Masterpiece Theater

Ask David O’Neil and he will tell you that all the world is a stage. Or more specifically, the powder room is a stage – and a truly delightful one to work on for a bath designer with vision, creativity and a finely tuned sense of drama.

O’Neil, president of Atlanta, GA-based Renaissance Tile & Bath, explains: “Designing powder rooms is a real opportunity to maximize the drama of a space. It is a great opportunity to push design and style boundaries in a way that you may not have the courage to do in other spaces. It is meant for high drama and instant impact in the theater that you set for guests to experience.”

Jack Kellerman, president of Kellerman Kitchen & Bath in Baton Rouge, LA, agrees: “The powder room is a chance to take an ordinary bathroom and make it something special and a true focal point.”

The powder room provides numerous creative opportunities for designers, according to Amy Inman, interior designer for Hamilton, NJ-based Century Kitchens & Bathrooms. She notes, “The powder room is such a fun room to design. It’s liberating to have such freedom in a space.”

While size wise, the powder room may not be all that impressive, this is a classic case of substance over size – and designers agree that this is one room where impact is every bit as important as function. Just like the powder rooms of old, where ladies of Victorian times escaped to powder their noses, today’s powder rooms are little jewel boxes of design that provide a perfect moment’s escape in a setting that is beautiful as well as functional.

‘Wow’ Factor

Cynthia Smith, CKD, partner of Carbondale, IL-based Design Gallery, believes that impact is key when it comes to the powder room. She notes: “In a powder room, the customers want something that is smaller, yet they still want something that has the ‘wow’ factor.”

Smith adds: “I think people are paying more attention to their powder room because they can use this room to maybe do something very different or try some [new design element or material] that has caught their eye.”

She believes, “They take this opportunity to put something unique in and class it up. It makes a statement that catches the eye of their guests, and that makes them brave enough to take the opportunity [to consider design ideas] that they hadn’t really thought about before.”

So how do you get that ‘wow’ factor? It could be a unique design theme, an uncommon color scheme, unusual material choices, a striking focal point or just a collection of custom touches that create a truly personalized space.

According to Inman, “Powder room trends lie in the details. To that end, we’ve received more requests for such detailed work as intricate ceiling millwork, elaborate hand carved wall and base moldings, tile to the ceiling or even on the ceiling. ‘Different’ is the word most commonly used by clients when explaining what they’re looking for.”

Material Choices

Of course the selection of materials and products is essential to capturing that perfect, unique aesthetic – while also staying within budget. O’Neil notes: “I really think it’s an opportunity to push things for the sheer fact that it is a small space and it allows you to really pop on the materials.”

He continues: “We can really maximize the effect of the aesthetics because of the budgetary issues. The powder room is generally a small space [so if you use] $500-a-square-foot material in there, it does not add up to anything near what it would cost to use that same material in the master bath.”

Smith adds: “People love glass tile, for instance. They may not always be able to afford glass tile for larger spaces, but they love it – especially tiles that are used as glass countertops or done as floating areas with wall-hung countertops. So this is a great choice for the powder room, since the space itself is smaller and makes these materials more affordable.”

Kellerman says his firm is noticing an increased use of natural materials, as well. “We’re seeing a lot of marble in the powder bath,” he offers.

O’Neil agrees: “Stone countertops and concrete glass are all options. Leather can be an amazing countertop as well. You’ll find in the pedestal area you have two huge diversions, the typical white pedestal and the modern glass pedestal that looks like a vase or even a hand-carved stone pedestal.”

Sandra Fairbank, CKD, of Santa Rosa, CA-based Sonoma Kitchen and Bath, adds that in northern California where her firm is based, she often sees porcelain, glass and metal, while she also sees the spectrum of design themes spanning from Old World to Italian contemporary.

O’Neil cites the use of tile as wallpaper as a booming trend. “That is such a powerful material to use in a powder room – as is the entire wall covered with a single tile being repeated. It becomes a piece of art. Some examples of that would be a single deco repeated a hundred times. Likewise, mosaics are a huge trend in powder rooms to cover all the walls.”

Specifically, he notes that popular choices include huge graphic flowers done in stone and glass to cover an entire wall, as well as water-jet mosaics and even leather tile.

