Mid-Century Bath Design Basics 

21 min read Make the most of your bathroom remodel with these essential mid-century bath design concepts. Get just the mcm style you’re going for, whether you are upgrading, backdating or starting from scratch.

Most mid-century bathrooms are pretty modest by modern standards. They tend to be small and there often are too few of them in the house. Upgrading or restoring the mid-century charm in a bathroom while making it work better is one of the most consistent requests from both design clients and Ready to Remodel students.

So, how can you give yourself a serious bathroom upgrade while remaining true to the mcm feel of you home? The right choices for you are going to depend on your family and your taste and the home you’re working with. 

With SO MANY bathroom makeovers under my belt, I’ve boiled down the essential elements that will help you make the most of your bath plans. These mid-century bath design concepts will make sure you plan an update you love whether you are upgrading, backdating or starting from scratch.

Master Plan your Mid Mod Bath Update

Of course, step one is walking yourself through a mini version of the master plan process. You don’t know what kind of update works for you until you ask yourself: what you need in a bath, what’s going on with your bath(s) right now, and what “look” you’re going for! A few simple steps help you understand just what you need to banish your bathroom blahs and create the modern bathroom of your dreams.  

Then check off these Essentials

Then, apply the six essentials of a great bathroom update so you can create a timeless space that fits your life!

Plan Perfect lighting

Make sure you’ve got it all covered:  practical universal light, great light for your face when you look in the mirror and some soothing night light. 

Choose fixtures you’ll actually use

Every bath doesn’t need to have every element.  This is your chance to think seriously about whether you need that tub, or to sneak in an extra vanity to save a daily struggle!

Know you minimums

In a snug mid-century bath. You want to make sure you are leaving enough room to actually use each part of the bathroom with no extra wasted space!

Make the most of a snug space

Then check out this list of clever space planning rules to make every single square inch go further.  Play with built in storage, mount elements on the walls and have plenty of long view lines if possible. 

Keep it clean

You want a bath to be easy to clean right?  Keep reading.

Use Your perfect mid mod finishes

If this is your first major project, you can use to set your style strategy for the rest of the house.  Or take cues from projects you’ve already completed for an easy cohesive effect!

Want to dig a little deeper … grab the free pdf guide!

In Today’s Episode You’ll Hear:

  • Why you should kick-off your mid-century bath design using the master plan framework.
  • How to plan a timeless, not trendy, update that’s perfect for your mid-century bath. 
  • The six design essentials of a great mid-century bath update. 

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Mid-Century Bath Design Resources 

And you can always…

Read the Full Episode Transcript

Upgrading or restoring the mid-century charm in a bathroom while I make it work a little better is one of the most consistent design tasks I take on for our mid mod Midwest clients and that many of my ready to remodel students have top of mind. I bet it’s on your mind too.

So if you’re thinking about making changes to your bathroom, let’s talk about how you can make those changes as effective as timeless not trendy as possible. The mid-century Bath Design Concepts I’m going to share today will help you make the most of your bath plans whether you are upgrading backdating or starting from scratch.

Hey there, welcome back to mid mod remodel. This is the show about updating MCM homes helping you match a mid-century home to your modern life. I’m your host Della Hansmann architect and mid-century ranch enthusiast, you are listening to Episode 1306.

So today, I’m sharing my favorite tips, tricks, strategies and philosophies around mid-century bathroom design. And I made you a free PDF guide. So you can follow right along, grab it right now at the show notes link that’s midmod-midwest.com/1306 or get it directly from midmod-midwest.com/bath. So you can follow along with everything I’m about to say. Or if you’re driving or you got your hands in the soapy dishwater, make sure you come back and grab the freebie once you’ve listened to the episode.

Now here’s the thing. With any mid-century Bath Design, the right choices are going to depend on you. I don’t want you to make generic, quote unquote correct decisions about your bathroom because you’re worried about what it will do for resale value or doing it the right way. This is not about the right update for our mid-century bathroom.

It’s the right update for your mid-century bathroom. And the right choices are going to depend on your family and your taste and what you’re working with. So of course, we’ll start by walking through a mini version of the master plan thinking process. And the first thing we do know is what are your needs around your bathing space.

