Have you ever stayed at a luxury hotel and fell in love with the bathroom? And then stayed at another hotel where the bathroom was the last place you wanted to spend any time? That is the difference between good and bad design!
So when I am renovating a bathroom, like all things in decorating, I like to tune into how I want my clients to feel in the space. Ideally in a bathroom you want to feel calm and peaceful. While I don’t decorate using Feng Shui principles aligned with one’s zodiac sign, five elements and so forth, I do tune into my own Feng Shui. That is based on function, balancing a space and creating a flow of positive light energy.
This can often be challenging in a bathroom, especially one in Manhattan with limited space and natural light, but it can be done. Here are some of the things I like to think about when designing a bathroom:
The first and most important factor is to work on the layout of your bathroom. In Manhattan apartment buildings, you are often dealing with smaller square footage, an inability to move water and/or waste lines and board approval. So before you redesign something that may never get passed, first investigate what is even viable and then work from there. To highlight this point, some pre-war buildings require the owner to replace all the plumbing lines when replacing the tile which will substantially alter your renovation budget.
In an ideal master bathroom, I would want a freestanding or built-in tub, a frameless shower with a small seat for shaving my legs, separate water closet, two vanities or at least one vanity with a double sink, recessed medicine cabinets, radiant floors, well placed towel bars and good lighting.
There are a wide variety of tubs from free standing, to built-ins, to under-mount tubs. You need to know what you are working with and how much you want to spend. My first choice is a free standing tub, then an under-mount, and lastly a tub with an apron to the floor.
If you are over 5’8” then you probably will want to go with a 6’ long tub. I am 5’5” so for me a 5’5” tub is perfect. But it’s a personal preference so do your due diligence and go to various showrooms. Don't be afraid to take off your shoes and lie down in them. You want to make sure you like the curve on your back and where it hits the nape of your neck. Like a good chair, you will know immediately if it is the one for you. If you love the look of it, but it’s terribly uncomfortable, keep looking!
I love the newer more modern “egg” shaped fiberglass free standing tubs. They have beautiful lines and look well. My favorite of course is a cedar tub- having experienced one at a traditional ryokan in Kyoto. It was heavenly but strictly for soaking and required cleaning before entering.
If you are doing an under-mount tub in a tub/shower configuration, there are many ways to tile and trim this out. I prefer doing a slab top with a slab tub face. I don’t love when people tile the tub face of an under-mount tub. The ceramic tiles rarely line up, there are issues with selecting a base, etc. If you are at the beach, you can do beadboard on the tub face if you have beadboard wainscotting in the room. Horizontal wide wood planks look well too. But no doubt a stone slab tub face always looks amazing and is better for a wet location.
If you need to bathe a baby or little child, then make sure to find a tub that is about 18” high. Less will feel like a cheap motel tub and deeper will be uncomfortable. Keep in mind if you do an under-mount tub, you are adding an additional 3/4-1.25” from the slab height. Most free standing tubs are deeper and not ideal for bathing a child.
If you are designing a children's room or a room of less importance and you want to be cost-conscious, then opt for a tub with the apron to the floor. Go with cast iron. Kohler makes some nice affordable options.
I am a huge fan of hand-helds in all tubs, tub/shower, and showers. They make bathing children easy- no need for plastic cups to wash their hair. They also make cleaning much easier.
If you are doing a free standing tub then, you will need a tub filler that comes from the floor. Be mindful where you want to sit in the tub, which way you want your head to face and then where you want the filler to be. If your tub large enough for two then make sure the spout is in the middle. If it is just for one person then the spout can go at one end of the tub, usually over the drain. But keep in mind if there are windows, views or a sleek LED TV that you want to watch while bathing, it is important to figure this out when designing the plumbing lines. Lastly, be mindful that you have left enough room around and behind the tub to clean with a mop/vacuum.
Tubs that for two people tend to be wider, so when placing your tub filler make sure you can reach them and don’t have to lean over too far or in an uncomfortable way.
If I were to design my ideal bathroom, it would be in a light colored marble, preferably white. You need to select materials that are appropriate to the location, style and decor of your home. White marbles for instance vary widely in price. Cararra is very affordable but runs more gray than white these days. Calacatta and its sister stones tend to be on the more pricey end. You need to know if you like an active marble with lots of veining or a subtle marble with little or no veining. Look through images and try and find a palette that you like or take a field trip to a well-stocked marble yard and see what you like. Seeing a slab of marble can be very different than a 4"square sample in a showroom.
