Bathroom Layout Ideas: A Beginner's Guide to Bathroom Design

By: Mary Wynn Ryan  | 
A bathroom with two sinks, featuring prominent wooden custom cabinetry. 
Custom cabinets and shelving provide for extra storage and an overall clean look.

While not every bath can be the statement-making bath made popular in the ornate 1980s, every bath can benefit from the flow new bathroom layout ideas. Even baths that can't be enlarged are looking and feeling much better these days, thanks to inventive bathroom accessories, attractive personal touches, appealing color schemes, and intelligent design.

Creating a better bath isn't just an indulgence; it's a smart idea. One of the best home improvement investments you can make is adding a second full bath to a one-bath house or remodeling an existing master bathroom.


Even if you don't plan to sell your house soon, a new or remodeled bath can make a huge improvement in your family's quality of life, day in and day out. A new bath can relieve squabbles over morning congestion, and a remodeled one can add a whole new dimension of comfort.

Even a relatively simple replacement or redecoration project can add valuable safety measures and refresh your spirits. Start thinking now about what would make a real difference to your quality of life.

Personalizing Your Bathroom Design

So you've decided to design your bathroom? Aside from painting it your favorite shade of blue, you should know how configure the bathroom space as well. Jump into the world of bathroom remodeling, and get tips on how to personalize your bathroom design.

New Construction vs. Remodeling Your Bathroom

How you design a bathroom is intricately tied to and influences by whether you're starting from scratch with a newly constructed bathroom or remodeling an existing one. Learn more about the differences and how to deal with them.

How to Design a Bathroom on a Budget

When designing a bathroom, sit down and make a list of those things you must have, those things that would be nice to have, and those things you don't need. Check out more tips on how to design a bathroom on a budget.

Hiring Bathroom Remodeling Professionals

Because hiring labor to remodel a bathroom is probably the most costly part of renovation, it makes sense to learn how to negotiate for prices and explain your expectations. Read this article to get tips on hiring contractors.

Preparing for a Bathroom Remodeling Project

Before you begin remodeling a bathroom, it's best to sit down and plan out the entire design project from start to finish. Find out what steps you should take before you begin renovating your bathroom.

Bathroom Design Ideas

Can't decide on one style to decorate your bathroom? Read this article and start getting ideas that you'll love.

Master Bath, Family Bath, and Kids' Bath Design

A bathroom that all family members use will certainly feature different fixtures than those in a master bath. Learn how to design a bathroom that's functional yet fun.

Specialty Bathrooms

Specialty bathrooms aren't just for the rich and famous. These bathrooms can be immensely functional, too. Learn more about specialty bathrooms, and discover whether one is right for you.

Bathroom Layout Imperatives

Are you living in a narrow condo that's wider than it is long? Do you plan to annex space from a closet or another room to add square footage to a bathroom? Check out a variety of layouts that accommodate a narrow bathroom space.

Bathroom Lighting and Ventilation

No bathroom is complete without adequate lighting and ventilation. Learn more about how windows and other sources of light and ventilation add to the design of a bathroom.

Intriguing Bathroom Decor

Making one feature the focal point of the bathroom requires a balancing other fixtures as well. Find out how to create a harmonious bathroom.

Using Color, Texture, and Space in the Bathroom

Certain colors, and in specific combinations, can make a bathroom appear larger than it really is. Texture and lines can also influence the design of a bathroom. Learn how to use color, texture, and space in your bathroom.

To find a personal style that suits you, continue reading — the next article describes ways to decorate a bathroom as you like it.

To learn more about decorating or remodeling your bathroom, visit:


Personalizing Your Bathroom Design

A bathroom with baby blue walls, two matching sinks and a pedestal tub. 
This modern bathroom, with its clean lines and oversized pedestal tub, gives the impression of light and air.


Personalizing your primary bathroom involves consideration of size, configuration, and style. The examples of bathrooms in this article are only a starting point for your own planning.


Before you plunge into your project, think carefully about what you like and dislike about your present bathroom.

Do you need more wall space in the master bath or just a savvier bathroom floor plan that allows more than one person share the room more comfortably? Is there enough counterspace and storage space? Are you tired of the outdated color scheme you've lived with since you moved in? Do you want all new fixtures or just a whirlpool in place of your old tub? Do you crave a bath you don't have to share with the kids or long for a drop-dead powder room or guest bath?

Sit down with family members, and get specific about what current problems you want the new bathroom to solve. Even young children can have good insights, and the more involved everyone is, the more they'll buy into the process.

A modern bathroom with marble surfaces, gold finishings, and two countertops. 
The sinks and countertops on different walls allow for two people to use the bathroom without bumping into each other.

Once you have an idea of what you want to change, start identifying solutions that appeal to you. Look through home design and decorating books and magazines, and tag or photocopy pages showing bathroom designs and products you like.

Then start a scrapbook of ideas, photos, and product catalogs that will help the professionals you hire understand your tastes and needs. You can also gather ideas by visiting the many websites that offer bath design products or by spending some time "just looking" in the local bath design center or department of your nearby home improvement store.

Unless you're planning the very simplest redecoration, you'll want to talk to bath design professionals about what you need and want.­ When interviewing them, be prepared to answer a lot of questions about how you and your family live and how you'll use the space.

Use your scrapbook to identify for the professional what styles you like: You'd be surprised by what "traditional" means to different people!

The more carefully you've done your homework, the more it will pay off when you actually sit down to discuss your needs with a bath specialist. Keep an open mind if your answers lead the designer to suggest something unexpected. It may be the perfect solution for you, your family, and your home.

If you're building a new home, you may want to consider designing a bathroom differently than you would if you're remodeling an existing bathroom. On the next page, find out more about how these two bathroom designs differ.

To learn more about decorating or remodeling your bathroom, visit:


New Construction vs. Remodeling Your Bathroom

A luxurious bathroom with white stone countertops, a whirlpool tub, and a corner shower. 
This bright bathroom features double sinks, a separate shower and whirlpool tub, and vanity lighting.
A modern bathroom featuring a large window that's flooding the room with natural light. 
Natural light from a large window brightens this sleek bathroom with modern cabinets and chrome fixtures.


Bath design and construction come under five major categories. In pursuit of the ultimate bath, find the one that's right for you.


New Construction

New construction refers to work done on a house that's being entirely built from the ground up. If you're building from scratch, you've got the most leeway in creating the bath size, location, and configuration you want. With new construction, it's easy to fit a master bath within your master bedroom suite and a bath between or near your children's bedrooms.

You can specify a half bath or a powder room near the dining room, living room, or family room — whatever seems best to you. And if you want another walk in shower in your home office or guest suite, above the garage in the bonus room, or downstairs in the rec room, you can have that, too.

Of course, your overall house and lot size will affect the size and number of bathrooms you can fit in, and your budget for baths is just one part of your home-building dollars. But in new construction, you can trade off square feet and dollars between the bathrooms and other spaces for maximum flexibility.


Remodeling involves major changes that may take your bathroom in a whole new direction. Remodeling is what you're up to if you need to change the whole "footprint" (i.e., configuration and size) of your bathroom to add space or to reshape the room for better access.

