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40 Years of Kitchen and Bath Remodel Trends

Forty years feels like half a lifetime ago—and it is. A look back at some of the kitchens and baths TOH has built confirms how times (and tastes) have changed...or have they?

If the kitchen were a menu item, we’d call it comfort food, as familiar as mac ’n’ cheese. Might have something to do with memories of hanging out after school as Mom made dinner, and trying to score some milk and cookies. Today, even as kitchens get bigger and fancier, they remain the No. 1 destination for the whole family, pets included. Where else can you find cold drinks, lively conversation, and maybe even your keys and cell phone?

Over time, kitchen design has blurred the line between cooking and living areas, borrowing finishes and furnishings from entertaining spaces in the house. Meanwhile, the bath—that other most-frequented destination—has undergone similar upgrading, with a steady march from utilitarian to spa-like.

Curious about more signs of the times, past and present? Read on.

THEN | DORCHESTER (1979)

Photo by Rothenborg Pacific for WGBH

The Wood Kitchen

Durable oak has long been a go-to for warming up a cook space. By 1979, when TOH rebuilt the Depression-era kitchen in the Dorchester House (shown), cabinets made from the grainy, dark-stained wood were as popular as laminate counters and white appliances. In a zingy color now known as retro orange, that laminate—an easy-care, cost-conscious choice—became a focal point echoed on the walls.

NOW | JAMESTOWN NET-ZERO (2018)

Photo by Photo: Anthony Tieuli

Fast-forward to 2018 and Jamestown, (shown). Who knew a wood kitchen could feel so light and airy? Chalk it up to cabinetry and floors in quartersawn white oak given a pale whitewash. Then add layers of white finishes and reflective surfaces: crisp quartz countertops, classic subway tile, an oversize apron sink, painted upper cabinets that disappear against the wall, high-end enameled appliances, and a glossy planked ceiling. Simple black light fixtures, windows, and cabinet pulls help pin this kitchen gently down to earth.

THEN | NEW ORLEANS (1991)

Courtesy of WBGH

The Colorful Kitchen

Time was, adding color to the kitchen—this one, (shown), belongs to TOH’s 1890s “shotgun double” house in pre-Katrina New Orleans—meant painting the walls a pretty pale hue. The lavender used here, combined with pickled-oak cabinets, black appliances, and granite-look gray laminate countertops, was pretty avant-garde for 1991.

NOW | CHARLESTOWN (2014)

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

But compare it with 2014’s Charlestown kitchen, (shown), and it’s easy to see the move toward richer colors and materials, including hand-painted and glazed deep-blue cabinetry, marble countertops, and warm brass finishes. Bumped out and opened up, the 2014 kitchen was of the moment while also nodding to the 1850 rowhouse’s past, with flat-panel cabinet doors, globe pendant lights, and a sculptural high-arc faucet. As for the flooring, meet the latest durable exotic-wood import, Brazilian cumaru, which is cozied up with traditional Oriental rugs for a living room feel.

Timeless Trio

Highlighted here: three decades-old kitchens that look just as current today.

SANTA FE (1989)

Courtesy of WBGH

This space reflects its traditional adobe home. Built by Norm Abram with local craftsmen, the pale pine cabinets flatter traditional plaster walls and beams. The marble and stainless steel are still up-to-date.

BILLERICA (1999)

Photo by Keller + Keller for WGBH

What makes this Victorian-inspired kitchen’s time-tested look a success: Shaker-style fir cabinets, open shelving, an island wrapped in beadboard and accented with legs, stone counters, and pro-style appliances.

ACTON (1994)

Photo by Richard Howard for WGBH

This classic farmhouse kitchen, with its warm cherry cabinetry, wide-plank salvaged-pine floors, honed-granite counters, and stainless-steel appliances, still looks ready for prime time, 25 years after it was built.

THEN | WOBURN (1982)

Photo by Bill Schwab for WGBH

The White Kitchen

In 1982, when TOH tackled the kitchen in the 1950s Woburn House, (shown), one concern was its small size. The budget wasn’t big either, and the reno relied on off-white laminate cabinets and white appliances. Blue tile, used for both the backsplash and wood-trimmed counters, was a budget-friendly way to make the white scheme snap. Way ahead of today’s desire to recycle, the crew saved the brown fridge, using a technique similar to automotive painting to give it a fresh look that allows it to blend in.