The growing popularity of eco-friendly materials has also led to an infusion of wood tiles with teak and bamboo, as well as recycled glass used with the vanity and in glass mosaic wall applications.

“Another material that is great for powder room use is onyx. What I’ve done is to suspend the onyx and glass just off the wall and then light behind it so it is just washed out,” O’Neil adds.

Smith says: “You also see a lot more of the vessel sinks and nicer finishes being used. If they use it anywhere, it’s going to be in their powder room, because this is where their company is going to see it and they want something that’s elegant and memorable.”

Kellerman agrees: “We are seeing a lot of vessel sinks that sit up on the countertop. That is something that is gaining in popularity. They have ones that are really [modern and] chic, and there are ones that are made out of stone or copper to create an older look.”

While some clients want unusual materials and edgy design, others want something a bit more tame. To that end, Fairbank notes, “Many clients choose materials that flow from the common rooms but show a little extra thought and pizzazz.”

Smith agrees: “We find in our area that the powder rooms will often carry the character of the house itself and stay within that character. We never see something where the home is Old World and then they do a really contemporary powder room.”

O’Neil also sees the spa trend of the master bath having some impact on the powder room design and style. He notes, “We are looking for the Zen of those spaces and we want those spaces to calm us down.”

Furniture Fun

According to Inman, furniture styling also plays an important role in achieving a creative powder room look. She explains: “The most-requested items in powder room designs are freestanding furniture pieces. We’ve converted many antique pieces into vanities and made them extra special by adding a glass vessel sink or using copper and other metals.”

“The trend away from pedestals has led to the furniture style,” O’Neil observes. “You have people taking old, antique pieces of furniture and chests, and retrofitting them with a custom sink and custom faucets.”

He continues: “You have the choice of this old chest, but in addition you are seeing a very specifically engineered, smaller vanity that works within the space to answer this problem. The other thing people are doing in powder rooms is taking the opportunity to make the basin or the area that you wash up in very sculptural.”

Inman notes: “Furniture styling is important if the homeowner does not want a medicine cabinet. I wouldn’t resort to a typical wall or built-in vanity. Rather, consider a piece of furniture and remember there really are only two items that must be stored in the powder room [toilet paper and hand towels].”

“When furniture pieces came out, often they were too large for a small powder bath, but they have become available in every size and configuration. It gives a unique look to the bathroom [because] it is not just a generic cabinet with a couple of doors, it is more of a furniture style that creates a more eclectic feeling,” Kellerman offers.

He adds that typical wood species seen in powder rooms include dark woods, like cherry or mahogany, often intended to replicate an antique piece of furniture.

Of course those beautiful furniture pieces aren’t just about appearance; they also have to take into consideration storage needs.

Smith doesn’t see storage as a huge issue in the powder room, though she does note: “You need the essentials of toilet paper, hand towels and smaller items.” However, she adds: “A lot of times, that can be done with the furniture piece, or perhaps with minimal cabinetry underneath the lavatory area. Maybe you could incorporate a floating vanity that would house some hand towels and baskets or things like that.”

Kellerman concurs: “Storage doesn’t come into play a whole lot. Obviously you’ll want storage for some rolls of toilet paper and for hand towels that you’ll use, but that’s about it. Typically, we would put a small wall cabinet over the toilet and that would be ample storage.”

O’Neil, however, disagrees: “Storage is an issue that needs to be addressed. There needs to be a backlog of toilet paper and handhelds, or any of those types of things. But, where do you put them? When you have a pedestal sink, it may start to create problems for storage.

He continues: “One of the things you can do is look at building your storage cabinet in the studs. So, over your vanity you can create what looks like a mirror, but if you push it and open it up, you have a storage cabinet built in. It is kind of recessed into the two by four. It is a great look, it’s easy and it keeps the room looking like a powder room.”

Fairbank adds: “The key is to determine storage needs. Your options will include under-sink storage, possible recessed storage through a wall to an adjacent space, over-the-toilet cabinetry/storage or a niche for a freestanding furniture piece. Meanwhile, glass shelves under or near the mirror can add beauty and needed function for smaller items.”

