Bath Inspirations

In recent months, a number of kitchen and bath designers have reported a dramatic increase in bathroom projects, while kitchen projects are fewer and further between.

It seems that many clients are delaying their kitchen undertaking and turning their attention to a bathroom instead with the idea that baths are generally less expensive to remodel than kitchens.

For kitchen designers who offer a “design-build” service to their client – meaning they supply/install and profit from not only cabinetry but fixtures and fittings, as well as all surfacing materials – designing bathrooms can be a good business focus during the current economy.

To win the client over, I recommend you spend more time on the details of your bathroom plan. Decorative and functional surfaces play a much bigger role in the bathroom than in the cooking space.

In kitchen planning, we organize and connect long runs of similar materials: Wall surfacing takes a back seat to equipment and cabinetry specifications. In bathroom design, unconnected individual elements are installed along wall surfaces. The bath walls (or lack of walls) are a major design element for any bathroom plan.

Additionally, while kitchens are oftentimes highly stylized, bathrooms are typically simpler and more subdued – and can be dramatically contemporary, even in the most traditional homes.'

Bathroom specialists can gain inspiration by studying baths created by hospitality specialists for boutique hotels. If you’re not traveling much this year, check out boutique hotels in your local community or a short commute away.

Just call the hotel and ask to see a sleeping room.

The most interesting bathrooms will be in unique, “edgy” small hotels.

Bath Innovations

There are several design innovations I have discovered from our colleagues designing hotel bathrooms.

We can better allocate bathroom floor space if we rethink compartmentalizing the toilet. Because hotels normally do not have the luxury of devoting a minimum 36"x60" (and that’s the minimum rectangle) of interior floor space to a walled-off compartment, they create interesting ways to shield the toilet from view rather than providing complete privacy.

  1. Join fixtures. Combining the stall shower and the toilet in a separate compartment can make better use of floor space. Enlarging the compartment to accommodate a 36"-deep x 48"-wide shower with the toilet opposite it and separated from the balance of the bathroom by a sliding pocket door is an attractive solution in the bathrooms found in the Shade Hotel in Manhattan Beach, CA.
  2. Shield rather than separate. After completely understanding your client’s requirements vs. dream list regarding toilet positioning, consider using glass panels and/or glass sliding doors to shield the toilet from view. At the Graves 601 Hotel in Minneapolis, MN (see photos [c, d]), a very small bathroom is dramatically enhanced by the use of glass panels. A 3/4" glass partition on one side conceals the toilet. On the opposite side, a similar 3/4" panel encloses the deep shower.

This bathroom solution uses frosted green glass to add great drama to a small area. Note the intriguing use of the angled “ladder” to house towels. A striking design detail in this small space was a panel of soft sea foam green painted on one wall in the water closet area. I love the idea of just painting the center 80% of a wall space – rather than always corner to corner.

In addition to the frosted glass being very dramatic, consider how space-saving this approach is. If the design called for two typical framed wall systems, more than 12" of floor space would be required for the shower and toilet wall. Individual light fixtures would be required, as well as a swinging glass shower door and either a pocket or wood door in the toilet compartment.

When added up, the construction, material and mechanical costs for a typical installation may be even more than the exotic glass panels used in this space.

Wet/Dry Areas

It’s important to realize there are two distinctly different areas in any bathroom: the wet area and the dry area. These two segments of the space could also be identified as the functional part of the bathroom and the spa part of the bathroom.

I consider the toilet, bidet, urinal and shower as primary elements in the functional part of the bathroom. A bathing pool, and the vanity counter/make-up area are far less susceptible to water damage, mildew development or the other problems associated with the fixtures in a “one-space” bathroom.

Thinking of these two different categories of space frees your creativity when placing fixtures or selecting materials. It might give you a new outlook on walls, as well.

At the Shade Hotel in Manhattan Beach, great use of a flexible wall system dramatically enhances the design of the entire suite.

Based on your client’s preferences for the bathing experience (solitary escapism, social gathering place for adults, etc.), you might consider opening up the bathroom area to the bedroom in a residential project. Once again, this approach works very well if the shower and toilet are separated. In one example (see photo [a,b]), you see the bathtub in a traditional marble platform and a vanity sharing a corridor shape. The bathtub area becomes part of the bedroom sleeping zone when two sets of three Shoji screen-type doors are stacked against two end walls. The track for the doors is hidden behind a wood valance encompassing the dropped bathroom ceiling. A grooved Corian plate at the floor line provides a rail system for the lower door track to slide along. The bathtub sits in a pedestal platform that is surrounded by a stripe of pebble stone tile. This same pebble stone tile is used as a comfortable – and safe – non-skid shower base in the adjacent compartment.

The bathtub can be cozy and enclosed or part of the bedroom space. The overhead LED chromatherapy light strips can be reserved just for the bather – or can add drama to the entire sleeping area.