NOW | NORTH SHORE FARMHOUSE (2016)

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

The 2016 North Shore kitchen, (shown), showcases snowy cabinets made less predictable with a blue island for contrast. In the mix and here to stay: black stone counters along the perimeter, marble on the island, white subway-tile walls, black window sashes, and light-channeling open shelves in place of upper cabinetry. More luxe touches include random-width hickory floorboards, statement lighting, and a supersize range hood—reflecting not only changing tastes but bigger kitchen budgets (and spaces) and higher aspirations.

THEN | NEWTON (1981)

Courtesy of WGBH

Kitchen Islands

This island—with a cutout awaiting a downdraft range—is finished with a solid-surface counter, the era’s top-of-the-line choice, cantilevered so stools can tuck under, and neatly edged with wood. In 1980, new kitchens were more apt to have peninsulas, so give this island-influencer a tip of the hat.

NOW | CAMBRIDGE (2012)

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Did the term “waterfall edge” even exist before the 2000s? This mega-island is finished with a maple butcher-block top that spills down the ends for a warm, contemporary look. Recessed outlets, masked in matching maple niches, and an undermount sink contribute to the island’s streamlined profile.

THEN | HONOLULU (1994)

Courtesy of WGBH

The Master Bath

Remember those columns? Back in 1994, in the renovated Honolulu bath, (shown), a pair set off a shower-and-jetted-tub combo with a simple tile surround on one side and a taupe vanity with a lone drop-in sink on the other. Additional high-end touches included a separate toilet room, gold-finish faucets, and a medicine cabinet with a heated mirror.

NOW | NORTH SHORE FARMHOUSE (2016)

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Reflecting today’s strong preference for stand-alone showers, 2016’s North Shore bath, (shown), features a built-in tub with a beadboard front and marble deck, along with a frameless-glass-enclosed shower and a double-sink vanity to ease the morning rush. The mix of subway tile, Carrara marble, and marble-look porcelain floor tile, plus period-style fittings and modern wood elements, establishes it as an updated classic.

THEN | MILTON (1997)

Courtesy of WGBH

The Powder Room

Homeowners continue to be advised that this small space is a place to go big with design. The powder room in 1997’s Milton project, (shown), went for a distinctive look with delicate scrollwork on the walls hand-applied with a special decoupage technique.

NOW | BELMONT VICTORIAN (2015)

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

The 2015 Belmont powder room, (shown), goes bolder with a large-scale lotus-theme wallpaper that has a vintage feel; it’s also hand-printed with wall paint in a color that’s repeated in the living room. A sleek brass mirror and sconces update the existing marble console sink and period-style fittings. This room wouldn’t have been typical when the house was built in 1907, but somehow it feels exactly right.

THEN | NEWTON (1981)

Courtesy of WGBH

Dual Sinks

Double undermount sinks and a wood-edged top of easy-care acrylic solid surface (known simply by the brand name Corian back then) give a vanity made from honey-toned oak a smooth, seamless look and feel.

NOW | JAMESTOWN NET-ZERO (2018)

Photo by Anthony Tieuli

Call it the washbasin look, reinvented. Boxy fireclay vessel sinks and simple wall-mount faucets elevate an angular custom vanity made from pale quartersawn white oak. The quartz vanity top offers the look of stone with easier care.

THEN | WESTWOOD (1987)

Courtesy of WGBH

Freestanding Tubs

We’ll never say a vintage enameled cast-iron claw-foot tub is passé. This one’s black-painted exterior is equally timeless, as are the fittings, which only look old.

NOW | CHARLESTON SINGLE HOUSE (2018)

Photo by Julia Lynn

Played off rough brick walls, this freestanding soaker’s glossy white acrylic shell adds a striking contrast, as do its, well, tubby proportions—an oval shape with nearly straight sides. With a stand-alone tub now a wish-list item, so too is a compatible floor-mount filler: This equally minimalist model is tucked in the corner.