Dressing Rooms

I learned early in my career how differently Americans look at proper clothing storage than those in other parts of the world. Many of us are still remodeling "master bedrooms" from the 1960s and 1970s, when sleeping zones, tiny baths and smallish "walk-in" closets were combined.

New-construction builders seem to have simply enlarged these three rooms in many modern homes being built today.

However, many upscale consumers look at closet storage very differently. They want a separate room, not just a hallway flanked with hanging space. In my original bath book, The Basics of Bathroom Design…and Beyond, published in the mid-’80s, I included lists of spatial requirements for hanging and folded clothes to help other designers create elaborate closet/dressing rooms because I viewed these rooms as a profitable business niche.

Twenty-five years later, this interest in large, dramatic personal spaces reserved for dressing, grooming and garment care has developed into a "big business" — stretching from the mid-market through the luxury sector. Kitchen designers have a great new business opportunity today – supported by many of their cabinet company partners – in the design and material specification for storage systems that offer the same fine quality of woodworking our consumers demand in their kitchen cabinetry.

To really understand these spaces, designers first must define them, recognizing the difference between separate simple utilitarian closets and spacious dressing rooms.

  • A wardrobe (called an "armoire" in Europe) is a piece of furniture that serves as a clothing storage area.
  • A reach-in closet is one where doors conceal the pole and shelf space is accessed only when the doors are open.
  • A walk-in closet is a room that one walks into to access two, three or four walls of space organized with hanging poles and storage shelving. Typically all are exposed, although some pole areas and shelving may be placed behind more elegant doors.
  • A dressing room is a larger version of a walk-in closet, with a furniture island or seating area in the center of the space. It normally includes built-in dresser cabinetry to store all clothing so the sleeping area in the master suite has no clothing storage responsibilities.

A New Market Niche

Designing dressing rooms is a new high-style market niche. Designers’ talents are valued because there is a focus on the "look" of the space. Consumers are requesting more amenities such as glass closet doors and detailed architectural accoutrements such as crown molding, baseboard and columns ­– accents designers are already skilled in using.

Such a room also has a "multi-tasking" nature to it. While the storage, dressing and grooming space is the first priority, the space may also be the exercise room, the clothing care center or have other uses that need to be identified. All of these activities have specific storage requirements.

Here’s how I plan dressing rooms:

1. Determine what will be stored in the room.

For these special spaces, a thorough survey must be completed, followed with a clear understanding of how the person stores possessions.
To make the most out of the available space, here are some helpful hints from the Association of Closet and Storage Professionals (www.closets.org).

  • Before you begin the planning process, ask the client to take everything out of the closet and evaluate what should be kept. A good rule of thumb: If they haven’t worn something for a year, perhaps it should be given away.
  • Get rid of clothes that don’t fit or are out of style.
  • Find other storage areas for all items not related to the adult dressing room assignment of the space. Sports gear, for example, does not belong in a clothes closet.
  • Weed out unused hangers to create more space.
  • The client needs to count sweaters, shoes and other items that are folded so proper shelf space can be incorporated before you start laying out the space.
  • Hanging and folding preferences must also be determined. The overall length of hung coats, skirts and slacks must be identified because these dimensions will dictate the placement of hanging double pole storage. Are dress shirts hung on hangers, or folded by the cleaners? Are pants folded on specially designed pant hangers, or hung from the cuff? Everything needs to be visible to be easily retrievable, and while sweaters, casual shirts and sweatshirts will be folded for storage, they must be displayed on the shelf so the client can see them.

2. Assuming that the closet contents have been narrowed down to appropriate dressing room apparel, and the quantities have been identified, take inventory.

  • Count and measure. If you are going to create article-specific storage for items such as oversized shoes or knee-high boots, you need to know the exact size so they’ll fit. Even for more generic spaces, a count of shirts, slacks, jackets, etc. is important to determine the shelf/pole space needed.
  • Draw the plan and identify where everything will be stored and in what quantities.

3. Determine other activities that will take place in the dressing room.

In addition to what will be stored in the closet, the designer should get answers to the following:

  • Does the client want a place to sit? Under-window seating works especially well because the space cannot be used for easily accessible storage. Does the client want to look out a window when seated? Window sills can be no higher than 42" off the floor if a seated viewer will be looking out of them.
  • If the client wants a full-length mirror, can there be at least 36" to 48" (3' to 4') of clear floor space in front of the mirror for easy viewing?
  • Does the client want to watch television while getting dressed? If so, you will need to plan storage around the TV. Or, ingeniously plan a TV system that conceals the screen when not in use. For example, Häfele America Co. has a piece of hardware that allows a flat-screen TV to retract behind a cabinet.
  • Is the client planning on collecting soiled clothing in the closet and/or handling garment care in the space?
  • What else would they like to store in the room? What other activities should be incorporated?

