It was poet John Keats who said “What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.” Those words endure – particularly with regard to master bath suites, which frequently call for a balance of vision and understanding from designers in order to create true spa-like retreats.
Indeed, it’s often a mixture of consumer fancy and design ingenuity that requires a designer to think outside the box or – with regard to space and storage constraints – inside the box, especially with remodel projects.
Jennifer Owen, designer for Kitchen & Bath Cottage in Shreveport, LA, notes: “Clients want products that will reflect their personal style, meet their needs and remain stylish.”
In keeping with this idea, designs for master suites are going organic, with customers displaying a growing interest in natural materials, such as stone slabs, travertine on vanity surfaces and tub surrounds, and marble tile floors.
Charlie Allen, founder of Charlie Allen Restoration in Cambridge, MA, explains: “We’re seeing an increase in products that bring natural outdoor feelings into the bathroom, including rain showerheads and natural stone floors and countertops. We’re seeing a lot of limestone and marble, as opposed to manufactured products. Clients are drawn to ‘natural’ design elements.”
Design styles range from traditional to clean and contemporary. A combination of both provides a touch of transitional eclecticism.
Jean Zinner, ASID, CID of JAZ Designs, Inc. in Santa Monica, CA, notes: “The design of the master bath depends on the overall look of the house, and the design themes tend to be mixtures of traditional and contemporary.”
Surely many high-end clients have their own ideas of the perfect bath environment. Some find inspiration during vacations spent in exotic locations and posh hotels, says Stuart Harle, allied member ASID of Tulsa, OK-based Showcase Kitchens and Baths, Inc.
“Our clients are high-end and travel a great deal, and they stay in five-star resorts. As a result, they have seen many things,” he explains.
Even if clients can’t find the time for across-the-world jaunts, they can still enjoy the same amenities in their master baths, says Pamela Durkin, ASID of Naples, FL-based New Line Design, Inc. “Everyone wants their bath to feel like they have gone to an expensive getaway at their favorite spa,” she says.
Regardless of the design influences, Owen believes that clients have one thing in common when it comes to creating their dream master bath – “to simplify their day-to-day activities.” She believes that integrated products for the bathroom help achieve that goal.
Durkin concludes: “Even the smallest detail needs to work with everything else. It’s a balancing act between the colors, textures and materials. That’s what keeps the space interesting.”
Water serves as the life force for any master bath project, so the most frequent challenge facing designers is how to use water to maximize the spa experience.
“We’re seeing a lot of overhead rain showers, as well as wall-mounted thermostatic valves with volume control or transfer control,” says Michael Boyette, CKD, president of Boyette Kitchens and Baths in Bloomfield, NJ.
“Steam jets are also being added to showers. Raising the height of the stall to the ceiling and adding transom windows creates the steam function that is desired,” states Allen.
Boyette adds: “If the space allows, consumers are opting for a whirlpool or steam unit and spending money on the heavy series glass enclosures. Showers feature more glass than tile.”
Susan Palmquist, CKD and co-owner of Minneapolis, MN-based Sawhill Custom Kitchens & Design, Inc., notes that her firm is seeing more requests for steam showers as well, along with ceiling-mounted showerheads and handhelds.
Harle notes that multiple showerheads, much larger showers, walk-through showers and showers without doors are very popular.
To that end, Zinner sees a bigger call for flush-mounted showerheads, frameless shower doors and fog-free mirrors.
“Soaking tubs are a popular item that fits within the spa experience theme that many homeowners are seeking,” Allen remarks.
According to Durkin, natural materials, such as marble, granite and onyx, are very popular.
“These are being integrated in all areas of the room, from floors to walls and specialty insets,” she describes. “In fact, I often like to mix and match items throughout the space so that it remains interesting to the eye.”
Palmquist offers: “There are a lot of tile-sand marbles and slab materials. We’re also seeing glass tiles. In fact, glass tiles and natural stone are two of the main materials we are using.”
Owen adds: “The most popular materials are slate, tumbled marble, travertine and granite. We use slate for not only the floor, but on shower walls as well.”
Zinner recently designed a master bath suite that featured Carrera marble on a tub surround, deck and floors – all complemented by white-painted cabinet doors and polished chrome hardware and faucetry.
“Granite is all over the place: on vanity tops, the floor, and even heated floors,” comments Harle. “Tile has really made a comeback, as well, and it’s become a focal point of the master bath.”
Harle reports that, with a traditional design that includes multiple sinks, his firm will do a granite countertop with undermount sinks. However, we’re doing one right now that’s very contemporary looking, and we’re doing vessel bowls and faucets out of the walls.”