This often involves relocating (not just replacing) fixtures and their accompanying water supply and drain/waste/vent pipes, moving doors and windows, and maybe even taking space from nearby closets or small bedrooms.

While your existing home's size and layout will affect how radically you can change your bathrooms, you can make surprisingly big changes. Remodeling doesn't have to depend on what your old bathroom looked like, only on what your needs and wishes are and what your budget dictates.

If you need help with more than one bathroom, you may want to plan them as one project. At the same time you create a sumptuous private bath for you and your spouse, you may be able to add a roomy, guest bathroom down the hall. If you love your property and your neighborhood, remodeling can let you love your bathrooms, too!

A small bathroom with a clawfoot tub and a cozy ambience. 
This vintage country bathroom enjoys a feminine touch with flowered wallpaper, pink rugs and lace curtains.

Renovation involves a complete redesign of bathroom floor plans. Renovation is appropriate if your home's "bones" are good and if you like its style in general, but yearn for more open floor space.

If your home is historically significant, you may be required to handle any upgrades with great respect for the existing style and structure.

Since bathrooms have changed much more radically over the past century than, say, bedrooms, renovation's challenge is to preserve the best of the past while giving you comfortable, workable baths for today's lifestyle.

Bathrooms have always been pretty skimpy affairs. However, many pre-World War II houses have an abundance of little bedrooms, and annexing one could give you the space you need. There's also an abundant supply of vintage-looking fixtures and fittings to give your bath nostalgic style with modern performance.


Replacement, or "changeout," means taking out one or more of your old fixtures and installing new ones in exactly the same places.

Since most of the typical bath is taken up by fixtures, replacing dated pieces will make a dramatic improvement in your bath's look and function.

Replacing fixtures will naturally give you a more attractive, better-performing bath, but it won't address big problems, such as lack of floor space or storage, inconvenient access, or a poor location within the house.

Keep in mind that, depending on how much your new fixtures' profiles differ from the old ones, you may have to repair or replace wallcoverings, tile, flooring, and molding in surrounding areas.

­For this reason, many people plan a replacement and redecoration project together. On the plus side, if you plan a simple replacement of fixtures, you may not need a building permit and can probably find a competent handyperson to take care of the job.

Obviously, swapping an old wall-hung toilet for a new one is going to be a lot easier and less messy than replacing an old built-in bathtub with a new clawfoot tub, so be sure to match the scope of the job with the skill and experience of the worker.

And don't forget that replacement can mean leaving the old tiled-in sink and tub intact but putting in beautiful new fittings (e.g., faucets, pop-up drains, etc.) or trading tacky old light fixtures for attractive new ones. These small improvements can make a big difference!


Redecoration involves sprucing up without all the tearing down. It's cheaper and easier than remodeling or renovation, but depending on what you have done, it can cost a lot less than, or as much as, replacing all the fixtures. If your bathroom basically suits you as it is, but you'd like a fresher, more fashionable appearance, redecoration may be just what you need.

Designer showhouses sponsored by local charities are especially good places to see bath redecorations, as designers seldom spring for new fixtures or wall and floor surfaces. Instead, they splurge on inventive or glorious wallcoverings or faux-finish paint jobs; exciting window treatments, shower curtains, and towels; and fresh accessories that carry the room's decorating theme.

If you're tired of your tile walls, laminate vanity top, or knotty pine sink cabinet, your hardware store has special products that you can use to repaint them to coordinate with your newly painted or papered upper walls. You can even refinish your old bathtub with hardware store products that are similar to nail polish.

Meticulous preparation of these surfaces is critical, but these treatments are an economical way to improve the look of your bath, fast.

Whatever you choose, be sure your expectations are in line with what's possible, given the scope of the work and your budget. Veteran homeowners who've been through any of these productions agree: Even the ultimate bath is only a small part of your life, so keep things in perspective.

Like most people, you probably can't spend endless amounts of money on a new bathroom. On the next page, learn how best to design a bathroom on a budget.

To learn more about decorating or remodeling your bathroom, visit:


How to Design a Bathroom on a Budget

A professional designed bathroom with neutral colors and muted accents. 
The neutral colors of the walls, counters, and cabinets appeal to most buyers, making this bathroom good for resale.

Inch for inch, the bathroom is the most expensive room in the house to remodel, largely because of the variety of skilled labor required from plumbing and electrical contractors, carpenters, and other experts.

Materials, too, take their toll in cost. So, heed some advice from the experts and from families who've done the job already: Take your time at the beginning to make sure each decision reflects your tastes and meets your needs.


You don't want your bathroom project to be a financial burden, so make sure you really need the high-end solution in each case, and plan as much as possible in advance to avoid costly changes in the middle of the project.

To ensure you won't lop off something essential when you fall in love with a "nice-to-have" item in the showrooms, make a list of everything you'd love to have in your new bath.

Now, divide this list into A) things you really need and B) things you want but could live without for now. As you shop and plan, make a note of the nice-to-have items you find, but don't commit to them until you've finalized the essentials and added up the costs.

Try to anticipate what features can easily be added and what can't. One good example: You'll want to install reinforcements for a grab bar before you tile the walls, even if you don't need the bar now, but you can decide to add a towel ring at any time, since it doesn't need reinforcement.

In general, it's wise to get the floor plan and any back-of-the-wall structural needs accounted for first. You can get a faux-marble laminate or a cultured marble vanity countertop now and replace it with a genuine marble slab later, but if the sink's in the wrong place, you still won't be happy.

What makes up the costs of a new bathroom? Most costs fall under the broad heading of time (actual person-hours, or labor) and materials, sometimes abbreviated on proposals as "T&M." You can save money on both.

Save Money on Labor

In construction, time is expressed as hourly rates paid to various workers on your project. Invest your time instead of theirs, and you'll save big.

Most homeowners find it's best to do their part before and after the workers do theirs, instead of trying to work at the same time. For example, you could steam off wallpaper, pull up old flooring, and remove old fixtures before the workers arrive.

But use common sense: Be sure you know how and where to shut off water pipes before pulling out fixtures, and find out where wiring and pipes are located before you tear out walls.

Steer clear of removing old insulation that may contain asbestos or old paint that may contain lead. And if your home has historical significance, get guidance from an expert before tackling anything. You don't want to disturb something of value.

Before you start the project, discuss with your contractor what you're willing to tackle, and work out specifically what you'll do and what they'll do. Then, get that agreement into the written contract, and make sure they deduct the cost of your work from their bid.

When it's time to put on the finishing touches, you can paint the walls, screw on switchplates, replace the glass shower door, and, yes, pick up the debris rather than paying someone else to do it. The money you save on labor can pay for some of those luxurious material upgrades you crave!

