Art design

Los Angeles Art Deco historic bathrooms “work of art”

This story is part of Image issue 11, “Renovation”, where we explore the architecture of everyday life – and what it would be like to tear it all down. Read the whole issue here.

An original bathroom is a rare species. An essential place of unspeakable – in many ways its purpose is clear, unchanging. And yet, the bathroom is the second most remodeled room in a home after the kitchen, so it’s always a surprise – and a thrill – to find an untouched historic bathroom.

My sister’s bathroom is one of those mid-century ceramic tile relics, the kind that still exist all over Los Angeles, hiding inside stucco apartments and modest bungalows, in Spanish-style villas and Hollywood Regency mansions. It was the first one I had ever seen that I didn’t know existed; after growing up in a country house in the Valley (818 forever!), a place with this kind of history and character belonged to another world. With its pale yellow tiling and shiny black trim, an old mirrored medicine cabinet with a slot to toss razor blades in the back, it seemed to be sui generisidiosyncratic and perfectly suited to my intense but cold Scorpio sister.

“The bathroom is the second most remodeled room in a home after the kitchen, so it’s always a surprise — and a thrill — to find an untouched historic bathroom,” writes Krystal Chang.

(Jennelle Fong / For The Time)

The second time I saw such a bathroom was in what would become my own apartment – ​​this time, peach tile with gray borders. The bathroom had the same thin, horizontal tile detail that looks both completely superfluous yet very intentional, the same antique recessed wall heater with exposed electric coils that looks like a safety hazard but works like a charm. Wall-mounted heaters of this variety were first introduced by Thermador in the 1920s. Mine was part of its “Skyscraper” series from the 1930s, a time in design when even wall-mounted heaters could have Art Deco aspirations.

The specific character of these historic Los Angeles bathrooms shines through in the features – what has been preserved. Bathrooms often come in colors you no longer see – a quirky pop of pink or mint – with contrasting trim and sometimes even a few hand-painted pieces in the mix. There is usually only a tiled counter and a tub. But in some bathrooms, the tiling extends from surface to surface, covering the walls and floor, allowing the bathroom itself to stretch out, a stand-alone shower to separate from the tub , each with its own arched tiled niches. The other fixtures, those necessary accessories – the soap dish, the cup holder, the towel holder, the toilet paper holder – are also glazed. It’s an immersive experience. Standing in one of these bathrooms, you realize that you are contemplating a Gesamtkunstwerka total work of art.

Plants are installed like a work of art in a tiled bathroom.

“Even if a pink bathroom isn’t to your liking, it’s easy to appreciate something that has integrity, that fits the times, that’s committed to doing well,” writes Krystal Chang, whose floral art is on display in this one.

(Jennelle Fong / For The Time)

Even if a pink bathroom isn’t to your liking, it’s easy to appreciate something that has integrity, that fits the times, that’s committed to doing well. Vintage-tiled bathrooms come with other bygone luxuries: a tidy mortar that lasts forever, a tub stopper that stops water, and the holy grail itself, high water pressure.

In a world where the past exists on a smaller and smaller scale as buildings are built and taken down, LA’s mid-century bathrooms feel anchored to a particular lineage.

In Victorian times, bathrooms were all about sanitation, dominated by white subway tiling, the better to see dirt and wash it away. The 1920s brought pastel colors, which became saturated and decorated in the 1930s, influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. Wars made things white, this time in an endless 4 by 4 square grid, while also bringing industrialization, standardization, and the beginning of cheaper and less durable means of construction.

In the 1950s, post-war optimism brought color back for good, with pink and peach being the most popular colors for the bathroom (hat tip to Grandma Eisenhower’s pink bathroom ), but this time not only the tiling but the sinks and toilets were pink as well – or mint, or baby blue, or sunflower yellow.

The 60s and 70s kept the color and threw away everything else: pattern upon pattern, wallpaper, imitation wood paneling, carpet! Then came the heavy stone of a fake Italian villa and ultra-expensive but utterly boring seamless white surfaces, but also craftsman chic with tactile materials and tasteful colors – tiles came back strong!

You can see part of the story flipping through vintage tile Instagram accounts; these modern archives act as the architectural equivalent of peeking into someone’s medicine cabinet. See @vintagebathroomlove for candy-colored tile porn, historical appreciation and modern retro renovations (the opposite of @ZillowGoneWild); see @vintagetilepreservation for behind-the-scenes stories and if you have any vintage tiles to save yourself.

For this project, I wanted to pay homage to the vintage LA tiled bathroom through a work that belongs to me. This piece, “splish splash flowers in the bath” (2022), describes all aspects of my artistic practice: flowers, architecture, gardens and installations that immerse ourselves in what surrounds us, whether natural or built. The artwork is set in a Spanish style courtyard house dating back to 1931. This bathroom has original ceramic tiles in dramatic purple and black with Art Deco styling and all over the top arched tub niches and shower, all tiling accessories. It’s utilitarian yet elegant, cramped yet utterly luxurious. It was designed and built to be inhabited, with the daily habits of the inhabitant already imagined and planned, a sanctuary that anticipates your desires.

Photo of the floral art installation: "splash of flowers in the bath" (2022).

This piece, “splish splashflowers in the bath” (2022), describes all aspects of my artistic practice: flowers, architecture, gardens, installations that immerse ourselves in what surrounds us, whether natural or built.

(Jennelle Fong / For The Time)

I wanted to respond to the decadent, eccentric and glamorous Golden Age of Hollywood. I used traditional flowers in non-traditional forms – red garden roses, dark trumpet-shaped calla lilies with white edges like grout lines, bright orange poppies reminiscent of “Wizard of Oz” (also 1930s, remembered as one of the first mainstream color films), delicate lavender lily of the valley but paired with black rattlesnake grass, forage nasturtiums and their leaves like miniature water lilies swimming in a milk bath, an evocative glimpse of indoor plants taking a shower, like illicitly grabbing a naked body. I wanted to capture the drama, the contrasts, but I also wanted to give the impression that someone had just stepped out of the frame, someone lives here.

They say nothing lasts in Los Angeles. It is the land of perpetual youth and reinvention. But think of this piece as a love letter to the past, to show how sometimes an old matinee idol can find a new adoring audience because all we want is to be thrilled, transported to another time.

Krystal Chang is a writer and designer of flowers, landscapes, installations and public art in Los Angeles.


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