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A Guide to Bathroom Design

Using Color, Texture, and Space in the Bathroom
Blue items visually recede, yellow advances; used together, they create a lively scheme that breaks up the monotony of an all-white setting.

Everything in your bathroom includes design elements that can be used to achieve balance, rhythm, and emphasis. These elements occur naturally together, so it may take a bit of practice to see them. Once you do, you'll be able to make the often small corrections that give your bath maximum eye appeal.


Color is the most compelling element. Whole books have been written on how to use color, but a few basic techniques are worth noting here.

Light colors reflect light and make a space or an object look larger and airier; dark colors absorb light and make them look smaller and denser.

Contrasting colors stop the eye, breaking up space and making it look smaller. The same or similar colors across surfaces allow the eye to keep moving and unify a space, making the whole area look larger.

Warm colors, such as red, orange, or yellow, reflect light and advance toward the viewer, making the item or wall seem closer and larger. The same goes for pastel versions of these tones -- pink, coral, peach, and cream -- but the effect is modified by how much white is in the mix. Pale pink won't come at you the way hot pink will, but it still imparts a sense of warmth.

Cool colors like blue, green, and violet absorb light and recede from the viewer, making the item or wall seem farther away and smaller.

To maximize a sense of spaciousness and repose in the bath, you might opt for a scheme of light colors accented by cool colors in pastel strengths to keep the contrasts low. However, many people prefer pastel tones of warmer colors -- blush tones, for example -- for their complexion-enhancing qualities. And some prefer to go with, rather than against, a bath's small dimensions by using dark, rich colors for maximum coziness. The choice is yours!

When you want to draw attention to special features or just create a sense of visual excitement in a room, call on bright, advancing colors to do the job.

If your bathroom includes a window, keep in mind the room's exposure to the sun. Light from the north and the east is cool, with light rays coming from the blue end of the spectrum. South and west light is warm because the sun's rays come from the red end.

Artificial lighting also affects how colors look. Except for special "full spectrum" lightbulbs that mimic natural light, you can expect that fluorescent light will give a cool blue-green tint, while incandescent light provides a warm yellow-red glow. Whatever the light in your bath, you can cozy up a chilly space with cheerful jonquil yellow paint or tame a high-temperature spot with iced lilac or aqua. Try it!

Color Scheming

To understand color relationships, imagine a color wheel with colors appearing in this order: red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, yellow, yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, blue-violet, violet, red-violet, and back to red. This is the order in which colors appear in a rainbow. Tints of colors are made by adding white (e.g., red-orange plus white gives us coral). Shades of colors are made by adding black (e.g., blue-green plus black creates teal). This information comes in handy when you're trying to create a scheme of colors that look well together.

Start with a color you love, and plan your room using one of the following proven schemes:

  • Monochromatic. This color scheme uses one color, repeated throughout the room in various shades and tints. Many of today's high-end baths use this sophisticated approach with luxurious natural materials and complex, neutral colors ranging from ivory to tan -- a look suitable to either a classical traditional space or a very contemporary one. For a Victorian charmer, a monochromatic scheme might be based on a run of red, from pale cameo pink through rose and deep wine. Monochromatic schemes depend heavily on varying textures and other elements to add interest.
  • Analogous. The easiest schemes to create, analogous schemes use a range of colors that are side by side on the color wheel plus shades and tints of those colors. For example, blue-violet, blue, and blue-green, in tones that range from icy periwinkle to deep teal, make an underwater fantasy bath. Yellow-orange, yellow, and yellow-green, in tones from cantaloupe to honeydew melon, make a cheery and refreshing spot.
  • Complementary. Innately interesting, complementary schemes are based on a pair of colors that lie opposite each other on the color wheel plus tints and shades of these colors. The most appealing schemes tend to use one color in a much lighter version than the other. For example, where a fire engine red and kelly green scheme would be jarring, pale pink plus evergreen is lovely, and a blue-orange color scheme beguiles in royal blue plus peach. The complementary scheme of yellow and violet can be regal in gold and purple or springtime-pretty in jonquil and iris tones.
  • Split complementary. This attractive scheme uses the colors on each side of its opposite. For example, blue-green (perhaps as aqua or teal) plus orange (peach) and red (pink) for tropical flair or yellow plus red-violet (orchid) and blue-violet (periwinkle) for a spring garden look.
  • Double-split complementary. Often seen in designer fabrics (which you can always copy, including the proportions of each color), this sophisticated scheme uses two colors on each side of a color plus the two colors on each side of its complement. For example, if you like red and true blue, shake it up with red-orange and red-violet plus blue-green and blue-violet. Notice we're still using only four colors.
  • Triad. This scheme uses three colors equidistant from each other on the color wheel. For example, red, blue, and yellow make a cheery kid's room or, toned down to wine, navy, and old ivory, an elegant Federal room.