Save Money on Materials

Of course you'd love a marble vanity countertop; state-of-the-art imported fixtures; hand-painted wall and floor tiles; and custom vanity and storage cabinets in high-end, furniture-grade woods. If, like most of us, you can't afford them all, choose the ones that matter most to you — and find artful substitutes for the rest. A few examples:

  • High-end fixtures and fittings. You can't turn a standard tub into a whirlpool for four or make a gravity-assist toilet work like a pressure-assist model, but you can find fixtures that mimic the look of costlier designs. Traditionally styled fixtures and fittings are widely available at all price points, so look carefully at the high-priced models, and then seek out the more affordable looks in the same general style. Contemporary innovations, such as one-piece elongated-bowl toilets, are harder to replicate at modest prices, but you can skimp elsewhere if you can't do without them.
  • Marble vanity countertops. Marble slabs are the top-of-the-line choice, but as with diamonds, it's finding one large, intact piece that's so costly. You can get the same look for less if you opt for large marble tiles set flush to each other. For even less, you can choose "cultured" marble, which is marble dust bonded into a solid slab, or, for still less, select a laminate countertop with a faux-marble pattern.
  • Handmade, custom-colored, imported ceramic wall tiles. If they're too costly to use throughout, use them as "bath jewelry" in tile borders and accents. Choose a compatible plain tile for most of the installation, and save the custom pieces for eye-level areas such as the backsplash or a border around a window.
  • Luxury flooring. Marble flooring may be out of reach, but ceramic tiles with a faux-marble look or handsome vinyl flooring are good-looking, affordable alternatives.
  • Custom cabinetry. Many vanity and storage cabinets come in such a wide array of stock sizes and shapes that they assure a virtually custom fit, so use stock cabinets wherever you can. If your budget says pine or oak but your heart says cherry or maple, you may prefer to paint rather than stain your cabinets to disguise the more prominent grains of the lower-cost woods. To create a custom look, replace ho-hum hardware with novelty cabinet door pulls such as pewter fish, whitewashed or verdigris brass shells, or flower-painted porcelain.
  • Fancy faux finishes. Bathrooms are a great place to indulge your desire for a hand-painted tromp l'oeil garden scene or a beautiful ragged or marbled faux finish, but the cost can be high for a professional artist's time. Look into do-it-yourself stenciling and faux-finish kits available in most craft, hobby, and paint stores, or see if your local school's art department boasts any great student portfolios. Another option is wallcovering that gives the look for less.

Bottom line: Whatever the look you like, you can probably find similar looks within your budget. When in doubt, remember that the rich look is to spend on function and keep style beautifully simple.

Planning for Resale Value

You want your new bath to meet your needs and reflect your tastes — right up until the day you want to put your house on the market. That's when you'll be glad if you kept an eye on what the average home buyer in your price range is looking for.

A consumer-pleasing bathroom is one of the top home-selling elements, but even an opulent, custom bath can detract if it's too individualistic. Appropriate upgrades can return as much as 70 to 90 percent or more of their cost to you at resale time, making it much easier to get your asking price on the home. When making decisions about materials, keep these tips in mind:

  • Upgrades to better-performing basic fixtures or windows, for example, almost always add to both the sales appeal and the value of your home. Plain stock ceramic tile will hold its beauty and its value longer than laminate for about the same price, and a simple porcelain sink bowl has more timeless appeal than its cultured marble cousin in the same price range.
  • Don't go beyond what's typical for new or improved baths in your home's price range. Experts advise not to spend more than 10 percent, tops, of your home's current market value on a bath improvement. A palatial bath in a cute little house will make your home less, not more, desirable. You'd be much better off putting in a second full bath if you don't have one or adding a powder room or half bath if you do.
  • When it comes to flooring, countertops, and other installed products that are available in many colors and patterns, think twice before making a strong fashion statement with these areas. You don't want to date your bathroom or turn off your best home-buying prospects in a few years.
  • Keep it simple when it comes to sinks, faucets, and other fixtures and fittings. If you're tired of shiny chrome, look for brushed pewter or chrome and brass, but keep the style free of curlicues or other design elements that can be dated-looking or hard to clean.
  • Choose neutral colors for installed products, especially if they are not luxury-grade. Midtone neutrals show wear the least; light-colored neutrals give a spacious, bright feeling. Be a bit careful of black, chocolate, or other dark colors: They disguise grime just fine but show soap scum, hard-water stains, and some marring worse than lighter tones.
  • Do you crave an adventurous scheme? Indulge your love of bright colors or patterns in wallcoverings (paint plus borders are easiest to change), towels, soap dishes, guest soaps, nonslip rugs, and accessories. Wine and hunter green against bone is a whole different look than peach and turquoise blue against bone!
What If You're Not Moving?

Do you have young children or grandchildren? Want to stay in your home as long as possible as you age? Do you have any kind of physical limitation? "Universal design" is something you definitely want to consider for your new bath. It goes way beyond designing walkways to accommodate wheelchairs.

A bathroom that uses bright shades of blue and green to lighten up the space. 
The light teal walls brighten up an otherwise stark bathroom.

Universal design creates a space that works for every family member at every stage of life. Something as simple as bordering a counter in contrasting color tiles to make the edge more visible, increasing aisle width from 36 to 40 inches, or specifying no-scald faucets and wing-style faucet handles that don't require wrist-twisting, can make a significant difference in your bath's long-term usefulness.

If a family member has allergies or you want to be particularly rigorous about ecological issues, you can even specify products made with special hypoallergenic finishes and glues. If your floor plan allows, you may want to consider converting a first-floor powder room into a universally accessible full bath now.

Let's Go Shopping!

Before you hire the pros, spend some time looking at bath design solutions and products on the Web, in your local home improvement store's bath center, and in home decorating and remodeling books and magazines.

You want to get an idea of what's available and what everything will cost, especially if you've never bought bath fixtures or haven't done so for many years. Educate yourself ahead of time, and you'll avoid "sticker shock," enjoy a better relationship with your bath professionals, and have a greater chance of getting exactly what you want.

Hiring labor to design and renovate your bathroom is one of the most expensive propositions you face. On the next page, learn the tricks to hiring bathroom professionals.­

To learn more about decorating or remodeling your bathroom, visit:


Hiring Bathroom Remodeling Professionals

A bathroom designed with checkers and funky colors giving it a unique personality. 
This funky bathroom incorporates color only in the fixtures.

Expensive materials and high-end fixtures won't mean anything if the bath doesn't function comfortably and safely. Even if you're just replacing old fixtures with new ones in the same place, you want installers who demonstrate that they are very familiar with building codes and the plumbing, wiring, and structural aspects of the job.

Mistakes in this room can be costly or even deadly, especially with the combination of electricity and water. Moving a waste stack or a load-bearing wall is nothing to fool around with, either, so choose your bath designer and installer wisely.


You have a number of options when it comes to selecting the professional who will create your new bath, including an architect, an interior designer, or a building/remodeling contractor.

If your bath is part of a whole new house or a major remodeling, all of these experts may be involved.

These pros buy fixtures and other materials from a variety of sources at wholesale and charge you the retail markup, usually in addition to a professional fee for the overall planning and supervision of the work.

Hiring licensed professionals is important: If they don't apply for permits or don't do the work according to code, an inspection by building code officials could be a bad experience for you. If inspectors can't check your wiring and plumbing, you'll be compelled to tear out new drywall and fixtures so they can.