To create a true spa environment, many designers find that it’s best to stay neutral – with color, that is.
“Color palettes today lean toward neutrals to create a timeless appeal and the high-end spa environment,” says Zinner.
“We’re seeing an increased desire for soft whites and natural earth tones. At the same time, we’re seeing a sharp decrease in bright or dark colors,” adds Allen.
For Durkin, soothing, cool colors and rich materials are in demand, while Boyette cites a more eclectic palette, often highlighted by mixtures of color and texture, such as light-colored stone with an off-white vanity, or darker stone mixed with a dark cherry vanity.
He also describes this as a significant shift because “there’s not one specific color that seems to be popular.”
“The whites and naturals and the very clean, simple classic lines are more enduring,” comments Palmquist.
“The color trends still remain in the neutral family, though they aren’t just the tans and browns that we’ve seen over the past several years,” offers Owen. “People are opting now for more greens, grays and muted tones.”
Harle concurs: “Overall, it is definitely more of a natural look, with greens, tans, browns and taupes, [with] the accessories giving that punch of color to the design.”
For Zinner, furniture-style pieces are a sure-fire way to make a master bath special.
She explains: “Antique or modern consoles are being fitted for plumbing to use as a vanity. It is a way of achieving a unique look.” They’re not just consoles, however, as they also provide much needed storage.”
Allen concurs: “We’re seeing an increase in elegant console sink units, which provide storage space and are a nice alternative to the standard vanity.”
He adds that armoires offer an attractive space for towels and other bathroom needs.
Durkin believes that vanities that mimic the look of furniture pieces lend an upscale, luxurious feel to master bath projects.
Boyette adds: “When the budget is there, we are seeing a lot of toe kicks, heavy moldings and mirrored moldings that are applied on site. They are often complemented by a custom mirror installed in between.”
“In contemporary looks, I think the detached furniture look is still pretty strong. In fact, we did one bath where there is a free-standing piece and when you open it, you can tell it is very functional,” says Palmquist.
Owen concludes: “Furniture-style pieces are becoming the most-requested cabinet style in the master bath. This area previously lacked some style and usually appeared as a utilitarian piece. Homeowners are becoming more design conscious and want their personal style to be reflected in every room of the house.”
“You’re seeing a lot of darker finishes, such as the cherries, which are usually nicely done,” observes Durkin. “Cherry can also look very contemporary. Sometimes it even looks somewhat Asian, which really looks great. That gives designers more versatility. Combine that with furniture-looking pieces and you have a much more customized look.”
Vanities are still a key element in the bath, especially when it comes to storage.
Allen offers: “Storage is very important, particularly as the ‘spa style’ bath becomes more popular. Clutter is the antithesis of a relaxing, inviting experience. Therefore, we’re careful to maximize all available space and provide discreet storage for all necessary items.”
Durkin offers: “The needs of clients vary greatly. One can never have enough storage, however – mainly because master baths are becoming more of a room to impress your friends. Storage is either cleverly hidden or is being relocated to an adjacent space.”
“The idea is that they get the maximum amount of storage and the most enduring look while incorporating styles that will have a longer life,” says Palmquist.
“However, when you have his-and-hers vanities and two sinks, it tends to limit storage,” she continues. “By adding inches in height to the counter, more storage is gained in the vanity.”
As a result, Palmquist’s firm is doing a lot of vanities that are more than 36" high. In fact, some are reaching 40-1/2" in height.
“In a home that has higher ceilings, the practicality of having a higher vanity makes a lot more sense because you are not bending down to brush your teeth,” she says.
She adds: “I did it for one couple because they both had bad backs and bad necks, so they could use it easily. The balance in relationship to the high ceilings made it look good. Plus they now have more storage options.”
No Bumps in the Road
Designers agree that space constraints often associated with the bath don’t necessarily lead to design limitations.
“If we’re in an existing space, we’re sometimes restricted by space, but we’ll steal space from other areas to increase the size of the master bath,” comments Harle. “In one project, we combined a separate his-and-hers arrangement so that now there is a large shower between them that they can share.”
“We’re doing a bath remodel right now that was actually a bump out over a kitchen,” states Boyette. “It is a small house and it had a regular 5'x8' bath. We bumped it out and doubled the space, and that’s where we put the whirlpool, the shower and the TV.” The older portion of the room houses the toilet and a large vanity that is built in. “The room is grey and red with dark cherry vanity furniture details and a skylight.”
Allen recently completed a bath remodel that required his firm to rework a master bath for a young, growing family. He needed to incorporate modern amenities while retaining the home’s 19th century charm.
Working with architect Tom Downer, Allen eliminated an existing bedroom and crafted a functional master bath and dressing space to overcome the unique spatial challenges the previous layout presented.
