Bathrooms: Reno Or Refluff?

Coming clean: Did you intend to be famous for your bathroom?

How Can I Miss You If You Don’t Go Away? We take bathrooms for granted, until such times as it’s in disrepair and the plumber is indisposed.

Conducting your “toilette” in the kitchen is awkward at best.

In a similar way, bathroom design is often a sad story of missed opportunity. With some thought and planning, this little room can become your personal oasis…and who doesn’t need one of those every day?

What’s the big deal?  For most of us, deciding which and how many extravagances can be shoved into a small space isn’t even an option. We just want to get the job done beautifully, conveniently and at the best possible price. (More about convenient later)

Most likely, it comes down to three questions:
  1. Does your bathroom really need a total gut job?
  2. Can you get what you want if you just show it some love?
  3. How much do you want to spend?
If the answer to “How much do you want to spend?” is “Not much.”, you’re still in luck.

The basics: what’s what and what you need:

  • Bathroom fixtures are fixed (attached to the floor) such as the tub, toilet and sink.
  • Fittings refer the useful things we fit around and into the fixtures: faucets, tub fillers and shower bodies, towel racks, etc.
  • You need storage somewhere.
  • And please, let there be (adequate) light.
What do you need, really?

A decorative urinal might not be a “must have”  for everyone. Still, there are some basic “truths” and “really must haves” about living well in one’s bathroom that should not be overlooked.

Shed Some Light On The Subject.  Unless your concept of the bathroom is strictly Spa oriented by candlelight, then yes, bathrooms should be brightly lit, with options.

However, don’t think “Las Vegas Showgirl make-up table ”

Conversely, don’t under-light with just one lonely bulb in the ceiling either. The ideal set up would be light sources above and along both sides of the mirror AND a ceiling source to contribute to ambient light AND a recessed waterproof fixture above the bath/shower areas.

There is no reason to soap up in the dark.

Use separate switches on all these sources and make sure all these light sources are on dimmers. You will be well served to be able to specify lighting conditions and location for any activity, such as shaving, applying make-up or luxuriating in the tub.

A Breath of Fresh Air. That a window or a fan in a bathroom is a good idea falls under the most basic design mandate: “Keep a firm grip on the obvious”.

Otherwise, your bathroom is an oversized container for noxious odors…Duh.

Unsung hero. You never notice great ventilation. You only notice the effects of bad ventilation; It’s a built-in breeding ground for mold or sewer gasses can leak into your home. There’s the humidity factor too. Without proper ventilation, you can recreate the worst conditions of a hot, muggy August afternoon.

Space may be the last great luxury, but you have to fight for it. Have you noticed how your personal stuff seems to propagate exponentially, at an ever accelerating pace? For this reason, a charming little make-up table is far less appealing than the storage space gained with good planning.

Be Clear: To continue on the topic of space, or lack thereof, you can fool the eye by not obstructing your vision. Glass shelves and Lucite accessories are to your advantage in small bathroom, as is a transparent shower curtain. Being able to see through any obstruction will make the room seem larger. An inspired idea is to use a European-style hinged glass shower barrier instead of a curtain or sliding glass doors. Any splashes are contained but the clear glass lends a more open feel.

Clean and Simple: However small or extensive your update, keep it uncomplicated and soothing. Your solutions should also be easy to clean and maintain.

When small can be beautiful. Little changes can make a big difference and give you high style at (relatively) low cost, if you consider that a gut renovation could cost you a minimum of $15,000 before labor charges.

Replace your current plumbing hardware with something spiffy. Both chrome and nickel are white metals but nickel has a richer, deeper luster that more closely approximates untarnished silver. In the old days, it had to be polished just like real silver. Chrome is actually short for chromium. It was introduced in the ‘40s as an alternative to labor intensive nickel.

You can use both nickel and chrome in the same room but not together because up close, you can tell the difference.

Brass fittings are great in a traditional setting.  Copper and wrought iron, depending on styling, add a rustic touch.  Any style is given a completely different feel done in oil rubbed bronze.

Go gorgeous with paint color. Just don’t go too loud or your home spa retreat will feel as calming as rush hour traffic.

Although, it’s fair to say that what constitutes loud to one person is a mere whisper to another. Even so, consider saving the wild wallpaper and bold colors for powder rooms and half baths that are less frequently used than the main bathroom.

You can tire of “something fun” much more quickly when you have much more of it.

We associate clean with light, bright and airy. Remember this while you are considering the overall coloration and look you want to achieve.

You may want to save the heavy brooding colors for the library/study/dungeon, as the case may be.

Your painter or contractor might argue this point, but you don’t necessarily have to use a semi-gloss finish in the bathroom.
Here’s the deal: paint is essentially a film. The shinier the film, the tougher the finish. Shiny repels moisture and is easier to clean. So, yeah, for the most part, you should go with paint that’s designed for bathrooms (this holds true for kitchens too).

Hedge position: if this is a guest bath or otherwise doesn’t get much use, you can get away with pearl or satin finishes. Here again good ventilation is key.  At the very least, open a window and leave the door ajar to allow for drying out and dispersing humidity.

Short of using cement, tile/stone in the bath (kitchens too, of course)  is the most practical solution for “household water management” in this context.  These materials are also like fine jewelry in their ability to define and elevate your design scheme and the ambience you want to create.