We need to know are we talking about a whole bathroom that almost no one uses? Wow. Are you lucky enough to have a spare bath? Or a hall bathroom that everybody uses? Or is this an owner’s bath that you’re remodeling or adding on from scratch?

Before I start brainstorming a problem for my clients, I want to know who is this bathroom for? Is it just you and your partner? For a single teenager? the only child in the family? Or the entire family of five little kids all brushing their teeth at the same time? Does it double as a guest space? Does it need to present a polished front anytime someone drops by for coffee? How much storage space do we need? How much privacy inside the bathroom would you like? And that all helps us make smart choices for keeping everyone moving in and out of this bathroom smoothly on a morning on a workday on a school day.

Or maybe this bathroom is more about a retreat where you restore yourself at the end of a long day. These decisions will matter. And knowing what the needs of your bathroom are will help you make the small tweaks and the big transformations that help you enjoy living in your space for the rest of your time in your home. So don’t forget to ask yourself those crucial dreaming questions.

Next, you need to think about what’s going on in the house. What are you working with? And how much are you prepared to invest in the change. So a lot of mid-century builder basic homes come with just one bathroom, that’s meant for everyone in the household, you, your family, your guests and all. In that case, we’re going to need to make really smart choices for what’s going to happen in that space. If you are lucky enough to have an original owner’s bath, it can often be quite problematically snug.

Or if you plan to make one, you’re going to think about that space a little differently than you would if it’s meant for guests or the whole family. It’s not too early to start thinking about your budget requirements. Because when you’re going to move things like plumbing fixtures or expand the space by demolishing and rebuilding walls. No, I didn’t say moving the walls because that sounds entirely too simple. You do want to think about how much more effort that’s going to take rather than rearranging things around the existing fixtures.

And then there’s the question of your style. Don’t forget the distil phase of the master plan. There are so many choices that are driven by your style in a bathroom because it has a lot of finished surfaces and a densely packed area, you’re going to think about tile, you’re going to think about fixtures metal color, paint, colors, flooring, and you need to know do you love the tile and fixture matched color version of an original mid-century bathroom pink, blue, yellow or cream. If you’ve got one, and you want to keep it I am behind you 100%.

 If you don’t have one and you’d like to recreate a total color bathroom, that’s also possible. But maybe you don’t maybe you want something a little more upgraded and contemporary in a mid-century bathroom. This is the line where you need to make sure you’re not going to follow current trends but you’re going to make choices that are friendly to your image original mid-century era. So if you want to update your mid-century bathroom, you’re removing a 90s vision of what your bathroom could have been putting in something yourself. We want to think about the materials, the shapes and the era into account.

When you take all of that into account, you’re going to be able to avoid the trial of a trendy bathroom, it goes out of date within five or 10 years of the time you put in all the money, the time the expense to upgrading it. So, if you haven’t yet taken my midcentury style quiz, go take it right now. You can grab that at mid management west.com/style quiz, and it will help you focus exactly how much you’re looking to restore versus update the time capsule nature of your bathroom. Once you’ve taken it, I’ll follow up and send you a host of inspiration points, a Pinterest board, other Instagram accounts of mid-century homeowners who are doing similar things to you to get you going in the right direction.

So with these three crucial predesign steps, figured out the dream, the discover and the distill, you’re ready to start brainstorming solutions for your mid-century bathroom. And to make your life easy, I’ve put together a mid-century bath design checklist. This mid-century bath design guide has six points I want you to make sure you consider before you take steps to change your bathroom. Go ahead and grab it now if you haven’t got it yet, and so you can follow along.

Step one for a great mid-century bath design in my opinion, is lighting. I want you to think about the light in your bathroom in three different ways. The first is general light, and the best easiest way to fix that is to drench your bathroom in daylight. Even if your bathroom already has plentiful windows, consider adding a skylight or a light tube to bring in even more light into the space. A light tube is an amazing way to bring natural light without any view of the sky.