Any violations will be your problem and your cost, and if anyone is injured on your premises later due to noncode installations, you'll be in trouble again.

For this reason, experts advise that your contract specify that the hired professional apply for the contract in his or her name, not yours. That way, the contractor is responsible for making sure all work is done to code. Even if you're planning to do much of the work yourself, apply for all required permits, make sure you and everyone else's work meets code, and cooperate with inspections at each stage. They exist for your protection.

For any structural work, you'll need a licensed architect or designer/builder as well as licensed contractors and skilled tradespeople. You can also work directly with a bath dealer who's most often a kitchen dealer, too.

Whether this dealer is a high-end specialist or from the kitchen and bath department of your local hardware megastore, the dealer sells fixtures from his or her own showroom as well as installs them.

In this case, design services to actually plan your bathroom may either be handled as a separate professional fee or built into the price of the products used in your bath. Think twice about using dealers who advertise "free design services": If it's true, they may not be around long, or the quality may not be what you expect. If the design service price is actually built into the price of the products they install for you, you'd rather know that up front, too.

Some bath designers are specialists but not dealers. These independent designers can spec (short for "specify," or select on your behalf) products from many sources, but they do specialize in bath design (and often kitchen design as well), offering their design services for a fee or a fee plus a markup.

They may be interior designers who have decided to specialize in kitchen and bath work or dealers who no longer want to run a product showroom. Follow the same procedures as above before making your decision: See photos, get explanations, and talk to references.

Some bath designers have been qualified, through education, professional experience, and testing, as Certified Bath Designers, identifiable by the "CBD" designation after their names. (There is also an equivalent "CKD" — Certified Kitchen Designer — designation that may be earned, and many bath designers hold both.)

A bath specialist who is a CBD is thoroughly versed in the "back-of-the-wall" aspects of design — electrical, plumbing, mechanical, and building, among others, as well as design principles, drawing techniques, construction estimating, and more.

Some designers charge a fee plus a markup on products they specify; others take only a consulting fee. Most design providers will ask for a retainer (i.e., a percentage of the projected design cost) in advance.

Whomever you choose, he or she may provide only the design plus consultations with you and your tradespeople. Or they may oversee the contractors who, in turn, will supervise subcontractors such as the tile-setter, plumber, and electrician.

Can you just buy the design and act as your own general contractor? You won't need to with a bath dealer: He or she will provide a complete package, from design through installation. In this case, you'll probably pay a flat fee or a percentage of the total project that covers everything. If you choose an independent designer for the greater range of product choices, you'll pay an hourly rate or a flat fee for the design.

The designer will place orders on products for you (especially important if you want to buy through a to-the-trade design center) to ensure that everything is acquired in the correct size and style. The bill may come to the designer or directly to you, depending on the arrangements made. You can then choose to take the implementation to a contractor or act as your own general contractor.

If you want to act as your own contractor, do some studying on what's involved. You'll need to be aware of local building codes and legal language to ensure that your contracts hold the subcontractors to working within the rules.

You'll also need to know how to apply for building permits and plan for inspections by building code officials as well as at least understand the basics of each function, so you'll know if a job is going seriously awry. Be patient, and keep in mind that building code enforcement is for your protection against unscrupulous or shoddy work.

Whomever you hire, you'll rely on their expertise to guide you through technical issues, and you'll count on their integrity in working within your budget. What's more, your experts and their crews will be in your home and around your family for the life of the project. So make sure they really deserve your trust!

Before you begin tearing down walls and fixtures, there are some steps you should take first to prepare for the changes that renovation bring. On the next page, learn how best to prepare for remodeling a bathroom.

To learn more about decorating or remodeling your bathroom, visit:


Preparing for a Bathroom Remodeling Project

An elegant bathroom featuring gold accents, a large soaking tub, and custom windows. 
Muted elegance is on display in this bathroom in its window treatments, cabinet design, and grand soaking tub.

Preparing for a bathroom remodeling project involves more than just choosing fixtures and selecting paint. Check with the attorney general's office in your state and with your local Better Business Bureau to be sure there are no unresolved complaints against the professional you're considering.

For contractors, ask to see property damage, liability, and workers' compensation insurance. Don't just take their word for it. Tell them your lawyer insists you see each individual policy and note the policy number; dates the policy is in effect; and the name, address, and phone number of each company providing coverage.


Before work starts, call to be sure policies are still in force. If building permits are needed, make sure they're made out in the contractor's name, not yours.

Liking the professional you choose is important, because they'll be around your home and family for awhile. But before you sign on the dotted line, be sure to ask for photos of a number of bathroom designs they've executed, and ask them to explain the "before" situation — what client problems, both design and technical, they were required to solve.

Also, be sure to ask for at least three or four references from clients for whom they've done bathrooms, specifically. Don't rely on how handsome the exterior of a house looks, how stunning a living room decor is, or how nice a new sunroom addition turned out. You want to see bathrooms and talk to their owners!

When you check references, ask if their projects were completed on schedule, if the pro was responsive to their calls, and if he or she kept them informed about the progress of the projects.

Finally, make sure the professional gives you a quote that fully describes the work, the specific products to be used (by brand name, type, model number, color, size, etc.), the costs, the starting and completion dates (plus conditions of, and penalties for, nonperformance), and the terms of payment.

If it's a $1,500 job, you won't need a full-blown contract as you would for a job worth $15,000, but be sure the basics are covered in writing. It's your home and your money.

These homeowners clearly had a specific goal in mind for this remodeling job: more storage! The result is an ultramodern bath with cabinets built right up to the ceiling to make use of every square inch of space.

Surviving Your Bath Remodeling

If you're remodeling your only bath, the situation is much more challenging than if you're adding or expanding a second bath or simply redecorating or replacing fixtures.

Losing your one bath, even for a few days, is tough, so if you're planning a second bath somewhere down the road, it may be worthwhile for you to switch projects and install the second bath before disabling the first (and only) one.

Installers can sometimes work around the problem, keeping fixtures useable during at least part of the project, but a better alternative, depending on your situation, may be to rent a portable toilet booth like the kind used on construction sites and wash in the kitchen sink. Another option is to live somewhere else for the critical period of the project when fixtures are out of commission.

As for delays, you can ask that the contract include a penalty clause that reduces your fee if the job is delayed for reasons that are not acts of God. However, the contractor may then want the contract to include a bonus if they bring the work in ahead of schedule. Both of these clauses are common in commercial, but not residential, work.

Most contractors will try to give you an honest ballpark estimate of when they can start the work and when they expect to complete it, but problems on jobs that precede yours and problems they discover during your project can easily delay starting or finishing your project.

Plan a solid cushion — say a month — for Murphy's Law to take effect, and don't schedule your job so that the work is supposed to be done two days before your daughter's at-home wedding.

Well before the crews arrive, brief your family thoroughly, and get answers to any questions they may have. Make sure the contractor has scheduled a dumpster and knows where it's to be installed on your property. When the dumpster arrives, finish any demising work you've agreed to do, and clean up the space. The day before, clear out the bathroom, and put drop cloths over furniture and floors in the hall and nearby rooms to protect them from dust, which can be considerable.

