Many people might look at a vintage lilac-and-green bathroom and see a space begging to be gutted. But those people are not Emilie Carver, a Cleveland lawyer who hopped on a plane last May and flew to Boston to retrieve 600 tiles from a bathroom that was being renovated.
Carver, 40, had almost given up her dream of re-creating a 1930s bathroom in the pale shade of purple when she spotted the tiles in the background of a Facebook Marketplace listing selling old fixtures. About a month later, she was in Boston trying to find a rental car with a trunk big enough to haul her loot back to her house in Cleveland, a 1930s Tudor revival.
"I was like, 'Those are my tiles, that's my tile, that's what I want,' " Carver said of her initial reaction to the listing. Now that the $1-apiece tiles are in her garage, Carver has to figure out how to scrape the old mortar off the backs so she can re-create a period-appropriate powder room in a space that had been updated by a previous owner.
"I am excited to get it done but I'm also a little nervous because I've been thinking about it for so long," she said of the room, which will feature wallpaper in lilac and green, a tropical print she chose for its unique ability to tie the tile colors together. "Of course it's going to come out kitschy, because that's what it is."
The kitsch is the point. In this boisterous corner of the world of home renovation lives a group of homeowners committed to preserving or re-creating vintage bathrooms and kitchens. Midcentury models dominate, with their telltale pink, blue, yellow and green hues. But there are the bathrooms from the 1920s and 1930s, too, with their spectacular combinations of colors like cobalt blue, burgundy and turquoise, colors that are often accented with ornate decorative details.
On Facebook groups like Vintage Bathrooms and Mid Century Bathrooms (vintage), members ogle pink toilets, try to sell green or blue pedestal sinks, and offer restoration advice and encouragement. On Instagram, hashtags like #vintagebathroom and #vintagekitchen celebrate orange tubs and checkerboard tile, and the account @vintagebathroomlove posts photos of pristine tile work from the past for its 158,000 followers.
"Some people are really into sports, some people are really into literature. Some people are really into their historic houses," said Pam Kueber, the founder of Retro Renovation, a website that has become a clearinghouse for people looking to restore steel kitchen cabinets or midcentury vanities. "Whatever floats your boat."
Kueber, 62, who lives in a midcentury ranch-style home in Lenox, Mass., with a kitchen that stars steel aquamarine cabinets she found on eBay, has become the godmother of midcentury kitchens and baths, steering a new generation of homeowners to the 4-inch-square tiles that dominated homes for decades.
Vintage enthusiasts argue that reclaiming old materials saves a homeowner money and keeps the integrity of a house intact. Design trends come and go, but a 1949 bathroom will still be a 1949 bathroom long after shiplap walls have faded from fashion.
Talk to a homeowner like Carver, whose garage is full of vintage tiles in various hues, and you soon learn that the itch isn't just about money or nostalgia. It's about the hunt.
A certain thrill is derived from finding that exact shade of Ming green to patch a spot in your 1924 shower stall, or the pink tub that's an ideal mate for a console sink. Sometimes, the fun is in the chase, scoring a find on eBay or at a local Habitat for Humanity ReStore, or driving hundreds of miles to claim an item before it heads to the junkyard.
Carver's garage now houses not only the lilac tiles (which she describes as "art deco purple"), but other vintage materials she's collected, including 500 Ming green tiles, 50 in yellow, and about 100 pink ones. There's also a random assortment of classic sinks, including two purple pedestals from 1928 that she found before she bought her current home but are too large for the 15-square-foot powder room.
What will she do with all these materials? She'll probably sell them at some point, since the other two original bathrooms in her 2,400-square-foot house are still in good condition. But does it really matter?
"Throughout this past summer, friends are gutting their bathrooms and I'm like, 'Just bring the sinks over here. I know someone will need them,' " said Carver, who has become a keeper of the bathrooms that other people no longer want. "My family, not my immediate family, but the rest of my family, think I'm crazy," she said. "For my parents, they grew up with bathrooms like this. It's not cool to them."
But for those who find few things cooler than some midcentury steel cabinets, no distance is too far to travel. Molly Evans, a nurse anesthetist from Quincy, Ill., was so excited about two sets of cabinets that she had found online that she drove them 1,800 miles in a Penske rental truck from Quincy to her vacation house in Palm Springs, Calif. The ranch-style tract house was built in 1958 and had a kitchen that had been updated in the 1990s, and Evans wanted to lean into its midcentury bones.
The cross-country drive was a slog. "Going through the mountains of Arizona was tedious," said Evans, 55, who made the trek with a work friend who did not want her traveling alone for such a distance in such a vehicle. "You just keep going. You say, 'OK, I've got a vision.' "
This was not the first time she'd driven a huge distance in a truck with these cabinets. She had bought them a few months earlier in Missouri, driving a U-Haul a slow six hours south from her home in Quincy to pick up a $900 set of gold and white St. Charles cabinets that she found on Craigslist.
And because one can never have too many cabinets, Evans decided to buy a second set of steel cabinets, $400 Kelvinators, that she found on Craigslist, which she picked up in St. Louis while she still had the U-Haul.
After she got the cabinets home, she sent them out to be powder-coated white, a process she learned about from Retro Renovations, and then took the finished product to California in the Penske truck so they could be installed.
"I had no idea how it would turn out," Evans said. "I told my contractor, 'I'm bringing out 35 cabinets, they're all mix and match.' "
Once the cabinets arrived in California, the contractor had to figure out how to assemble them in the galley kitchen. Once he did, Evans installed an electric-blue Formica countertop with boomerangs and retro-style appliances that she bought from Home Depot, finishing the look with a set of swivel counter stools with wood laminate backs. The final product isn't for everyone, Evans said, but that's the point. "It's the desire to not have what everybody else has," she said.
When she rented out the house as a short-term vacation rental, she often got backhanded compliments from guests. "I don't know that everybody loved it," she said. "They said things like, 'It was so cool.' " But when she listed the property for sale in May 2020, it sold in three days — for $5,000 over the asking price.