She adds: “It isn’t simply about understanding that the space is small, it is about understanding how it will be used, and who will use it. Let’s ask ourselves, does it meet the utilitarian needs, what’s necessary to store or house?”

Sized to Fit

Of course one of the unique challenges – and benefits – to designing powder rooms is the typical lack of space available with which to design.

Kellerman notes: “The layout is usually small, which often restricts the size of the cabinets and sink that can go into the room. A small powder room could be as small as 40 square feet and we don’t see much over 100 square feet.”

Because of this, it’s critical that functional needs be addressed in the early planning stages of the project. According to Fairbank, “The designer’s first objective is to understand the clients’ spectrum of use, or needs for this small bath. The function and resulting material choices depend on the designer using her or his interviewing skills.”

Fairbank continues: “The designer needs to determine the needs, wants and budget for the project, as well as what the vision is for the ambience. Do the clients want a showplace, a no-maintenance, kid-friendly space or a sculptural statement, for instance?”

Kelleran agrees that addressing both design and functional needs can be difficult in such a small space. He explains: “One of the challenges we always have – due mainly to the limitations of size – is trying to find a cabinet that will hold the sink basin. Therefore, you can go with the cabinet to hold the sink or you can go with the pedestal sink, which is an all-in-one porcelain china sink fixture.””

Smith agrees that designing in limited space can be tricky. She notes, “The challenge is taking a smaller area and making it memorable and nice, yet making sure there is enough room for all of the key functions.”

On the other hand, “Powder rooms are wonderful places to elaborate because the size limitation can be an advantage when it comes to budget,” Inman offers. “It is more affordable to install an onyx countertop, marble, glass and metal tiles, or drape the ceiling in silk and use chandeliers, wall sconces and pendants as opposed to the larger budget required for these items in a master bathroom.”

She continues: “Size can also be a great advantage because clients can be more daring, using unique products. In doing so, they tend to be a little more liberal financially.”

Kellerman agrees: “Since it is limited in size, it won’t break the budget. Therefore, you can do more expensive furnishings and details in the powder bath. In fact, you can accomplish a lot more on a smaller budget with the powder room as opposed to the master bath.”

O’Neil concludes: “Unlike any other room in the house, it has its challenges because of its unique smallness. There are some architectural elements that usually happen around a powder room that can create some difficulties, but if you have the right perspective, I think it is a really amazing room because it is a controlled space and you can do so much with it.”

The Right Light

One of the other ways to create a flashy powder room is to incorporate proper lighting into the layout, designers agree. This is particularly important because often the powder room is located in the middle of the house. Therefore it won’t have an exterior window for natural lighting.

To that end, Smith suggests: “You want good lighting in the powder room, but your guests are not going to be shaving or putting on makeup. Therefore you can bend the requirements a little and do things that may be a little more decorative than functional.”

Kellerman offers fellow designers a couple of things to consider when integrating lighting into their next powder room project. “One thing that people often overlook is the placement of the light switch, since it is for guests. You don’t want them looking for the light switch. It needs to be in a logical location,” he says.

He continues: “Since it is such a small room, they also may end up putting too big of a light fixture in. It overpowers it and floods the whole room with light. I wouldn’t suggest it.” In fact, Kellerman notes that a better solution would be to install a nice chandelier fixture with dim lighting and accent lighting over the toilet.

He continues: “We are even doing lighting beneath the toe kick on the vanity cabinet. You can have all of that switched on the one switch so that when you turn it on, all three lights come on. It is meant to be more of an ambient effect.”

“It is not often task lighting, but rather ambient lighting. This gives you many opportunities in terms of the sconce lighting, the halogen lighting and spot lighting for artwork. We’ve even dropped in a chandelier,” says O’Neil.

Fairbank suggests: “Maximize or minimize natural light as needed, and remember that the powder room is most often used at night. Furthermore, side-mounted sconces at the mirror will reflect the best image, and your guests will thank you for that! A good quality central ventilation fan/light combination is essential and will be beneficial to all.”

Inman concludes: “Lighting has a tremendous effect on powder rooms. You could leave a builder-grade pedestal and toilet, paint the walls metallic bronze, add wall sconces and a chandelier, and suddenly the room looks professionally designed.”