But if we get a little further along, you’re thinking about this bathroom as being a restorative space perhaps with a soaking tub. Having a skylight organized over a soaking tub can be a truly magical experience. One way or another. You want to wait to get good general light into the bathroom both in daylight, yes, skylights, daylight window, but also at night. So you want to have the ability to light this bathroom up pretty much like the surface of the sun so you can easily clean it and do what you need to do at night if necessary, or in the day with shorter day lengths.

That does not make up for the fact that you’re going to need good light on your face. Now when we think about bath vanities, the classic mid-century approach to this is to have a strip light, sometimes even a fluorescent light over a vanity mirror. And that is not my favorite solution. It’s always going to shine a shadow down and your nose will shadow your mouth when you have too much overhead light.

So for any mid-century bathroom update, even when we’re trying to preserve a time capsule aspect, I’m going to try to get light on both sides of a vanity mirror so that you can see light on your face from both directions. This is the best solution. And you can do it with sconce lights on mounted on the wall or possibly with pendant lights mounted from the ceiling, which is a great way to make the most of space in a small bathroom.

The third condition for light you need to think about is nighttime. Sometimes you need to wander into the bathroom in the middle of the night to use the toilet to get a drink, someone is sick. And during those conditions you don’t want your bathroom lit up too brightly. So you can put your lights on dimmers. And you can also think about maybe a specific nighttime light. If you have wall mounted vanities, you can run a light underneath the vanity edge which gives you just enough light to not trip into anything and can be the perfect solution for non-glare nightlight.

The next key factor of mid-century Bath Design is to choose the fixtures that you will actually use and by you, I mean whoever is using this specific bathroom. This depends on that question that dreaming question. And if you haven’t answered it yet, if you don’t immediately know what fixtures you want in this bathroom, then go directly back to dream without passing go and without collecting $200.

That said, this ought to be pretty simple. You know whether you’re looking for one vanity or two, and we’ll talk about space considerations but we’re talking about your ideals here. You want to think about do you need a bidet? Some people do? I don’t know. And do you want a tub, a shower or both? Here’s where I want you to think about what you have space for and what you prioritize when you think about your daily ablutions. Most mid-century bathrooms have a shallow child only tub that doubles as a shower.

But most modern homeowners prefer a step in or a roll in shower for their daily Wash up and a true soaking tub if they actually like to bathe. So think about what you need. I don’t know the answer. And you may or may not have room for everything in your dreams but if you do have space, I much prefer to put in a step in shower separated from us true soaking tub that’s a little bit more than the traditional mid-century 15 or 18 inches deep shower tub. You will know whether even having a tub at all is important to you.

And while people generally want to keep a tub somewhere in the house, sometimes that means you take it out of the family bathroom if you don’t need it there or out of your bathroom if you don’t and put it back in somewhere else in another bathroom in a house just in case. For people who have small kids, it’s often more important to keep that shallow soaking that shallow sort of shower tub. But if you don’t if you’ve got teenagers in the house or if you’re dealing with anyone who needs more accessibility in a bathroom or roll in shower is probably the way to go.

All right, speaking of what you need and what you can have step four in a great mid-century Bath Design is to know your minimums. Mid-century bathrooms are often very small. So we’re going to need to think about what is the maximum and the minimum amount of things you can fit into a small space.

First off, think about toilet clearance, you need 24 inches in front of a toilet or a day between it and the next wall or fixture. Now if you don’t have it already, you can treat yourself as grandfathered in. But when you’re thinking about new spaces, it is ideal and an entire bathroom, it might be worth thinking about a wall mounted toilet in order to set it further back to the wall and get a little more space in front of it even just for the regular dosey doe of people brushing their teeth and moving around.

You also need at least 15 inches from either side of the toilet to the center, that’s 30 inches niche total if you’re counting. But I much prefer to size up to a 36 inch that’s a full three foot toilet niche between the wall and the next fixture that gives a more comfortable amount of elbow room.

For your vanity, which might be right next to the toilet, you can go pretty narrow if you need to. But I never like to show anything less than 30 inches, it just doesn’t feel practical. Now if you’re trying to fit in a double vanity, you can get away at a minimum width 15 inches from the nearest edge, the edge of the vanity of the wall to the center of a sink and then 30 inches between the two sinks. That adds up to five feet in total. But I would rather have you see a six foot vanity for double sink at least so that your entire vanity isn’t made up of sink.