Double-check with the contractor that, when the crews arrive, they'll be affixing sheets of clear plastic like curtains over doorways to contain the dust and debris and that they'll be removing the debris to the dumpster at the end of each day. (Your contract should specify that the work area will be left "broom clean" each night.)

When the crews arrive, show them how and where to shut off and turn on the water. Then, stay out of the way except to answer questions and keep a general eye on things.

At the conclusion of the job, your contractor will accompany you through the project with a punch list to make sure every detail has been taken care of as agreed. Reputable professionals will be interested in making sure you're happy to sign off on the job and make that final payment. After all, they want you to provide that rave review for their next prospective customer!

So you've decided to remodel your bathroom, and you know how to hire bathroom remodeling professionals. Now comes the fun part! On the next page, check out some bathroom design ideas.

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Bathroom Design Ideas

A cozy bathroom that uses windows and mirrors to brighten up the space. 
The mirror placed directly in front of the window allows for the use of natural light during make-up application

­You're eager to start choosing your beautiful new fixtures, fittings, tiles, and more. But wait: Avoid the patchwork approach. You can stuff a poor clothing purchase into the back of your closet and throw a cover over the wrong sofa, but installed product is a lot harder to disguise.

­So, take a little time to learn about basic bathroom layouts, including plumbing and mechanical considerations that may affect your choices — and their costs. Then, reward yourself for your diligence by dipping into the basics of decorating success: how to use the toolbox of color, line, and shape to create a place that looks as good as it feels.


What kind of bath are you remodeling? This will affect your design ideas. On the next page, learn more about how to remodel master baths, family baths, and kids' baths.

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Master Bath, Family Bath, and Kids' Bath Design

A small bathroom that uses vertical designs and high shelves to simulate more space. 
To create the appearance of more space and height, this master bath employs vertical lines echoed in the tile and wall covering.

How your new master bath, family bath or kids' bath will look is partly determined by the room's size and shape, but just as important is who will use it and what functions it will need to handle, so it's important to develop a smart design.

Master Bath

Located within the master bedroom (making it a suite) or adjacent to it, the master bath is usually the largest bath in the house. Designed for two, it may feature an extra-long vanity counter, a vanity with two sinks, or even two separate vanity sinks. In some baths, separate vanity sinks are located back-to-back in the center of the room or back-to-back on opposite walls, rather than side by side. Depending on the size of the room, you can use innovative floor plans to create a dramatic effect.


The master bathroom can include both a shower and a separate soaking tub, a whirlpool bath, a bidet, adjacent walk-in closets, an exercise area, a separate or semienclosed toilet compartment, full-length dressing mirrors, brass or gold-plated fittings, and other luxurious appointments. It's a spa built for two!

Family Bath

A bath shared by all family members is most often used by only one person at a time, except in the case of very young children. Usually, the family bath is located near the bedrooms; in a two-story house, there may be a full bath with a shower/tub upstairs and a powder room (sink and toilet only) or a half bath (sink, toilet, and stall shower; no tub) on the first floor.

Either way, the family bath gets a lot of use and wear. Surfaces need to be easy-to-clean and durable for kids' sake yet meet at least some of the adults' desire for an attractive space.

A good-size vanity helps, with a single sink (or better yet, a double sink for those rush times when several family members must wash up together) and plenty of storage cabinets above and below. Storage shared by kids and teens should be closed to keep clutter out of sight, and each family member should have at least one shelf of his or her own behind closed doors.

While a clear shower curtain or door will make the space look bigger, you may prefer an attractive opaque shower curtain for privacy. If space permits, you'll gain even more privacy with the toilet in its own compartment, ideally with a second entry door from the common hallway. If that's not feasible, locate the toilet away from the door, and screen it with a half-high partition.

Hang a towel ring or bar at the right level for each family member plus hooks for robes. As an antidote to the natural uproar, choose a soothing color scheme that will appeal to both sexes and will allow you to color-code towels for each family member without clashing.

Add an attractive little alarm clock to this bath's accessories as a gentle reminder to share. These little touches not only make for a personality-filled bath, but they can also help keep the peace!

Kids' Bath

When creating a bathroom for children and teenagers, you'll want to be especially attentive to issues of territory and safety. Here's where universal-access principles really come in handy, helping to create a space that will work well for users of all ages.

For starters, use a double vanity, if possible, or at least a large one. If space permits, install a separate stall shower and tub rather than the shower/tub combo, which is not as safe. And specify a showerhead that slides up and down on a pole; they're great for kids of any height and a boon to wheelchair users of any age.

To prevent squabbling, make sure each child has room for his or her own towels, robe, and personal care items, and color-code towels, storage bins, etc., to minimize mix-ups. If the bath is being shared by children of both sexes, choose a color scheme that appeals to both: blue and coral, for example, or green and yellow. Lighthearted tones in geometric stripes and plaids are fresh yet timeless.

Employ tile, scrubbable vinyl wallcovering, or enamel paint all the way up walls wherever possible. If children are of widely different ages, install a full-length (safety glass) mirror that all can use and towel hooks or bars at appropriate heights. Be sure to also put the light switch near the door low enough for younger users to reach.

Safety tips for kids' baths really apply to any bath. Insist on slip-resistant flooring, and make sure front corners on vanity countertops and cabinets are rounded. Ask for a slip-resistant tub floor if you must use a shower/tub combination.

Use safety glass mirrors and safety glass on shower doors, and make sure all electrical outlets are grounded and located away from the sink or tub. It's a good idea to install grab bars (they require support behind the walls) to discourage youngsters from treating towel bars as grab bars.

Get an antiscald faucet that lets you preset water temperature limits (usually 120 degrees Fahrenheit) in a child's bath, and make sure the showerhead has a pressure-balancing valve that compensates for changes in water pressure and temperature.

A sudden surge of hot water can do real damage with frightening speed, especially to children, who have thinner skin than adults do. It takes just three seconds of exposure to water at 140 degrees Fahrenheit for a young child to sustain a painful third-degree burn requiring a hospital visit!

Next to injury from burns and falling, poisoning and drowning are the most common hazards to children in the bath. For a few dollars, install safety latches on lower cabinets and on the toilet lid, and insist that teens be totally vigilant about keeping their personal care items stashed in upper cabinets.

Powder Room/Half Bath

The powder room (sink and toilet only) or the half bath (sink, toilet, and shower stall; no tub) is a versatile addition to any home. Tucked into the basement, it makes a family room or recreation room more comfortable. Next to the den or home office, a half bath becomes part of a guest suite. Near the dining room, it's convenient for dinner guests (but make sure the bath accesses from the hall, not directly from the dining room itself).

Often dubbed the "guest bath," this usually diminutive room can be decorated as creatively as you wish, depending on where it's located. Off the dining room, elegant touches include an ornate gilt mirror, high-end wallcovering or faux-finished wall treatments, gold or brass fittings, and embellished fingertip towels.