For Allen, a highlight of the layout is a large, glassed-in shower that doubles as a steam room. “It features a rain showerhead and a welcoming, spa-like clean design. Innovative storage solutions include a large cabinet that can be accessed from both the dressing area and the bathroom itself, which helps minimize clutter,” he says.
“The design also features radiant floor heating and an electric towel warmer, which adds to the room’s appeal – especially on cold winter mornings,” he concludes.
“We’re doing a master suite in a very modern, geo-thermal heated ‘Smart’ house,” notes Palmquist. “The challenge there is that it is all windows, so there was little room for storage. We had to figure out how to create floating vanities and introduce ample storage into the space.”
She continues: ‘There are also several electronic toilets with a total bidet system. Basically, every feature we could incorporate into the design is in that house.”
The Tech Files
Technology has also created a more interactive spa experience for clients – and more options for designers, says Zinner.
“Integrated technologies are increasingly important to clients,” says Allen. “However, equally important is a thoughtful design that conceals many of these technologies, along with the controls for them, so that a clean aesthetic is maintained.”
He adds: “Many homeowners are excited by these new features, but want to be sure they are introduced in a way that doesn’t harm the integrity of the home.”
Zinner recounts a project where the client wanted to use technology to replicate the feel of staying at a five-star hotel.
“They wanted a flatscreen TV, a steam shower with the pre-programmed thermostatic valves and steam bath. When clients can afford it, they want the latest technology.”
To that end, she notes that shower systems can be pre-set to the individual user. Sound systems can also pipe tropical sounds into the shower.
“Newer features for whirlpool tubs are backjets, and hot-air-only ‘air baths’ that can be connected to the homeowner’s sound system,” she explains.
Palmquist offers: “Technology used to just be featured in the kitchen or family room, but now it is in the master bath. We are incorporating speakers, sound and TVs while also trying to fit in ventilation and all of the comforts that we can bring to them.”
Boyette’s firm is currently customizing a master suite to feature a wall-mounted 32" flat panel TV.
Harle notes that technology is so pervasive in the master bath that some might consider it “under foot.”
He explains: “There is a bigger call for heated towel bars, heated floors and even programmable heated floors so that the heat will come on whenever the space needs to be heated up. We’re even doing them in closets and under carpets.”
Palmquist adds: “There are a lot of heated floors, and sometimes we run it into the shower, up the seats and up the walls so that the full shower area is heated when you sit down or touch the walls.”
Durkin concludes: “I think technology will evolve within the master bath. We’re always connected, however, in the master bath, these items will be used to further enhance the ‘luxurious spa’ experience.”
For the finishing touches of master bath remodels, designers should strive to find the ideal hardware finish, says Allen.
Palmquist notes that full suites of products – particularly in faucetry – are being offered, which should give designers confidence that finishes and styles are going to be compatible and consistent.
“Nickel is a very popular finish, both brushed and polished, although in the case of our higher-end clientele, there is less mixing of metals,” he says.
Boyette notes that brushed nickel and oil-rubbed bronze are popular looks as opposed to bright or brushed chrome looks.
Owen sees similar trends. “The most popular finish is oil-rubbed bronze, but antique finishes are still very popular,” she says. “Typically these finishes are from the same color family, and blend with the cabinetry and plumbing fixtures.”
Zinner offers: “In my opinion, satin nickel and bronze finishes are the most popular right now. The hardware is meant to look
like jewelry on the cabinetry, not match it.”
Durkin agrees, pointing out that there are now hand-forged hardware pieces, as well as ones adorned with real semi-precious and precious gems. “The appearance of these items supports the fact that consumers want unique details that will set their space apart from others,” she says.
Palmquist notes, “It all breaks down to the details. Then everything ties in together. It’s key that the faucet be beautiful; the towel bars, the hardware and everything else has to follow suit.”
Lighting is also a key component to giving the space a finished look. There are a variety of lighting options available to enhance a master bath remodel.
“As a well-used space, light is extremely important. Skylights and windows, and even frosted-glass panels on bathroom doors are all ways to bring more light into the bath,” Allen concludes.
Boyette adds: “People also prefer more windows and natural light to open up the space whenever possible. However, there are ceiling lights, lights for the shower and over the whirlpool, as well as incandescent and halogens that [are being used too].”
“LED lighting, available in an array of different colors, is the new way to light the inside of whirlpool tubs and steam showers,” she offers.
Durkin concludes: “Overall, clients are looking for their master bath to mimic the look and feel of the spa retreat, and these spaces – whether traditional or contemporary – are taking on a cleaner, uncluttered, more straightforward look."