2019 will be a great year to redesign a bathroom because of changes in materials available and even more important changes in how homeowners and interior designers envision what a bathroom should offer. If you’re starting to feel that one or more bathrooms in your home is due for a change, you can take advantage of designs that preserve the best ideas of the last ten years while adding fresh energy and a greater variety of materials to create a look you’ll love for years to come. Especially exciting are new ways of mixing materials: stone and wood, natural and engineered fabrics, glass and surfacing.
KEEPING THE BEST
Two currents of social change have shaped bathroom design over the last decade. The first has been in response to the near-frantic acceleration of the pace of daily life. Changes in work, leisure activities, household maintenance and, most important, communication have made parts of every day both simpler and more complex at the same time. Interruption and control of time are major issues in households all over the country, as occupants struggle to meet new demands on time and attention. During this period, bathroom design has concentrated on ways to create a sanctuary from the noise of daily life. Instead of just a place to get ready for life, bathroom design has emphasized quiet colors, simple surfaces, and reduction of visual and audible stimulation. At the same time, bathroom design has responded to increasing health-awareness, with an increased emphasis on natural materials, better uses of space and easy maintenance. The days of fussy cabinetry, vast expanses of easily-streaked mirrors and cute motifs have faded and are not returning. A good bathroom needs to take hard use without showing it, and an occupant should leave the bathroom feeling relaxed and refreshed.
WHAT HASN’T WORKED
One reason that bathroom design is beginning to show a number of changes simultaneously is that even good designs can get carried to extremes. Toning down colors to all-white, grey monotone or black-and-white reduces visual stimulation. This has accounted for the high popularity of these three color-schemes as people adapt to large number of outside changes and want some breaks from excess visual and emotional “noise.” Eventually, though, the stark simplicity of single-color or low-color schemes can create monotonous silence rather than soothing calm. Low stimulation fades into blank anonymity. The room becomes dull and its environmental temperature becomes chilly.
Small tweaks initiated over the last couple of years have not fully addressed the problem. Swapping out polished steel faucets for black enamel ones didn’t do it, and as numerous designers noted, the flurries over rose-gold hardware appear to have faded into an embarrassing episode rather than blooming into a trend. Introducing pattern without adding color has shown equally uneven progress.
The same failures have characterized changes in bathroom lighting and the functions of reflected light. Good bathroom light is essential for numerous tasks; it also contributes strongly to a sense of cleanliness. Brightening a bathroom can be accomplished by adding light fixtures and also by adding surfaces, like mirrors, that reflect light. When surfaces are already highly polished and monotone in color, the danger is that artificial lighting will create a clinical feeling in the room. Adding mirrors adds upkeep—streaky mirrors are the instant enemy of the clean look—and it can take considerable experimentation to prevent the additional light they reflect from simply becoming visual distraction.
Punchy black-and-white geometrics or florals seemed like a logical experiment but in some cases produced the same dressing-room debacle as a big-print bathing suit. Just as a bright color makes an object seem closer than it is, so does a bold print. Yes, that floor makes your bathroom look fat—or at least makes the floor seem a lot closer to the ceiling than it did before. In general, light colors make spaces seem larger, while dark ones can reduce their perceived size. In the same way, patterns, even if in black and white, can create distortions in a viewer’s sense of space.
WHAT HAS WORKED
Even at its most monotone, good bathroom design used texture to relieve the boredom of endless reaches of hard, polished surfaces. Stone counters of all kinds—granite, quartzite and engineered quartz—played a critical role in adding visual variety and interest to aesthetically stripped-down rooms. Recent strides in porcelain manufacture offer this foundational bath-décor material in slab form and a variety of surface finishes, creating even more options for visual variation. From subtle streaking to leather-like stippling to the random patterns of veined stones, stone counters relieved visual monotony and brought a feeling of natural warmth to clinic-like rooms. While remaining basically within the confines of a white-grey-black palette, stone counters, backsplashes and vertical panels introduced complex variants on the basic three color-categories unimaginable in media of paint and tiling.
A New Role for Color
Stone structural and decorative materials were important in easing the bathroom door open to other voices in the color conversation. The success of stone textures and colors supported other efforts to bring a stronger feeling of natural tranquility into bathroom décor. Some colors are directly stone-sourced, especially in the grey, beige, sand and tan families. Many colors are better described as stone-related or stone-adjacent. Many of them are dark—blues, reds and greens which might be found in tidal pools, streams and ponds, woodland hollows and stormy skies. Paler shades appear to be derived from an add-white strategy; the results therefore more resemble a color described as “light red” than one called “pink.” Marine blues, mossy greens and woody browns carry large amounts of black in their composition and can show strong grey tones in paler forms. The natural darks appear in ceramics and accessories, taking gradual steps away from strict black-white contrast without moving into bright or artificial shades.
New Looks at Light
Additional natural reference points are addressing other unappealing aspects of clinical décor. The most important sensation they reintroduce to bath décor is one of warmth. Again, stone counters contributed early insights. While artificial bathroom light needs to be abundant, adjustments that let light gleam and glow rather than glare help restore the tranquility of a bathroom intended as a sanctuary from a hectic daily life. Matte and soft-seeming finishes, along with several new finishes under the general rubrics of “honed” or “leather” reflect both natural and artificial light in more subtle ways than highly-polished, brightly-reflective surfaces. In some cases the difference is produced by distinct characteristics within the stone itself; in other situations, new and innovative polishing techniques can make stone surfaces responsive to light in a variety of ways.
The appeal of warmly reflected light, the reintroduction of natural colors and materials, and several technological advances made possible the gradual reintroduction of wood into bath décor. Thanks to advances in waterproof finishes and improvements in moisture-reducing room-ventilation, wood has become an integral part of the new mixed-materials approach to bathroom design. New finishing techniques increase wood’s resistance to water damage; engineered wood products make it possible for wood to take on new design roles. Dark and medium tones predominate over Scandinavian-spa light finishes. Wood appears in floors, vertical siding (like tub and vanity facings), cabinetry and free-standing furniture. Free-standing pieces paying homage to antique furniture add the warmth of home to design. Like stone, wood surfaces reflect natural and artificial light in new, soothing ways.
WHAT WILL KEEP WORKING
Few bathrooms are large enough to contain all the design ideas you like. What the growing store of new decorative materials makes possible is new ways to express the most important of those ideas. The variety can offer some challenges—how do you make the best use of stone, glass, wood, ceramics and other new materials, all in one design? The options are abundant, and the good news is that homeowners are welcomed as active planners of their spaces. Trusted existing products and new ones share several goals: beauty, high durability and easy maintenance. Seek out experienced designers and contractors to develop your specific decorative plan. Whether you are anxious to make your bathroom more supportive of your health and fitness goals or create a relaxing sanctuary sustained by the peace of nature, plan to look at the new mixed-material opportunities for beautiful bathroom décor.