4. Choose the closet material right for the project and budget.

  • Wire products are inexpensive and readily available. But, while ventilation is provided, they can create waffle patterns on the back of garments, and may not provide a stable enough base for some items. Some of these systems are very price sensitive. If you plan to propose this type of solution, make sure your design time is covered by a fee and the installation costs are clearly understood and approved by the client.
  • Melamine and wood veneer wall-mounted systems are typically what’s offered the most by manufacturers specializing in closet items. They’re normally hung on a rail that’s screwed securely into the studs in the wall. Shelves and poles are adjustable because of the boring system incorporated, as well as the availability of partitions that allow the panel system to be flexible. There is a continuous stream of product innovation in this category worth your attention.
  • Furniture-like systems are being introduced by cabinet manufacturers because consumers will pay for high-quality component parts and the look offered. Because many systems rest on the floor, they feature deeper shelving and a wider variety of storage components.

5. Consider furniture for the center of the dressing room.

A cornerstone of these well-organized spaces is the inclusion of a center island that often includes bench seating integrated into the closet or placed at each end. Such an island can be finished at 30", 36", 39" or 42" high, depending on the client’s height. The island can provide typical roll-out drawers or shelves, or can be used for other highly valued closet-related organizational items such as garment care items or appointed as packing assistance centers. For clothing care you might want to consider the following:

  • One hamper designated for dry cleaning.
  • One (removable) hamper for laundry or a chute to a laundry center below. Some larger closets may have their own stacked, full-size washer and dryer so all adult clothing is laundered, folded and stored without leaving the closet.
  • A gentleman’s valet or pant press attachment.
  • A built-in ironing board.
  • A divided drawer for mending equipment.
  • A drawer with all shoe polishing items.

For packing assistance, a 36"- or 42"-high counter allows a garment bag to be easily laid out and packed, while a pull-out hanging rod allows the client to gather items before being packed. Drawers with length-wise or cross-wise dividers can be organized so that all 3 oz. or less travel items, as well as other grooming equipment, can be easily located and packed quickly.

6. Design the lighting system.

Any well-designed dressing room will incorporate a carefully planned lighting system that not only meets building code requirements, but also makes seeing and selecting clothing easy, without producing a lot of heat.

Most importantly, understand the hazards of heat in an enclosed closet design. Any type of exposed bulbs are often considered a fire hazard by municipal codes and are not allowed in any room identified as a "closet." Designers should clarify with their local building department if there is a designated difference in code requirements for a closet and a dressing room, or if any space where garments are hung (regardless of size) is considered a closet. If so, your lighting choices are limited to enclosed fixtures with lenses.

Once you’re past the code issue, here are some helpful hints from Daniel Mattes, CLC (Certified Lighting Consultant through the American Lighting Association). He’s with the Bright Light Design Center in Wilmington, DE (www.brightlightdesigncenter.com).