In the basement, whimsical wall treatments and accessories can evoke a woodsy fishing cabin, breezy beach cabana, or other romanticized locale. Near the den, a half bath gains suite success when it's decorated in a similar style, whether garden-fresh or crisply tailored.

In any powder room or half bath, you'll probably want to save space with a good-looking pedestal sink and stash spare bathroom supplies in a separate, covered basket or box. You'll also want to expand space visually with large areas of mirror.

Master baths and powder rooms are standard fare in any home. But have you ever considered a bathroom joined to your exercise room or a bathroom attached to the laundry room? On the next page, check out an array of specialty bathrooms.

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Specialty Bathrooms

A spacious bathroom with a separate vanity table and a large soaker tub. 
This luxurious master bath is constructed with a separate vanity table and sink.

In addition to more baths, today's homes often sport more specialized baths than in the past. Easiest to create in newly constructed homes or additions, specialty baths can also be carved out of unused guest bedrooms, hallways, the space over the garage, or other existing areas. Here are a few of the most-wanted specialty baths.

Master Suite

While many homes can accommodate a master bath adjacent to the master bedroom, a master suite has the bathroom actually incorporated into a section of the overall bedroom area, both enclosed behind a door that leads to the common hallway.


Large or small, a master suite looks especially spacious and elegant when both the bedroom and the bathroom share a design scheme.

Although the bedroom is largely soft furnishings and the bathroom is mostly hard-surface installed fixtures, you can incorporate the same motifs (neoclassical, English country, Early American, soft contemporary, etc.) in both, using the same color scheme.

You may elect to alter the proportions of each color to create variations on a theme. For example, an opulent European-inspired bedroom in wine with accents of hunter green, gold, and ivory may lead nicely into a master bath with hunter green fixtures, brass-gold fittings, and ivory ceramic tiles, sparked with towels and accessories in wine.

When designing the suite, you may want to avoid putting fixtures on the wall shared with the bedroom to minimize noise from a pressure-assist toilet, shower, and so on. You can further buffer sound by putting bath cabinets and bedroom closets on opposite sides of a shared wall, with the bed on the far wall.

If possible, locate the bath on an outside wall to make a window possible, and make sure the walkway between the bedroom and the bath is easily accessible, wide enough, and free of obstructions, to be safe for users in the dark or when ill.

Private Toilet Compartment

With both halves of a couple rushing to get ready for work at the same time these days, a shared bathroom is under more demands. Even the closest pair often prefer a private toilet compartment, and bigger baths are beginning to reflect this desire.

Where your waste stack is (or can be) located will have a lot to do with where the toilet is located. If it's on a far wall and in a corner, a separate compartment is feasible. The compartment wall will run the full height of the room and should extend at least 3 feet in front of the toilet and a foot on each side; wider for universal accessibility.

The compartment should be equipped with an easily accessible artificial light source plus a skylight or small window if at all possible. If there's no operable window, be sure to install an exhaust fan to keep the space fresh. You'll also want to make sure that there's enough space for a hanging cabinet above the toilet tank to house commonly needed supplies and that there's room for a small wastebasket on the floor.

A pocket door makes privacy easier without sacrificing precious floor space.

If a totally private compartment isn't possible, look into designs that include a half-high partition that can be tiled the same as adjoining walls or a tall, hinged screen covered in fabric that coordinates with your room scheme. If the toilet is located in or near a corner, these solutions may be an acceptable compromise.

Exercise Room

You're going to jump into the shower right after you exercise anyway, right? So why not bring the exercise equipment to the bath area? That's the philosophy behind today's new exercise room baths.

If your space is big enough, it may be right for you. Plan to put all bathroom fixtures on perimeter walls, and offset the door to allow space for one or two pieces of exercise equipment in the free area. Make sure you're not blocking the door or access to bathroom fixtures: Measure the space required for normal use of all equipment, and give them plenty of berth. Specify nonslip floor tiles to guard against slipping due to perspiration and bathing, and plan systems for ample ventilation, too.

A small bathroom with green tiles and a walk-in shower. 
This half bath includes only the bare necessities perfect for showering quickly after exercising.
Laundry Room

While many laundry appliances have come out of the basement and up to the mud room or kitchen, others are being located near where dirty clothes first accumulate: the bedroom or bathroom. If you and your mate are alone in the house, you may want to put the laundry equipment in your master suite; if you share the house with children, you may prefer to house it in the kids' bathroom or a nearby guest bath.

A combination bathroom featuring a toilet and a clothes washing machine. 
A combination bathroom and laundry room is extremely functional and conserves space.

Laundry appliances can tie into the same water supplies as the bathrooms, and preferred flooring — nonporous, nonslip tile — can be extended for both to create a neater look. If space is scanty, you may opt for a stacked washer/dryer unit, although these handle smaller loads than a typical family creates.

Allow for plenty of overhead storage, preferably enclosed, for laundry supplies as well as hampers or other storage for sorting clothes. A pocket or folding door easily conceals the whole works from the rest of the bath, but you may want access on both ends of the laundry space so that laundry facilities can be used without going through the main bathroom area.

Adjacent Closet

Closets between a bedroom and a bath make sense, and a dressing room area lined with roomy closets, all located next to a bath, is an even greater luxury you may want to consider. You might find part of the necessary space in a hallway closet, an unused area of the bedroom, or even a corner of the bath, provided they're contiguous.

This is one place where telling your architect, contractor, or designer what you want can really pay off. They'll be on the lookout for ways to shoehorn extra closets into even a tiny space for you. Once the basic space is in, consult a professional closet design firm, or explore the closet fittings section of your local home store for ways to maximize the closet space you have. You'll surely find ideas that work in the rest of your closets, too!

There are a few tried and true configurations for bathrooms. On the next page, find out more about basic bathroom layouts.

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Bathroom Layout Imperatives

A selection of wall-mounted bathroom fixtures including a toilet, a sink, and a bidet. 
This layout conserves budget and time by lining plumbing against one wall.

The typical 537-foot bath "footprint" makes a generously sized powder room and a decent-size half bath. It can be sufficient for a kids' bath if no more than two will be using it at once and if you've cleverly planned in separate storage for each child. It may even be enough for a master bath if what you most want is just the convenience of the plumbing in or near the master bedroom.

A 537-foot space won't be enough, however, for a lavish master bath with extra fixtures (bidet, separate whirlpool tub, sauna, etc.), and it may also be a bit skimpy for a shared family bath by today's standards.


You can make up the difference visually by keeping the design scheme calm, using mirrors liberally, and specifying cabinetry that makes the best use of space (consider lazy Susans; cubbyholes; and small drawers, such as lingerie or spice drawers).

But to really add space, you'll need to see if you can steal a few feet from an adjacent closet or unused area of a neighboring room or hallway, or even bump out a mini-addition. In most rooms, another 18 inches wouldn't mean much, but they can make a surprising difference in the bath!

Where to Put the Bath?

It's a bigger challenge to install a new bath in an existing home than to remodel a bath or to build a bath into a new house. That's because "back-of-the-wall" plumbing and mechanical requirements have to be installed within an existing wall, and you won't know what that involves until the wall is opened.