Also be mindful of dark colored stones if you have limited or no natural light in the room. Dark floors may be ok, but once you bring it up the walls, it will make it even darker. Not that dark is bad, you just have to know what you are creating and if you need to balance it with lighter colors elsewhere.
There are many options for flooring: large tiles that you can run in various patterns from a running bond, to a brick pattern, to cutting them into pieces to form other shapes and patterns, mosaics, tiles, antique floors and more. There are a million options to chose from and there is not better way to figure that out than to go and look in person. Always keep in mind the scale of the stone you have selected in relation to the size of your bathroom floor. Have your architect scale the pattern into your drawings for a better visual.
I love radiant heated floors- walking onto a warm hard stone floor on a cold winter's night is delightful. Be mindful of the thickness of your floor tile. Most at 3/8” will be with radiant floors, but some stone/tile floors are thicker. You don’t want to have your floor tile above the height of your stone saddle.
Lastly, you want to marry all of your stones in the room or make sure they all look well together. The areas to address: bathroom floor tile, baseboard, bathroom walls, shower floor, shower walls, shower ceiling, shower curb and jamb, shower seat, vanity top, vanity backsplash & sidesplash, tub deck and tub face. Like all stone, you will need to go to stone yard and match your slab to what you are using in the room. So if you are doing a mosaic or tile, order a 12” square piece of the current lot and bring it with you when selecting the slab. If you select the slab first then you will need to match that to the tile. Matching them is key to making the bathroom feel seamless. When things don’t match it will be noticeable and who wants to feel like it’s a mistake especially when it can be avoided.
If I were on a budget but wanted to make my room look amazing I would do the following: select a well priced mosaic floor tile, 3/4” slab for the vanity countertop, side & backsplash (build-up the vanity edge so it appears thicker), slab on the shower curb and jambs. Then I would use same or different mosaic on the shower floor, and when you can’t afford slab on shower walls, opt for a large tile like a 18” x 24” size. Use the same tiles for a stone baseboard cut into 4-6”h x 24”long pieces. If you can afford it, I like my baseboard made of leftover slab because you have fewer seams. If you are using large tiles on the floor, then match the base to the floor.
I prefer under-mount sinks. Over-mount sinks or those that sit on a countertop, while they look cool, lose countertop space and drawer storage. I have pictured one below if you do however go in that direction. Personally, if you love the look of an over-mount sink, I suggest saving it for your powder room. I love rectangular under-mount sinks over oval shaped sinks when possible. If you have the room, go for a larger sized sink. A 14” x 17” sink is a good standard size. Selecting the right size sink all depends on what you are trying to accomplish, if you have limited space and want to maximize countertop space, and how your vanity drawer configuration will lay out. If you have the room, a 15” x 19” or larger sink is recommended.
Pedestal sinks often can make a small bathroom feel larger while allowing for more space to put a waste bin. To balance the storage you lose with a pedestal sink, consider adding a glass shelf above the sink under the medicine cabinet, a train rack for additional towel storage, enough towel rings, bars and robe hooks.
I prefer recessed medicine cabinets when possible. They look cleaner in my opinion. If you go with custom-made, use clear maple interiors with adjustable glass shelves. Otherwise Restoration Hardware makes nice ready-made metal trimmed medicine cabinets. If you use an electric toothbrush you may prefer the ones with interior electrical outlets. I also love a medicine cabinet with a full mirror on the inside of the door as well as the back of the medicine. However those are added bonuses. I am not a huge fan of surface mounted medicine cabinets- they look bulky and take away from the clean lines. If you want to add recessed medicine cabinets, you will need to have your contractor check to make sure there is no existing plumbing in the wall. I have furred out walls just to allow for recessed medicine cabinet. I also am a huge fan of mirroring your whole wall above your vanity and then having the custom medicine cabinet integrated into that. In this case you can mount the sconces onto the mirror. A full wall of mirror above your vanity will add more light, reflection and make a smaller bathroom seem larger.
