Call it terrible tile -- your parents loved it, you grew up staring at it, and real estate agents wish it never had been thought of. It comes in foamy sea green with black edging, or charcoal gray with baby pink trim, or lemon yellow with sky-blue topping. Real estate agents will make you fall in love with a house first and show you the terrible tile last. They will say paint the walls white, add a carpet to cover those eensy-weensy pink-and-black floor tiles and put an oak seat on the toilet.
When Ruth and Bruce Coleman purchased their late-1930s house in Northwest Washington, they seemed to be the proud owners of the stereotype of every old bathroom in America. On the first floor, a simple powder room had been assaulted with a maroon sink and toilet; the tile was maroon with beige. The master bath was a vision of blue and pink tile walls and a floor of pink and blue tiles, accented in green and beige. Another upstairs bath glistened yellow, and some yellow tiles were painted with cartoon-like images of sea grass. The sink was pale green.
Ruth Coleman began looking through catalogues, determined to pull the rooms together with patterned wallpaper that diverted the eyes from the tile. It worked.
Only in the master bath did she carpet the floor. The dominant color became the blue tile, with only a tiny touch of pink, which was picked up in the burgundy, blue and pink wallpaper.
Fortunately for Coleman or anyone with an old bathroom, the colors of the 1930s and the 1950s -- grays and dusty rose or pink, sea green and deep maroon -- are popular now in wall coverings and accessories. Coleman even found a sea green shower curtain, hooks and door knobs.
If there is no hope, the tiles can be painted over with an epoxy or other industrial-grade enamel paint, on a lightly sanded surface. Or the tiles can be removed and replaced with wallboard and ready-to-apply sheets of tile, some pregrouted. Another option is knocking off the top row of trim tiles -- the pink edging in a predominately gray-tiled bathroom, for example -- and putting on a new border.
The Wallcovering Pattern Guide and Source Directory, a handy cross-reference of wallpaper patterns and the colors in which they are available, can help to shortcut the search. Coleman's selections show that sometimes the most successful colors are those that make only passing reference to the tile color -- not those that match that terrible, terrible tile.