It's an even bigger challenge when you're installing the bath on an upper floor or in the basement. While a professional can make it work, you'll want to be aware of the issues.

­A basement bath requires special planning for below-grade plumbing. A space 16 square feet (30375 inches) is adequate for a toilet and a sink; to include a shower or a tub, you'll need a space about 35 square feet (537 feet, which is the size of a standard bathroom).

Building codes allow ceiling heights of 84 inches for basement baths, which is 6 inches lower than for other living areas. This variance will come in handy if your ceiling height is restricted by pipes or ductwork.

The most critical factor in installing a basement bathroom is locating drains and vent stacks. Getting hot and cold water to the space is a matter of splicing into existing supply lines, but pumping wastewater out may be more difficult.

All bathroom fixtures must drain into the main drain line, which is a 3- to 4-inch diameter pipe that enters the basement through the floor above and exits the basement through a wall or the floor.

Accessing the main drain for a new basement toilet may mean cutting through a concrete floor — a difficult task. Also, new fixtures can only be located a limited distance from the existing drain line, and extensions to the line must slope down at the rate of at least 1/4 inch per foot.

An example of a bathroom that doesn't leave enough space between the toilet and the shower. 
In two-wall bathroom layouts, be sure to leave adequate space between bathroom fixtures.

If tying into existing lines below floor level is not practical, you'll need a sewage ejector — an electric pump attached to a holding tank that pumps sewage up through a discharge pipe into the main house drain.

Sewage ejectors are fairly costly but not much more noisy than today's pressure-assist toilets. You'll also need to tie new drains to existing vent stacks or install a new stack, most often alongside the exterior of your house in an inconspicuous location.

A new upstairs bath must also tie into the existing main drain line and vent stack, but this is usually an easier accomplishment because upper floors and walls are not made of concrete. Not to mention, in upper floors, gravity works with, not against you in moving waste downward.

Regardless of where you plan to locate your new bath, you know installing it isn't for amateurs. Unless plumbing and mechanical engineering are your lines of work, consult the experts, and save your energy for choosing fixtures and decorative treatments!

An expertly designed bathroom that makes the most out of its small floor plan. 
Configured to save space, this bathroom features a three-wall layout.
Basic Bath Considerations

If you've ever wondered why many bathrooms are back-to-back or why professionals tell you to avoid moving fixtures, it's because of all the plumbing and mechanical systems you can't see.

"Back-of-the-wall" systems include various pipes to bring fresh water into the room, pipes to bring hot water from your hot-water heater, pipes to carry away wastewater, more pipes to carry away waste, vent stacks to keep pressure equalized and to prevent sewer gasses from entering the house, and on and on.

Even if your bath is on the third floor of your house, its systems have to route up to the roof and down to the systems buried in your lawn on the ground level. Bottom line: The fixtures are just the end point of an entire system.

If you really want to know about all this in detail, the information is available. If not, simply respect that the system is complex, and be aware that your installers not only need to solve whatever problems they encounter in your individual house, but they also need to solve it within the confines of rigorous building codes designed to safeguard your family's health and your home's safe function. Your understanding can help you get the best job possible from your installers.

If you're remodeling an existing bath, you'll have to decide whether you want to incur the expense of moving basic fixtures and changing the basic layout.

If you're only moving a fixture a few feet for a slightly better look, you may elect to go ahead — or not, given the cost. If the existing bath layout really bothers you or is unworkable, your top priority may be to relocate fixtures.

What's important is that you understand that this is much more complex than, say, moving a king-size bed from one wall of your bedroom to another!

Virtually every bathroom uses one of the following three basic layouts:

  • One-wall layout. One-wall baths have the toilet, sink, and combination shower/tub plumbing aligned along one wall, making for a relatively long, narrow bathroom. One-wall layouts are often used where the simplest solution is to cut off the "end" of a long room and dedicate it to bath fixtures. This layout is also frequently used for powder room or half bath layouts. You may find extra fixtures, such as a bidet, a separate tub, and a separate shower in a one-wall bath, but it's not common.
  • Two-wall layout. Two-wall baths usually have the toilet and sink on one wall and the shower/tub combo (or separate shower and tub) on the other. You might also find the toilet and bidet on one wall and the shower/tub and the sink on the other, depending on the length of each wall. A two-wall layout offers a desirable sense of enclosure, but care must be taken to ensure that fixtures are placed far enough from each other and from the door for safety and comfortable use.
  • Three-wall layout. A three-wall layout, with the toilet on one wall, sink on another, and combination shower/tub on the third, is a space-conserving solution that can put every fixture within a step of the others. It's also the layout you're likely to see in a master bath with numerous extra fixtures such as a bidet, more than one sink, and a separate tub and shower. If you are remodeling an old bath and want to install a number of new upgrades, a room that's already plumbed in the three-wall layout may be the easiest to work with.

After you've decided how to layout your bathroom, the next step is to consider lighting and ventilation. On the next page, learn more about these bathroom essentials.

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Bathroom Lighting and Ventilation

An open concept bathroom featuring a large soaker tub beneath a chandelier. 
A chandelier over a tub provides soft, romantic lighting.

Your focus may be on basic bath fixtures and surfacing materials, but your comfort in the room will be affected by the often-overlooked fixtures that provide light and ventilation. You may also want supplementary heating in the bath, most often electrical. These fixtures will require adequate electrical wiring, which may involve pulling wire through existing plaster walls and ceilings. Plan for more electrical access than you think you'll need, since your needs are likely to increase over time as new technology becomes available.

Ventilating Fans

If you think a ventilating fan in your new bath is a nice-to, not a need-to, think again. An open window isn't feasible all year-round in most climates, and it's just not as efficient as a ventilating fan at replacing odor-carrying, stale air with fresh air. What's more, an open window is even less efficient at reducing the harmful humidity in a bath.

All those showers and baths take their toll not just on your new wall covering but also on your home's basic structure, as hidden moisture builds up in today's well-insulated houses. A good ventilating fan is a relatively small investment that will make any bath — especially a shared one — more comfortable and will help preserve your home's infrastructure. Models that include lights and infrared heating panels as well as fans are especially practical.


In the bathroom, as in the kitchen, adequate lighting isn't just aesthetic, it's a real safety issue. So don't skimp here. You'll need general lighting to find your way around the room; task lighting for shaving, hairstyling, and fixing that splinter; and, in some baths, mood lighting. One dramatic and popular solution, theatrical mirror lighting, can handle more than one job, and lighter-colored walls and surfaces will maximize the effect of available light.

Comfort and Safety

Your installer has a legal obligation to comply with building codes, which keep changing to reflect new understanding about hazards in the built environment — in this case, your bathroom. But there is a host of other proven guidelines your installer should be employing to make your new bath safe and comfortable.