“Thanks for sharing…
No doubt new tile would be a vast improvement, but it costs a small fortune to replace and it’s a big mess to live with in the process…”

True, but you can still perk up the present situation:

  • A fresh coat of grout will make the tiles look new.
  • Is the floor tile beyond redemption? Look for an extra large area rug to use as a disguise. An indoor/outdoor rug could become your new BFF.
“You’ve got to have style. It helps you get out of bed in the morning.” – Diana Vreeland

Your bathroom is in your home, not a hospital.  Add some personality: Yours.  Express yourself with wit and charm.

This is where a “cosmetic fix” is more meaningful than a fresh swipe of lipstick. A single gesture may be all you need to have a spectacular looking Loo.

“A splurge becomes an investment if its presence defines the room.”  Nate Berkus, HOUSE RULES

Here are some ideas:

  • Everybody loves the look of a large glass bowl, frosted or clear, used for a sink.
  • A fantastic chandelier (yes, in the bathroom) is an immediate eye-catcher.
  • You don’t have to keep that old ugly medicine chest. Take it out and find a fabulous mirror the size and style that would work equally well for an entryway or living room. You’ll have instant chic in a single move along with the happy side-effect of visually expanding  the room to twice its size.
  • When a cigar is not just a cigar: Any chest or table of an appropriate size can re-tooled to become the vanity/surround for your sink and faucets.  A beautiful and unique vanity, fabricated from a flea market Found Treasure spells Clever and Sophisticated.
  • Instant wow factor happens by simply switching out the old sink and vanity for a sleek pedestal sink. As a general rule, you are better off with classic white fixtures. They are cheaper and won’t become dated over time like your mom’s avocado colored refrigerator did. If storage space is an issue, look outside the room for solutions.

Cheap Tricks can also be good. If switching out the vanity for a pedestal sink isn’t a viable option, and the old-though-still-interesting-enough vanity is wood, consider painting it. Good color choices would naturally be white or ivory to adhere to a light and airy theme. You can experiment with colors such as dark gray or green, but be sure to think through your proposed color story. Have the new vanity color pick up the same color as the towels for example.

You can skirt the issue of an ugly vanity by actually attaching a skirt with Velcro. Apply it either to the perimeter of the sink or just beneath the counter at the top of the vanity. You can also use a clear water based sealant from the hardware store as a heavy-duty glue if the skirt in question is on the weightier side.

Your skirt style is to taste even when you aren’t wearing it:

  • Clean line loving Modernistas will prefer a straight skirt with knife pleating at the corners.
  • Grand Romantics can gather their skirts with ruffles, frills and ribbons.

The quickest fix for a tired looking vanity is to just replace the hardware. As with actual plumbing fixtures (see notes above), a small gesture can add a lot of charm. Vintage stores and flea markets can yield little treasures. If you can’t find the right handle, you can use knobs for the two handle holes instead. Use a smaller knob above a larger one.

There’s something about the length of a regular shower curtain and liner that’s faintly reminiscent of high water trousers.

The curtain(s) will look much better if they are extra long. Hang them as close to the ceiling as possible and all the way down to a fraction above the floor. The effect will seemingly stretch the height of the room. Use drapery wands to open and close if necessary. Shop on-line for longer-than-standard curtains and liners. Another route is to locate a fabric you love and have your local seamstress fabricate to measure.

If you have been blessed by the housing gods with a large bathroom, don’t treat it like a rented utility at a Holiday Inn.

Real rooms have real furniture. A chaise with cushions slip-covered in terry cloth equals lux for a lounge lizard. Have a bookcase and/or a pair of vintage boudoir lamps for your stand-alone make-up table. You can have a fireplace too.

Luxury Is Convenience Spelled Differently. Even a tiny bathroom can often accommodate a little stool by the bath to be used for an end table.

Make “Live well in every room” your guiding mantra. Make sure your towel bar is within easy reach of the shower or tub. If there is no room for a towel bar or if folding the towels over the bar over and over seems too much like the task of Sisyphus, use hooks instead. One double hook for each household member will provide a means to hang both a robe and a towel.

Soft Touch. A plush rug, lots of good fluffy towels and nice soap go a long way towards making a visit to your bathroom an uplifting experience. Extra hand towels in a decorative bowl add bursts of color, combining beauty with utility…but don’t stop there.

  • Speaking of towels, go for the best towels you can afford. 100% Turkish cotton is hard to beat. Avoid the five piece plush bathroom sets…those fluffy toilet seat and tank doilies are particularly hateful.
  • Art belongs in the bathroom too, although you may want to display the million dollar Matisse elsewhere. Just remember to ventilate by opening a window and leaving the door ajar at least an hour after you shower or otherwise sit will team up in there.
  • Will that be q-tips with your shot glass, sir? Even the most ordinary grooming tools look better in a pretty container. Even the hairpins look fancy in a short bud vase. Be resourceful. A great vintage ashtray could make a terrific looking soap dish.  Use trays to corral loose items and create a pleasing composition on the counter or top of the toilet tank.
  • A bathtub tray is indispensable for your soaking comfort. You’ll want a place for those lush soaps, oils, gels, bubble bath preparations, natural sponges, foot and nail grooming tools and of course a place to hold your book.
Best luxury of all….time for yourself.




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These articles are written as guides with general advice to help you, help yourself find the best design solutions for your home. Please understand however, that it isn’t possible to give specific answers to your design and/or paint questions.
Thank you for the opportunity help where I can.