©2007 Jupiterimages Corporation A pure white bath looks clean, airy, and spacious because white or very pale colors reflect light, visually expanding the room. It's especially useful for small-space baths

All of these schemes can be cut with lots of white for a refreshing look or accents of gray or black for drama. Most can also accept neutral tan, brown, and taupe accents, and the green of living plants. Play with color chips to see what looks best to you. Then, pick one color to be the dominant one (usually the lightest color), and use it most liberally. Choose another color to be the secondary color (often a midtone) and one or two other colors as tertiary, accent colors (usually the brightest or darkest tones).

Try to corral bath clutter in all its many colors. Some people even decant shampoos into containers that coordinate with their bathrooms to keep down the "visual chatter." Try it, and you'll find the whole space more visually relaxing.

Texture and Pattern

Everything in your bath has a visible texture as well as a color, so it pays to be aware of it. Because a bath needs to be water-resistant and easy-to-clean, almost all surfaces are hard and smooth: glazed ceramic wall tile, marble or laminate vanity tops, porcelain fixtures, metal fittings, glass, and mirror. To provide a pleasing contrast, consider unglazed or matte-finish tiles for floors (safer, too!) and tumbled marble for walls. Easy ways to add texture to any bath are fluffy towels and cozy rugs secured to the floor with rug pads or nonslip tape.

Texture and its cousin, pattern, may appear together or separately. A vanity cabinet of oak, with its coarse, pronounced grain, introduces more texture and pattern than smooth-grained maple; faux-finished or antiqued cabinets have the same physical texture as those painted a solid color but offer more pattern. Both texture and pattern affect the visual "busy-ness" of a room, and more makes the space look smaller.

Line and Shape

Line and shape occur in the bath as design elements that affect how the room appears. For example, the vertical lines of wall cabinets, windows, the shower stall, and doors can make a room look taller; horizontal lines in the edges of the vanity and tub can make it look broader. Floor tiles contribute to line as well: Tiles laid diagonally make the floor appear larger than those laid parallel to the walls.

The lines on the floor and walls lead the eye to the focal point -- the tub.

The traditional 537 bath with an 8- to 10-foot ceiling is taller than it is broad, so creating an illusion of height is seldom necessary. If you're fortunate enough to have a larger bath, use the same techniques you would for a bedroom or other room to keep height in balance with other dimensions.

Shape is less of a problem in baths than in other rooms. Elsewhere, you'd have to make sure to include a round table or oval-backed chairs to relieve the too-rectangular aspect of windows, doors, and storage furniture. But fortunately for visual appeal (and safety), most bath fixtures have rounded sides that contrast nicely to the squared-off shape of the room. Obviously, the more drawers, divided-light windows, towels, and tiles in the room, the more rectangular and square elements there are. Balance these with cathedral-topped cabinet doors, Palladian windows, round drawer pulls, and other curvy elements.

Space and Form

Space and form are the architect's tools for creating balance in the largest sense of the word. Space, or voids, have a real presence; they are not just the absence of form and are especially important when creating asymmetrical balance. In the bath, you'll immediately sense when space and form are out of whack (e.g., when all fixtures are on one wall with no balancing cabinetry or area of interest on the opposite wall).

Form includes mass as well as shape that you can modify with visual techniques. For instance, a small bath with a conventional shower/tub combo looks even more cramped with a busily patterned, dark-colored shower curtain, no matter how pretty, taking up most of one wall. Replace it with a clear liner or a glass door, and the mass recedes to the far shower wall. By the same token, white cabinets look less massive than cabinets of the same dimension in natural oak.

The odd shape of this bathroom -- the tub is hidden behind a rounded wall -- allows for adequate cabinet and counter space.

Most people feel more comfortable when the largest eye-level masses in a room are not blocking their line of sight into the room. A shower stall or tub set behind the door or on the opposite wall will make a bath look larger than that same form set close to the entryway. A sink, even one in a vanity, is below eye level, so it may work nicely along the right side of a room near the door. Toilets are an exception, although their profile is low. If you'd like the toilet out of sight, screen or enclose it with a full- or half-height partition out of the line of sight of the entryway. It's the mass of the partition, not the toilet, that then determines its placement in the room.

Suppose your budget won't allow moving fixtures to the most visually appropriate walls. Use the visual techniques of color and line to make a mass appear less or more prominent and to achieve balance. As long as you make sure they reflect something attractive, you can use mirrors abundantly in the bath to fool the eye, bring in more light, create a sense of depth, draw attention to a focal point on the opposite wall, and more. Even a modest effort will yield big results!

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Mary Wynn Ryan is the author of numerous interior design books including The Ultimate Kitchen, The Ultimate Bath, Cottage Style, Fresh Country Style and Garden Style. She has written about home furnishings and interior design for various magazines and served as Midwest editor of Design Times magazine. She was also the director of consumer and trade marketing for the Chicago Merchandise Mart's residential design center. She is president of Winning Ways Marketing, an editorial and marketing consulting firm that specializes in home design and decorating.