The Unexpected Reason So Many Hollywood Apartments Have Built-In Vanities

updated Mar 24, 2021
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Diptych of 2 vanities in apartments in Los Angeles
Credit: Marisa Vitale

I didn’t realize how amusing the vanity in my first Hollywood apartment was until I told my East Coast friends and family about it. I’m sure it sounded like a Los Angeles cliché, but between the bathroom and the closet, there really was a built-in surface dedicated to beautification. Many studio apartments I’d visited in LA had nearly identical vanities, features I’d never seen when I lived in New York or Boston. A Craigslist search for “vanity” within studios and one bedrooms yielded 81 results in New York City, 69 in Chicago, 87 in San Francisco, and 474 (!) in LA.

These vanities are often found in my favorite kind of LA building: The ones built in the 1920s with ornate Art Deco lobbies, gorgeous tiled bathrooms, and lots of other built-in features. It turns out that pieces like my vanity were en vogue in the first half of the 20th century, when Craftsman designs were all the rage.

“The idea was that everything went together, so you’d have your built-in cabinets and built-in benches,” explains Margot Gerber, president of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles.

Advertisements from that period boasted efficient, space-saving features like breakfast nooks and ironing boards that folded out from the wall (still cool, IMO). My apartment, which was built in 1926, had a Murphy bed and pull-out cutting board in the kitchen. While charming in theory, the Murphy bed proved to be logistically challenging, and as a vegetarian, I was a little skeeved out by the presumably bloody history of the cutting board.

But I loved my vanity. I sat down at its chipped white surface to do my makeup every morning and kept lotions and jewelry in its tiny, sticky drawers. I loved thinking about the difference between the Hollywood ingenue I imagined this thing was built for, and my far less glamorous reality. On one eventful evening in the 1930s, an aspiring actress might have traipsed by the vanity on her way to a party at the Chateau Marmont; on one eventful evening in the 2010s, a cockroach traipsed by the vanity on its way to my right shoulder. 

I’m not alone in my pro-vanity stance. Dave Goldstein, who owns and restores art deco buildings in LA, says that many of his tenants enjoy a little vintage flare. 

“The people I rent to like it,” he says. “I get the individualists who really love that stuff.” 

Some of them have even repurposed their vanities as desks. “I doll them up, and they think that’s a little office area,” he says.

I tried using mine as a workspace, but writing in front of a mirror proved to offer a little too much self-reflection. I learned from Goldstein that the mirror might not have been an original feature; some of these built-ins weren’t initially intended for vanity, but for gossip. 

“When they built the studio apartments, they always had phone systems,” he says. “So people would sit and have their phones on there.” 

And yet the mystery of their ubiquity across the city remains. In the 1920s, phones, built-ins, and even vanities weren’t exclusive to Los Angeles. Why, then, are vanities so much more common here? 

In many ways, it’s just good timing: Los Angeles experienced a building boom in the ‘20s, a decade when efficient built-ins happened to be trendy. Gerber has a few more theories.

“In New York, you could own an apartment, so people may have taken the liberty to renovate to their standards,” she says. “Whereas in LA, these were rental units and always have been, so people have not been allowed to gut their bathrooms.”

Many of these units were home to East Coasters looking for work in the Hollywood movie studios — people who wouldn’t usually stay in one place for long. “Probably, the built-ins were useful because people didn’t have to have as much furniture,” Gerber says.

I didn’t stay in one place for long either. I’ve since moved to a different studio apartment in Hollywood, one that sadly doesn’t include a vanity. But my new bathroom has a couple of add-ons I find hard to imagine in a similarly sized New York apartment: Vanity bulb lights and a permanent magnifying mirror. Every morning, as I rub SPF 75 into my gigantic, well-lit pores, I feel very silly at first, and then a little bit glamorous, thanks to some built-ins I never asked for but love just the same.