Tile. Ceramic or porcelain-based tile was de rigueur for mid-century homes, particularly in the bathroom. Early mid-century kitchens also tended to have tile floors, but by the 1950s, kitchen floors moved to using linoleum or vinyl tile. But bathrooms remained the bastion of tile - all different colors of tile!
The history of tile dates back to the Before Common Era (BCE) times. Early civilizations worldwide have buildings made of local clays and mud, formed into blocks, and dried in the sun. It was an additional step of taking some of that local clay, such as terracotta, and baking it at higher temperatures than the sun could provide, which was discovered to be much more impermeable to the elements. Shortly thereafter, the discovery of melting various natural materials on top of the fired clay resulted in a shiny, even more impervious finish. The thought that all tiles we use today date back to BCE discoveries is mind-blowing!
Modern tile is made from a multitude of materials. Ceramic, Porcelain, glass, stone, and encaustic (cement), to name a few. The most common materials you will find for mid-century flooring are ceramic and porcelain, and those are what we'll concentrate on for this post (along with a smattering of glass that are too cool to ignore). Porcelain and ceramic are both earthen materials, but porcelain is much more dense than ceramic. Some porcelain products and glass products are through-color, meaning that if they chip, the chip will not be as noticeable. The color of ceramic tile is a surface glaze only, so chips will be apparent.
Early mid-century bathrooms and kitchens had more traditional tiles and colors. Hexagonal tile or penny round tile, often in black and white (although pastels started to become in vogue in the late 1940s), were prevalent in those early homes. However, once the 1950s started, think mosaic. Mosaic tile was used everywhere - floors, shower walls, furniture, and kitchen backsplashes. Traditional black and white were still prevalent in the early 1950s, but pastels soon started to make a big impression on bathrooms. By the late 1960s and 1970s, mosaics were still popular, but the colorways shifted into browns, oranges, and golds. You cannot go wrong with mosaic tile in a mid-century home.
Luckily, there are still a number of tile manufacturers to choose from for amazing tile flooring. (Unlike trying to find 4 1/4" x4 1/4" ceramic wall tile in pastel shades - my nemesis!)
The simple answer to installation is that tiles are attached to the floor with a mortar. There are two prevailing mortar bed types - thin-set or mud-set.
Mud set tile is best left to a professional. If you have existing tile in your bathroom or kitchen and your home is from the mid-1960s or earlier, the chances are good that they are mud-set tiles. If you need to tear up a mud-set floor, it will be an arduous (and very messy) process. You will typically not be able to reuse mud-set tile. The benefit of mud-set tile is that the mud can make up for floor imperfections, can be used for sloping the floor for areas that need drainage, or if you are looking to install underfloor heating options.
Thin-set tile has multiple layers. The first layer is an underlayment of cement board. While cement board can accommodate small issues on your floor, large problems such as bumps and holes are better repaired before the cement board is placed or better dealt with with a mud-set system. Once the cement board underlayment is installed, the tile is attached via a thin-set mortar (thus the name of the system) using a notched trowel. Some larger tiles need to be back-buttered, too, applying the thin set to both the floor and the back of the tile.
There are other modern systems that can be used under tile, such as membrane systems. They are similar to a standard thin-set system, but the membrane is placed below the thin-set and tile.
Both thin-set and modern membrane systems can be a DIY adventure, but if you are uncomfortable with any of the steps involved or if there are significant issues with your existing floor, hire a professional.
Where to Buy
There are WAY TOO MANY places where you can find tiles. Below I've highlighted some of my favorite tile styles for mid-century bathrooms. This isn't an exhaustive list, but use these looks as a guide for what would work well with mid-century bones.
Want to make your own mosaic mix? Try one of these two manufacturers to blend your own custom mosaic tile color!
What tile floor is your favorite? What would you choose for your own home? I'm leaning towards Merola Crystalline in Blue for my bathroom - to play off my aqua wall tile. Keep up with our newsletter if you want to follow along!
I hope this post gave you some inspiration - or even just some eye candy for the future!
Tile inlay fragment from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. CC0.
Black & white octagon flower tile by PXFuel. CC0.
Orange mosaic tile by PXHere. CC0.
Orange large tile by PXHere. CC0.
Green bucket & Trowel by LaMiko on Pexels. CC0
Flooring images by their respective manufacturers. See listing for more information. Fair use.