns. But in nearly all cases, the tile was mosaic and white or off-white. Mosaic was used because tile in those days was laid in a wet concrete base, and it was very difficult to lay larger format tile in wet concrete that was never completely flat. Large format tile did not come into common use until thinset mastics allowed it to be laid over a flat board or cured concrete substrate.

But white is not the only period-appropriate floor tile color. Starting in the early 1930s manufacturers, influenced by Art-Deco design themes, began introducing bathroom fixtures in pastels. Period decorators took full advantage of the new color flexibility to design baths in a rainbow of hues, including floor tiles of every color. With the appropriate fixtures, there is almost no tile color that would be out of bounds.

Wood bathroom floors were uncommon in the Arts & Crafts period after the 1920s. Wood finishes did not protect the wood well enough for use in a wet area like a bathroom. But great strides in wood finishes now make the use of wood floors practical in bathrooms, and we are seeing more and more wood in designer Arts & Crafts baths.

Linoleum is also a good choice for a period flooring. It was the miracle material of its age and was widely used in kitchens and baths up to the 1960s when it was replaced by vinyl, which required much less maintenance. True linoleum is once again available, and is an excellent choice in a "period" pattern. Keep in mind, however, that it still requires a lot of maintenance, including periodic waxing.

Wall Treatments

For walls, subway tile in white or nearly white, was nearly ubiquitous. The tile was thick (3/8") and skillfully made so that it could be fitted together almost with very minimal grout lines. The 2"x6" format is the most historically accurate. It is still being made in the same old way by Subway Ceramics. Borders in a contrasting color, usually black, were a typical embellishment that emerged in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Today, most ceramic tile is "thin set", that is, a thin coat of mastic or mortar is applied to a dry substrate, and the tile is embedded in the mastic. This form of setting results in an even, flat surface. But, in the early 20th century tile was usually "mud set". Tile was set in the thicker final coat of wet plaster. The process required great skill to get the resulting tile flat and reasonably even, but resulted in an incredibly tenacious bond, which is why so much of this early tile still exists. And, where it exists, it should be preserved, if possible. It is an enduring testament to what is almost a lost art.

Contemporary designers have expanded the variety of tiles suitable for Arts & Crafts bathrooms, by simply importing the kinds of tiles that were often used in other parts of the house. Ceramic manufacturers produced distinctive tile colors and designs during the Arts & Crafts period that are forever associated with the era. Characterized by extremely glossy finishes, period tiles are still made by many major tile companies as well as boutique tile makers who specialize in period tiles. It is often not possible to use only specialty period tiles without shattering the budget, but a a border or medallion of these period tiles adds a distinctive Arts & Crafts period flavor to a period bath.

Walls should include a tile or panel wainscot. Tile is the more typical wainscot material, but painted breadboard wainscot was also common. If wainscot was not used, the lower wall was often painted a different color than the upper part of the wall, and the two sections separated with an applied moulding called a chair rail.

Period illustrations often show bathrooms painted in the kind of pastels we most commonly associate with the Post-War Retro period. Most people, however, prefer to use a more somber color combination typical of the rest of an Arts & Crafts house. Almost all paint manufactures now have collection of paints authentic for Arts & Crafts interiors, so color choices abound and it does not take a color consultant to pick a suitable palette.


Some lighting fixtures are timeless. They have been with us since the early days of electricity, and are still appropriate for contemporary houses. The classic "school house" lamp is an example. It was used throughout the Victorian, Arts & Crafts and Post-war "Atomic Age" periods, and still works well with modern architecture. But, if your preference is lighting true to the Arts & Crafts period, you have an almost infinite selection. Reproduction light fixtures based on designs from the early 20th century abound, which makes choosing appropriate lighting fixtures easy. We think the best source for research is Rejuvenation Lighting and Hardware, our go to source for such things.

For your finish, stick to chrome for the most authenticity, or brass and nickel if you are reproducing an early period bath. Also, bear in mind that the later Arts & Crafts period overlapped Art Deco, so Art Deco fixtures were fairly common in period houses after 1927, and there are some very beautiful Art Deco bathroom light fixtures that would be perfect in a reproduction Arts & Crafts bathroom. You might also look to the orient for inspiration. Asiatic touches were a frequent feature of Arts & Crafts houses, and asian-influenced lighting fixtures would lend a modern touch, and still be period-appropriate in a reproduction bathroom.


There was very little storage in an Arts & Crafts bathroom, because there was little to be stored. Most Arts & Crafts houses featured a built-in linen cabinet in an adjacent hallway for towels, so what had to be kept in the actual bathroom were toiletries, of which there were few. These could be accommodated by a built-in medicine cabinet which was a standard feature of a typical Arts & Crafts bath.

Early period medicine cabinets were wood, recessed into the wall, usually with a mirror mounted on the door. Later, steel recessed cabinets more commonly associated with Post-War bathrooms came into use. But the most prized cabinets are still the earlier wood models, and these are the ones most often used in period reproduction baths. Fortunately, they are still being made. One source is Mitchell Andrus, who makes a wide variety of surface mounted and recessed period medicine cabinets. if you need a size the Mitchell does not make, then contact us and we will custom build one. Since there were no standards for medicine cabinet sizing, an odd size is commonly needed.

Unfortunately, the amount of stuff we store in bathrooms today has far outstripped the modest storage capacities of a typical Arts & Crafts period bath. There are a number of elegant solutions. The one we like best is an in-wall cabinet located behind the bathroom door. This works because (1) the space behind the door is usually empty, and (2) there is usually a bedroom closet on the other side from which we can steal some space for a 12" deep storage cabinet. But, because closets are also small in an Arts & Crafts house, we don't want to give up closet storage, so we usually built a matching cabinet in the closet backing up to the bath cabinet to make up for the lost hanging space. The bathroom side is usually 12" deep and the closet side about 16", which are depths that work for both rooms.

Arts & Crafts Bath Mouldings
All Arts & Crafts mouldings were simple and lacking the often intricate ornamentation of the Victorian Era. But they were almost always heavy and deep. A base moulding 8" tall and 7/8" thick was not uncommon (compared to the current standard of 3-1/2" tall and 3/8" thick). If the bath did not feature a wainscot, a chair height horizontal moulding should be applied between 36" and 42" from the floor. This moulding divided the wall horizontally and helped make a small room appear larger. Simple crown mouldings at the junction of the walls and ceiling were also common, but not the tall, angled crowns of Victorian times. There were small, usually flat, bands of wood that made the room look taller without being overwhelming in a small room. Window and door casing should be wide, often with back banding.

Wood mouldings would normally be painted, but sometimes varnished woods typical of the period were used: oak, elm and gum. If the original moulding in your bath is painted, odds are it was always painted, and the wood used was first growth pine. It is almost impossible to strip this wood and remove all the paint that has penetrated into the very pores of the wood. But if the original wood was oak, it was probably varnished originally, then painted over the varnish. These mouldings are fairly easy to strip, and should be stripped and revarnished to reveal the beautiful old growth oak underneath.

Arts & Crafts Resources
The nation is in midst of an Arts & Crafts revival. Unlike the interest in Post-War architecture which is still in its infancy, the Arts & Crafts revival is in full bloom, and has been for over twenty years. So, there are lots of Arts & Crafts resources available. Anything you need to restore, refurbish or refresh your home can be acquired somewhere, and it is entirely possible today to recreate an Arts & Crafts homestyle. . . .

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