The smallest shower you can get away with by the way, never bother with a corner shower. It’s just not worth it. When you’re thinking about access, and the smallest shower niche that’s probably recommended is 30 by 30 inches. But I again prefer three feet on a side, it’s going to feel much less claustrophobic. Still, you don’t necessarily need to make a shower much bigger than that. Unless showering is the most important thing in your life and you really love a double shower, you can think about a relatively small space, especially if you’re going to have any glass or operable curtain wall on the shower that lets it feel more open and add to the general space in the bathroom when it’s not in use.

And then finally, for the tub. That classic colored mid-century bathtub is typically five feet long. And it’s great for rinsing off little kids because it’s only about 15 inches high. But it’s not quite ideal as anything other than a sort of low grade shower. If you actually enjoy this experience of bathing, you’re going to need something either longer or deeper or both. And these dimensions really depend on you your own size and proportions.

So I recommend you actually try to trend along down to an appliance to a fixture store and sit fully clothed in a couple of tubs to see what dimensions really allow you to fully immerse your whole body. So much for our mandatory minimums. Let’s talk about the fifth element of midcentury Bath Design, which is making the most of that snug space. midcentury bathrooms are nearly always smaller than we would like. So you want to use every inch well.

My best advice for making a small bathroom feel bigger is to float everything off the floor. At a very minimum, that means the vanity, choose wall mounted cabinets, but possibly even your toilet if you can. This has a double benefit of making for easier cleaning. It’s just always a little grungy when anything touches the floor in the bathroom. So if you have the ability to just swipe a wet mop around the entire floor area without touching the toilet or vanity or anything else on the ground, you’ve got an easier to clean bathroom.

Another benefit of a wall mounted vanity or sink cabinet is that it makes a narrow space beam wider and you’ve got room to tuck away something underneath like a scale or a step stool for small children or a storage tub of bath toys. It also as I said earlier gives you the advantage of being able to put in a subtle nightlight. Other ways you can make the most of your storage are to run a shallow shelf across the vanity and then beyond over the toilet. If you run this about six or eight inches above the vanity counter height, it’ll be a place to catch the lotions, the toothpaste, the night drinking glass and more that might otherwise clutter up your counter and keep everything cleaner.

I also recommend that you build in built into the walls with little niche storage opportunities. These are both modern available and something you can look for vintage finds if you hunt Facebook marketplace aggressively enough. And also when you’re thinking about

interior bath linens, storage towel storage, think about how you can borrow space from an adjacent room maybe not the full depth of a closet, but if you have even 10 or 15 inches that you can share it with an adjacent room. You’ve got space to have a nice region storage area that is accessible. Again, you have to go back to dream the more people are using the bathroom the more storage space it needs but try to keep it feeling big by having all the surfaces be closed away rather than seeing the clutter of everyone’s extra towel.

One more way you can make a bathroom feel bigger is to use more glass rather than wall dividers inside of it. A glass shower enclosure is going to make the space feel like you’re borrowing that shower area as usable square footage. But you also need to plan for privacy. So if a lot of different people are using a bathroom, you might choose to have a shower curtain rather than a glass divider, because that allows more sharing. It allows someone to step into the bathroom and grab their toothbrush rather than wait until someone else is finished in the shower.

You can also think about really planning for privacy by pulling apart the pieces of the bathroom. Think about the Brady Bunch bathroom where everyone could gather at one long vanity and kind of a hallway to brush their teeth. But people could step away to change their clothes, use the toilet or shower. And all of those things could be separated if necessary.

On the flip side of planning for privacy, if this is your bathroom attached to your bedroom, doesn’t really need to have a lot of doors. For some people when they glass in their shower enclosure and possibly close off their toilet niche, you might choose to be able to just walk straight through into the vanity area or even the tub area of your bathroom rather than closing them off from the rest of an owner suite or a dressing area. So remember, you don’t have to think of a bathroom as a room. Exactly, it can do a lot of different things.