Lighting is the most important things in any room, but especially in a bathroom. Multiple lighting sources: wall to ceiling is best. Sconces at eye-level flanking the medicine cabinet are nice. I prefer sconces in wet bathrooms to have glass shades vs. paper or linen shades. Start your electrical junction box at 66” above finished floor to the center of your backplate but you may need to raise or lower this based on your selected sconce and how it configures with your mirrors. Flushmounts with at least (2) 60 watt bulbs are best. Ones that take (2) 100 watt bulbs are even better. You can of course use recessed lighting in main ceiling area and/or over the sinks. Make sure in the shower you are using a recessed light for wet location with a milk glass cover-plate. Always check on wattage of each light to make sure it is ample. Some sconces that only have (1) 25 watt bulb, which may be ok for a bathroom in a dimly lit restaurant, but not what you want when you are putting on make-up or washing your face. If you do decide to go with a gorgeous sconce that takes a low wattage bulb consider adding recessed lighting or additional lighting in the area to help balance.
In Shower Storage
A shampoo niche is a nice touch. Make sure it is tall & deep enough for your shampoo bottles, especially if you buy the large pumps. And locate it at a height that is comfortable to your reach. When built-in stone niches are not an option I like using metal wire corner-baskets. If you use a hard soap and not liquid, a soap basket is always my preference.
Hardware & Accessories
Grab bars in showers and tubs are great. You can’t get enough towel bars, robe hooks and the like. Make sure they are well placed. Towel bars standardly at 40-42”AFF. I like towel rings above the vanity centered on the countertop. One robe hook behind the door is nice and/or by the shower. If you need to be creative and add more towel storage you can also double hang towel bars. I use a 30” wide towel bar for two side by side bath towels. A towel ring or an 18” wide towel bar for hand towels near the sink. Keep in mind if you do a metal based vanity then you can hang your hand towels from the metal pipes.
I like both deck mounted and wall mounted sink faucets. Both have their merits. If you want a 24” deep vanity then go with a deck mounted faucet. A wall mounted sink faucet will keep your vanity more like 21” deep, pending on the depth of the spout, and you will need a taller backsplash to mount it on- something like 10” h.
As I mentioned before I am a huge fan of hand-helds in both the shower and the tub. In a shower if you can afford it, a thermostatic valve (pre-sets water temperature) is nice, but if you want to save money then just opt for the pressure balanced valve.
Shower Doors & Hardware
Frameless shower doors can make a shower feel more spacious and open. Keep in mind the direction of the door swing in relation to the controls and also where you place the towel bar or robe hook. I prefer using a horizontal handle on shower door which you can use to hang a floor mat or towel on.
Vanity and Drawer Dimensions
The best way to design a vanity is to look on-line and get inspired by what you see. You will need to select a material- painted, wood stain, glass and metal, so on and so forth. The most affordable is painted vanity but you can be creative and go for a high gloss spray finish. Like all things, I love cerused oak in bathrooms as well. If you have no budget, custom metal framed glass drawers are stunning. Like a kitchen, make sure you have laid out the drawers well. Do you want them all the same height or graduated? If you want to store your hairdryer in the bottom drawer then you will need it about 10” h. Make sure your drawers are wide enough to actually put things in. You can get extra storage under the sink by adding a shelf on either side of the trap or cutting out around the trap.
Water Closets and Toilets
If you have the room and like your privacy then a water closet is always a nice addition. I love back-flush toilets where the flush control is on the wall behind the toilet. I also love TOTO’s “Roll Royce” with the heated toilet seat and multiple spray options. A built-in magazine rack in the water closet is always a nice touch for those that like to hang-out and catch up on their periodicals (referring to many men that spend their free-time reading the paper on the toilet).
Personally polished nickel is my top choice; however, this finish does show water marks and requires polishing. My second choice is polished chrome, a less expensive finish than polished nickel. Whatever you select, make sure all of your finishes match- that being your plumbing, light fixtures, hardware and lighting. Each vendor has their own metal composition so the finish can vary slightly in color. I have found that there is less color variation from one company to the next with polished nickel than with polished chrome. So be mindful when ordering.
Below are some of my favorite plumbing lines, toilets, tubs, stone mosaics, lighting and more to help you create a bathroom oasis.