Rethinking Today's Laundry Room

New kitchen equals social center. Check. New bath equals sanctuary and retreat. Check. New laundry room is both a social center and a retreat. Check, check.

It seems that the laundry room has joined the kitchen and bathroom in completing the design trilogy, and designers, homeowners and manufacturers are teaming up to fill this evolved space with new and expanded ideas. It's been six years since this column focused on laundry, and a lot has changed.

Back then, there was a trend toward moving the laundry equipment out of the basement and placing it either near the bedrooms, where most laundry is generated, or near the kitchen, where most socializing occurs. About that same time, American manufacturers introduced front-loading laundry equipment to the industry, and our fascination with this household chore began. Since then, the potential for laundry room appliances, design and accessories has expanded.

Where once the laundry area was planned with lesser cabinetry or more moderately priced surface materials, oftentimes today this space is being enhanced with solid surface counters and traditional wood cabinetry. Although the standard plain white laminate door will always make a good backdrop for bolder design components, today, if it is used, laminate is appreciated not as a cost cutter, but for its range of colors and unusual new finish options. Hardware, tile and flooring or wall treatments are additional opportunities for the client to be less conservative and splurge for the unusual.

For a time, it seemed the only sophistication in laundry appliances was from the European manufacturers i.e. Bosch, Miele, ASKO and the like. Enter the U.S. giants, and we have a whole new range of appliances and features to choose from, focused on convenience, luxury, quiet and customized appearance.

GE has offered a washer and dryer that "talk" to each other, using technology to give you better results with less effort and energy. Whirlpool has offered front loaders that are elevated so we don't have to bend over, and they have added conveniences such as a motorized hand-washing sink, a personal valet that cuts down on the need for dry cleaning, and a drying cabinet. In addition to standard white for appliances, many manufacturers also offer off-whites such as a biscuit color, black or a dark grey, and stainless steel models.

Just as body sprays, bath gels, bubbles, salts, loofah and candles have all found their place in the bath, perfumed cleaning products, linen and ironing sprays, and glamorous laundry soap have found their market niche. A number of high-quality and unique laundry organizers and accessories are now available, and they are transforming the laundry into a place where we pamper ourselves and our clothes. This requires new thinking about the space.

If there is a philosophy of the laundry, it might be said that it is a multi-tasking room to match that aspect of our lifestyle. Labeled in an article in The New York Times as the "Zen of Everyday Tasks," it may be part gardening center, part pet cleaning station, home office or homework spot, gift wrapping center, or craft or sewing station. That should get our designer juices flowing. Usually more than a closet near the bedrooms or a section of the kitchen, it will still be near one or the other of these spaces, but more and more, it's a room of its own, functioning as another social center or as a private retreat.

Time is always an issue, with some of our clients spending up to nine hours a week on laundry. Politically correct or not, the truth is the woman head of household is more often in charge of laundry chores and, in fact, the majority of home-related decisions (according to Faith Popcorn, Eve-olution).

Appliance and housewares manufacturers are very aware of this, and they paint the picture that, if surrounded by comfort and convenience, our clients just might take the time to iron that shirt, rather than spray it with water as a family member walks out the door in the morning.

While having a state-of-the-art, expanded-use laundry may not transform every one of our clients into homemaker of the year, it may well make the chore more enjoyable, and provide another gathering spot or retreat area. While the laundry as a family center may not draw the entire clan for a Saturday night event, it may offer the chance to establish a routine for accomplishing tasks together, i.e. homework and laundry. The design concept that allows a client to work on the computer while the laundry is in process, or to talk on the video phone while ironing suits today's lifestyle.

How does this translate? We've talked a bit about the look of the space. In addition, windows and other lighting are important, not just for the natural light to separate navy blue socks from black socks, but for the ambience they provide.

It seems clear that, whenever possible, all of these parts, pieces and activities require that we stretch the laundry space. In fact, an article in The New York Times described one client who eliminated a dining room in order to give space to the laundry/family center.

For items to be utilized, they need to be convenient and user friendly, accomplished by adapting clever "storage at the point of use" ideas from the kitchen. In order to provide for the many auxiliary activities that may go on in this space, flexible and specific storage must be planned perhaps a pull-out waste container or hamper for rolls of paper for the wrapping center, or a hanging space with a drain below for hanging hand washing to dry or just storing hanging linens. In some households, this area might include a hand-held spray or pull-out faucet for bathing the dog.

Will families forgo movies in their home theater for the chance to gather around the folding table to talk while folding T-shirts? Not likely. However, the flexibility to share in a variety of activities and see the laundry done is very appealing, and certainly a great design opportunity.'