All right, this has already come up but I want to emphasize this it gets its own point number six in mid-century Bath Design, keep it clean. Now, this goes to the mid-century modernist principle of clean lines, but those just make it easier to actually be cleanable. This is why I don’t love the new the trendy vessel sinks or vessel tubs because it can be really hard to clean around the back especially in a snug space where there’s not enough room to fully get a person behind the tub. When you’re putting together a vision board, it’s easy to forget about the places where grime will accumulate in a bathroom. So if you want a more contemporary flavor, you can choose the sleekest fixtures that are available.

My favorite toilet for a modern update to a mid-century bathroom is the Toto Aquia which has really sleek smooth lines. That minimum of fluted curves makes it easy to swipe clean, and it’s dual flush too. So hooray. But you can also choose vintage if that is your preference. And those just take just a little more cleaning. The other element of keeping it clean in the bathroom is to control the humidity. You want a really good and a quiet vent fan, this isn’t the place to skimp of all the places you’re going to spend money in your remodel, invest in a good bathroom fan.

If you listen to next week, you’re going to hear me share a horror story of in my own childhood home finding a wall of black mold behind the wallpaper in my family’s bath of a 70s era split level that hadn’t been properly vented. It was disgusting. And you don’t want that in your in your kid’s lungs as you go through your life. So plan for humidity control. Remember, this can be a factor of glassing in your shower enclosure. It’s also something to think about though for the bathroom as a whole because humidity is just going to accumulate any place that hot water is running. So think about really good fan vents.

The seventh element of midcentury Bath Design pulls it all together, it’s using your perfect mid mod finishes. And this covers the waterfront, the right era, the right colors, the right level of submissive simplicity and shapes, the shape of your vanity and faucet, the tile you choose. And here’s where you start by knowing your style. There’s such a wide range of possibilities for mid-century bathrooms from the perfect color match time capsule to a clean line modern update that still fits in the category mid-century rather than farmhouse or cottage or industrial or rustic. So think about what you are going for.

Do you want to preserve or recreate a specific mid-century moment? What era of history are you pointing to? For help with this? Take my mid-century style quiz. What are you waiting for. And if you want to preserve or recreate a specific mid-century bath design, identify that era, maybe find a specific model that you’re pointing to.

Here’s where I’ll say, If you love color, lean into that color, but play it safer. If you don’t, you can absolutely go all in on a pink bathroom. That’s my heartache. Yes, do it if you love it, put one back where there never was one before. But take into account that the average life expectancy of a tile in the United States is seven years. They are not reusable. Once they go on the wall, they’re very hard to remove and reuse. So basically that’s tiled going into the trash every seven years which kind of breaks my heart so I want you to make personal correct choices for yourself. Don’t make generic choices for no reason.

But if you don’t have strong feelings about the color or the finish of your mid-century bath design, or if you know you’re the kind of person who likes to change up your style every now and then maybe choose more neutral finishes for things like tile and fixtures and then bring color into your bathroom with bath mats paint colors, towels and other easier to change out elements.

When you’re in doubt if you’re stumped as for what you would like to do for your finishes in your bathroom, you can always match the choices you’ve made for your kitchen. If you’re doing a new kitchen with warm honey toned wood or walnut cabinets plan to do the same thing in your bathroom and source them from the same spot. Or if you’ve got your original woodwork anywhere else in the house matched to that.

The same goes for metal color and the finishes you choose for your faucets, your handles your light fixtures, but remember, it doesn’t have to match, it simply needs to coordinate. So you can mix it up here if you want to. You don’t have to make the same choices for every bath in the house. Here’s my very best advice. Set your style before you make a single finished choice. This will simplify every decision. And for more on that I really encourage you to check out my prerecorded mid-century design clinic on style guides. I’ll have a link to that in the show notes.

Okay, let’s recap the six ideas you want to keep in your head while you’re planning a mid-century Bath Design.

Plan for perfect lighting, good lighting for your face, good lighting for general use and a nice dim nightlight option.

Choose fixtures, you will actually use the right number of sinks in your vanity the right combination of shower or tub. No your mandatory minimums. If you’re planning to rearrange or build new, set the right space around your toilet niche your vanity length your shower and your tub and keep the general floor area open.