Tubs and Showers

Details are also critical when designing the bathtub and shower spaces. Following are some suggestions for maximizing both functional and aesthetic appeal.

Curbless showers with a trough drain make a difference. New trough drain systems make curbless showers much more functional. A recent product I found is a low-profile linear drain ( These types of drains allow you to slope the floor in one direction only; they can be installed along one edge of the shower, rather than centered. This is an excellent drain to use if you are planning an overhead shower system. Overhead shower systems that incorporate chromatherapy lighting or simple white light can add great drama to these special showers. Designers sometimes mistakenly center a showerhead, and then center the drain as well. The user then stands on the drain and impedes water flow out of the shower. This won’t work in a curbless shower – the drain water will run out of the shower.

Select the floor carefully. When considering a curbless shower, carefully think through the flooring selected for the dry area of the bathroom and the wet area encompassing the shower. Avoid any smooth, shiny and therefore slippery materials. Avoid large, over-scaled tiles which may not be suitable for the slanted floor profile needed to insure proper water drainage.

Keep the air dry and fresh. Recognize the importance of good ventilation in any shower area. Broan-NuTone has a great light/fan combination fixture that looks like a simple recessed light. This is an excellent low-profile fixture for a Zen-like shower.

Keep the space safe. Please, do not overlook the need for a foot rest or bench in the shower. This is something that is all too often overlooked in hotel bathrooms. A freestanding teak bench, a floating stone ledge or a triangle raised corner niche for a foot is important. It is also a good idea to install a solid backer system in the shower, allowing flexible placement of grab bars at the time of installation, or at a later date in the family’s life.

Plan a handy shelf. Design the storage area for shower items. Any storage area needs to be outside of the water flow so soap does not get “gooey.” Corner shelving installed in the shower area can be effective. Recessed niches in the tile can work well – they do cost more, but eliminate any danger of a user bumping into a protruding element in the shower. If you do plan a recessed area, consider creating a slot for a glass shelf to be slid into – and then easily removed for cleaning.

Winning Examples

Two winners in the 2008 NKBA Design Competition (see related story, Principles of Design) provide great examples of elegant bathrooms.

The first, pictured on page 51, is a study of a beautiful tile surface covering all major walls in an attractive combination. Note the use of the glass L-shaped panel to define the shower and separate it from the toilet. The wall area is open above the vanity, allowing light from the vanity area and ceiling to spill into the shower.

The next example, pictured on page 53, utilizes the concept of an open area approach to bathroom zoning. The shower is the only part of this bathroom that is totally enclosed. A partial wall (perhaps needed for piping?) is at the end of the bathtub. However, the bathing pool then extends into the vanity area. The two vanities have floating mirrors above them, which separates the vanity area from the dressing closet section of the space.

Wall Surfacing

I was recently quite impressed with the design detailing in an airport hotel in Frankfurt, Germany. The Steigenberger Airport Hotel had great bathrooms. Who would have thought design brilliance would be part of an airport hotel!
Note the way materials are stacked and layered in these bathrooms (see photos, [e, f, g]). The designer considered these wall surfaces as vertical shapes to be defined by material changes. Large gray square tiles are used on the floor and on some sections of major wall surfaces (notably inside the shower).

The simplicity of the square tile with matching grout and a stacked installation pattern is contrasted to vertical stripes of 1/2"x1/2" glass tile. Once again, glass sliding doors and walls separate the toilet compartment and enclose the shower area.

You will note that in all of these examples with sliding doors, the panels go to the ceiling. These types of sliding doors need a top-mounted rack, so they do not work well unless the panel extends to a ceiling or dropped soffit area.
In all of these bathrooms, an element of wood is introduced for added drama.

  • In the smallest bathroom (see photo [e]), it is a cube at the end of the vanity and a small wall section.
  • In the middle-sized bathroom, it is a corner column separating a make-up counter from the vanity (see photo [f]).
  • In the largest bathroom (see photo [g]), it is an entire wall section stretching from the edge of the vanity through the toilet compartment.

Note how eye-catching the horizontal wood graining is in all three of these installations. Additionally, enjoy how the wall sections covered in the glass tile are used to create the sense of a column in the shower that is otherwise finished in the gray tile.

Another winner in this year’s NKBA Design Competition has taken a similar approach (see photo [j]). The vanity is framed with the counter surface – note the higher splash to accommodate the wall-mounted faucet.
Horizontal wood graining extends throughout the corridor space on cabinet and wall surfaces. There is a design detail of a contrasting vertical stripe of glass tile. A functional ledge is created by the inclusion of a tankless toilet and bidet. A hanger system you should be familiar with when considering this type of fixture is Geberit (

Bathroom sales and profits will be expanded for designers who rethink their approach to bathroom concept planning, plan the wall surfacing as carefully as the cabinets or fixtures – and search for innovative alternatives to typical materials and hardware.