  • Avoid halogen or Zeon light lamps that can result in "hot spots" in closet design. Realize that high-wattage (high-lumen-output) halogen lamps are likely to burn out more frequently than their equivalent incandescent lamps – another reason they’re not suited for this environment.
  • Avoid recessed can fixtures with incandescent lamps and lenses. Such fixtures installed in closets (often a second-floor installation) must also be certified to be insulated. Recessed can fixtures with lenses that are designed for insulated attic spaces will have low-wattage (lumen output) lamp maximums. They don’t deliver enough light.
  • Even if exposed lamps are allowed in a recessed can fixture in a closet, avoid them unless you specify directional wall washer trims. Most recessed can fixtures are designed to illuminate a horizontal surface below them or provide directional light for artwork; they don’t "wash walls" very well. The role of a lighting system in a closet is to wash the entire wall space where items are hung or placed on shelving for storage. Mattes notes there are specialty recessed fixtures that overcome these drawbacks. Most designers find the additional costs outside the budget established for the project, but these special fixtures are worth the money. Designers just need to have an adequate lighting allowance in the estimate to specify them.
  • Think about upgrading the switching system to make it easier for your client to enter and exit the closet. An "occupant sensor" is a great idea. The normal switch is replaced with a motion sensor that goes on when an individual enters the closet space, and off when the person exits.
  • Use surface-mounted incandescent or fluorescent fixtures, which are functional and affordable.
    Two surface-mounted incandescent fixtures (look for a fixture that has a maximum of three 60-watt lamps) will provide adequate lighting. Fluorescent lamps are also a good choice if chosen carefully based on the quality of light that will best
    match the client’s lifestyle.
  • You should be aware that 5,000° Kelvin fluorescent lamps, called "full spectrum lights," imitate true natural northern light, but because natural light has a bluish cast, it’s not great for skin tones. Instead, you could try a 3,500° Kelvin fixture, which is warmer and has good color rendition. It’s not only more flattering to skin tones, it’s also more appropriate for a client who dresses at the start of the day to begin that day spent under predominantly incandescent lighting.
  • In small (reach-in) closets, keep it simple. Install an exposed fluorescent fixture (that does not get hot and will meet code) above the doorway, operated by a wall switch or by a hinge switch to wash the enclosed space.
  • For large dressing areas, consider a three-tier lighting system. Directional surface-mounted lighting at the ceiling should be placed between the client and the racking system to illuminate the hanging clothes and/or items on shelves or racks.
    A second surface-mounted lighting system illuminates the general area in front of the mirror so the clients can be well lt as they’re organizing their coordinated ensembles. A decorative fixture – a chandelier, perhaps – can then be installed
    if the space is highly styled.
  • Watch out for windows or skylights in closets: Clothes will be faded by direct sunlight. I try to avoid skylights altogether. And note that any windows installed need sun-blocking shades.

You might also want to add a quiet ventilation upgrade. Broan has a recessed fan/light combination that is ducted through a 4" pipe, and looks just like any other recessed light. Larger, enclosed fan/light combinations are also worth considering. Such ventilation is ideal in a new-build home that is tightly sealed, or a home in an extremely cold climate or in an area of the country with exceedingly high humidity. Such a ventilation system will help eliminate or control mold, mildew and other still-air breeders.

Closets need air flow and dehumidification. Including a fan on a timer (so it goes on and off at regular intervals) can help pull air through the closet even when the door is shut. The door should be sized so that make-up air can enter the dressing room under the door.

Lastly, remember to include a "charging station" if family members using the dressing room want to charge electronic equipment in this space. Häfele America Co. and Doug Mockett & Co. have several unique multi-port devices that recess into a countertop.

A sophisticated dressing room means going beyond the basics of closet design and installation: It means creating a very personalized space that may be as thematic as other more public areas in the home. Your existing design experience, honed by years of creating great kitchens, can be easily applied to the dressing-room planning process.

As we begin an exciting new year – and face a slowed economy in some communities – consider reaching out to your past client base to let them know of your expertise in closet/dressing-room planning. Add questions pertaining to these areas to your survey questionnaire so that you’re prepared to query new clients about their interest in a sophisticated dressing room for a project under consideration.

After closets, what’s next? It’s already here. Think of the possibilities for custom storage systems designed for the garage.

Recommended Clothing Storage Allowances

Women’s Clothing
Hanging Space
Pole Space
Day Dresses/Robes
Evening Dresses
Slacks (1/2 Folded)
Slacks (Full Length)
Men’s Clothing
Hanging Space
Pole Space
Slacks 1/2 Folded
Slacks Full Length
Suits with Slacks 1/2 Folded
Shelf Space
Allow 12"-15" width for folded sweaters.
Allow 9"-12" width for folded shirts.
Allow 9"-12" width for each pair of stored men’s shoes.
Allow 6"-9" width for each pair of stored women’s shoes.
Allow 4"x10" space for folded socks/nylons, 4"x5" for rolled.
Rod heights (height of rod and shelf above rod) may vary according to the height and vertical reach of the person(s) using the closet and the length of clothing when. The table above lists some standard storage recommendations to get you started.
Courtesy of Wellborn Cabinet, Inc. and “The Basics of Bathroom Design... and Beyond” by Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID

This article is part of a quarterly series of "Designer’s Notebook" articles, which will continue to run throughout 2007 exclusively in Kitchen & Bath Design News and online at KBDN’s Website, www.kitchenbathdesign.com. Past "Designer’s Notebook" articles can also be found on the Website.