Make the most of your snug spaces by choosing wall mounted storage vanities and more even the toilet. Add extra shelves to keep your counters clear. Build closed niches into the wall either shallow niches or more intense storage areas and make the space feel bigger with glass. But remember to plan for privacy.

Keep your bathroom clean and cleanable mid-century design is about simple shapes and materials, which dovetails very nicely with your desire to keep your bathroom grime free without a fuss. And keep a handle on your humidity. Do not let moisture linger in the air.

Finally, set your mid mod finishes to match your own style. And if you don’t know where to start, start with a style guide. You can grab it from mid mod dash midwest.com/style guide for the free workbook or just sign up for that prerecorded mid-century design clinic on style guides. You will not regret it. Hurray for free resources.

Do grab the style guide workbook and the brand new mid-century Bath Design workbook. I made it just for you. And it will absolutely help you as you go through any part of a bath update process. But here’s what I really think you should do. Go and sign up right now. If you’ve got any bath questions on your mind for my upcoming workshop, I’m going to be giving another mid-century design clinic.

And this one is all about bathrooms and bedrooms and the way they work well together and internally. If you’re not yet signed up for the owner suite clinic, why aren’t you go right now will the early bird price is still in force, sign up for it for just $47 and then mark your calendar for 2pm Central on Sunday, August 6. These live workshops are one of my favorite things to do for my ready to remodel students. And there’s so much fun that I invite the general public to tag along and get all that subject matter and information for a ridiculously low price.

Why? Because that’s my mission. I want to save as many homes from bad mid-century remodels as possible. From those trendy remodels that are going to make them dated and tired in just a few short years. I want to help you make choices that are going to turn the house you have into the home you’ll love as long as you live there, and to be a sturdy, lovable, beautiful home for generations to come.

So will you help me out and help yourself by signing up for us to go through everything I’ve just talked about in much greater detail and with a chance to ask questions two weeks from Sunday. I sure hope so.

A couple of caveats about this workshop, it will be very useful to you even if you do not have and have no plans to create an owner suite. Even though I’m calling this class the mid-century owner suite clinic the same principles of maximizing storage creating pleasing designs and creativity apply to your primary bedroom whether or not it has an ensuite bath.

And the same concept works for any bathroom, regardless of whether its doors open to the hallway or to your own bedroom. So don’t skip this workshop just because the title says owner suite clinic and that mid-century bathroom tune up. They’re largely the same thing in principle. Also, if you don’t happen to be free at 2pm Central on Sunday, August 6, sign up now anyway, because remember, I always make a recorded replay of these workshops available for a week after the live date. So you can sign up now and then watch it at your leisure whenever you have time during that second week of August.

And for those of you who’ve got your eye on ready to remodel. I’ve been thinking about that the summer wondering about it. You know that whenever I give one of these design clinics, I find that they fill up with the very best mid-century home updaters my favorite mid mod remodelers always show up to these events. And so I give them you a secret leg up. Anyone who rolls into clinic gets a discount on their future enrollment and ready to remodel because you are the folks that I really want inside this amazing home update program.

But don’t wait because that discount always has an expiration date on it. So sign up right now for the owner suite clinic. And then keep an eye on your inbox for the information about how you’ll get way more than the price of a clinic knocked off your enrollment into ready to remodel.

Find information about that. The links for this freebie the style guide freebie and all the other advice I’ve just given you in transcript form at midmod-midwest.com/1306.

One more thing before I go, I am on vacation right now. You may have seen the notification in your social media that mid Midwest is closed for the week. And I hope you’re enjoying your summer break as much as I plan to enjoy mine. Next week’s episode is going to give me a little bit of vacation break and give you some great resources because it’s a roundup of all the chats that Sara year out of mid-century homes in Boise and I have had over the years about tuning up and turning on mid-century bedrooms and bathrooms.

Don’t miss this maxi-sode full of our favorite ideas for how you can make the most of your mid-century bathroom and bath on a shoestring or transform them with amazing trend-free ideas perfectly calculated from mid-century updates. Catch you then.