The National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) has developed a punch list of 41 guidelines that range from the essential to the highly recommended. Here are just a few:

  • clear space at doorways of at least 32 inches wide
  • at least 48 inches of clear space in front of a toilet and 16 inches on each side (measured from the fixture's centerline)
  • clear space of at least 15 inches on each side of a sink to the wall (measured from the sink's centerline)
  • shower doors that open into the bathroom so you can get out
  • safety rails next to tubs (and definitely no steps!)
  • tub faucets reachable from outside as well as inside the tub
  • compartment toilet space of at least 36366 inches
  • grab bars able to hold 300 pounds
A toilet outfitted with grab bars for increased accessibility. 
Grab bars are part of basic bathroom safety for people in need of assistance.

­­A numbe­r of the NKBA guidelines foster "universal access." Important developments in bath design have come from the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which has transformed public and commercial buildings from off-limits to accessible. Universal access has come to mean not just access for people with traditional "handicaps" but increased livability for children, senior citizens, pregnant women, and others who have had to make do with uncomfortable or dangerous fixtures. Grab bars and wider doorways are just two universal access benefits that can make your bath more comfortable today — and through all your tomorrows.

Once you have the bare bones of your new bathroom determined, you can personalize it even further. On the next page, check out some intriguing ideas about bathroom decor.

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Intriguing Bathroom Decor

A large claw foot bathtub complimented by small fixtures. 
In this bathroom, the large tub is balanced out by the three smaller fixtures.

Once you've made sure your new bath will meet your physical needs, you can go on to the fun part: choosing intriguing bathroom decor.

Self-expression is important, but the most satisfying room solutions don't throw design principles to the wind. The sense that some approaches "just feel right" and that others don't is at least partly inborn in humans. Luckily, there are a few basic design principles you can use to satisfy the innate sense of "what works." With practice, you can express yourself and still play by the rules, confident that you won't stray too far from what appeals to the human eye and psyche.

A modest room that uses design principles cleverly will beat a much more expensive one that doesn't, hands-down. So, whether your bath is a superspa or a tiny powder room, make sure these principles are at work.

The Virtue of Balance

Balance is the sense that objects in a space (or fixtures and furniture in a room) are weighted equally on both sides of a given center point. You know when you see a fireplace mantel with a huge vase on one end and a tiny candlestick on the other that the balance is off. It makes you innately uncomfortable. Keep the following tips in mind to achieve the right balance in your bath.

  • Symmetrical balance. To achieve equilibrium, a big vase near each end of your mantel or, even better, a big vase in the middle with a smaller candlestick on each end, would provide symmetrical balance. You know something has symmetrical balance if you could draw an imaginary line down the middle of the view and each half would exactly mirror the other. An example of symmetrical balance in the bathroom would include a vanity with a mirror centered on the wall above and matching sconces flanking the mirror on each side. Traditional, classical European design and architecture, in which symmetrical design was born, rely heavily on this type of design for their dignity and reposeful qualities. As an offshoot of European models, early American country styles are also at home with symmetrical balance, although the materials used will be more casual.
  • Asymmetrical balance. More difficult to achieve but, for that reason, more sophisticated, asymmetrical balance relies on creating a sense of equal mass on both sides of an imaginary center point. In our mantel example, a big vase on one end could be balanced by five small candlesticks that, placed close together, create a mass equal to the vase. In the bathroom, asymmetrical balance might be achieved by a hefty tub on one wall balanced by a toilet and matching bidet taking up the same length on the opposite wall.Asymmetrical balance is usually associated with an Asian or modern design aesthetic and works well when the ambience is adventurous, as the effect is a more dynamic balance. At its most confident, asymmetrical balance may poise an object against a blank space or, in architect-speak, a "void" of the same visual weight.

Of course, color, shine, texture, and other elements affect visual balance as well. A white vase will require fewer, lighter-colored candlesticks to balance it than will a scarlet red or eggplant purple one. Your best bet is to study rooms that appeal to you, especially professionally designed ones. You'll begin to see why one room "works" visually and another doesn't. When in doubt, consult a design professional for your bath. With so much installed product that can't be rearranged, you'll want to get it right the first time.

You've Got Rhythm

Rhythm is the quality of pleasing repetition in a piece of music, an artwork or artifact, or an environment. Too much repetition is boring or irritating; too little is unnerving, resulting in a sense of chaos. The human brain instinctively seeks out repetitive patterns in its effort to make sense of an environment and, when it finds these patterns, experiences a sense of pleasure. You can tap into this hard-wired need and give even a small room big appeal.

To achieve this rhythm, repeat a sequence of color, shape, line, or motif, interspersed with "rests" of contrasting colors and shapes that will help the eye pick out the pattern. For example, black/white, repeated over and over, is a simple rhythm; a more complex pattern might be green-green/blue-blue/ivory-ivory/crimson, repeated. (This rhythm, with a smaller dose of crimson, also illustrates a tried-and-true design concept that advancing, bright colors like red are often best used in a smaller proportion than cool or neutral colors.) In a bathroom, the shine of smooth ceramic may be interspersed with the matte richness of limestone or the fluffiness of cotton towels. If the ceramic and limestone are both tones of white and the towels and ceramic accent pieces are in a range of pinks and reds, you have two rhythms going: one of texture and one of color, which adds further interest. Again, your eye will tell you what works; your knowledge will tell you why it works.

Make Your Point With Emphasis

Emphasis is the creation of a focal point, a dominant item of interest in an environment. The eye is initially drawn to this focal point and returns there for a rest.Designers usually counsel clients to find or create a focal point in each room as a first step toward organizing the space attractively. There is a hierarchy of focal points: A large bay window beats a fireplace, a fireplace beats a TV in a wall unit, a TV in a wall unit beats an impressive armoire, and so on. But generally, the most eye-catching, large item in a room will be the focal point. In the bedroom, it's usually the bed; in the bathroom, it may be an imposing double vanity with a pair of mirrors or a big soaking tub angled in the corner opposite the door.

A neutral bathroom highlighted by a uniquely designed, rectangular soaker tub. 
The tub is the obvious focal point of this clean, neutral bathroom.

You can give the natural focal point in a room even more emphasis or build up the importance of another area to create an alternative focal point by using elements that naturally catch the eye. Colors brighter than those in the rest of the space; mirrors; lighting sources; or an object that contains movement, such as an aquarium or a large set of wind chimes, are all natural focal points. Eye-catching attributes on secondary pieces also help you create balance in the room so one wall doesn't appear too heavy. Just don't overdo secondary areas: Make sure a viewer can instantly perceive the focal point.

When a room setting is appealing (restful yet interesting), it's usually because all three principles — balance, rhythm, and emphasis — are working together. Once you experience the satisfaction of using these principles in the small space of your bath, you may be inspired to go on and retool the bigger rooms in your house!

A bathroom can appear light and airy or warm and soothing depending on how you use color and shape. On the next page, discover how vertical tiles or textured wallcoverings influence the feel of a bathroom.

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Using Color, Texture, and Space in the Bathroom

A colorful bathroom featuring blue tiles, and bright yellow accents. 
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!

A personality filled bathroom featuring bright red tiles, and a wall mounted toilet. 
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.
A spa-like bathroom featuring glass accents and a white and off-white palette. 
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
©2007 Jupiterimages Corporation

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.

A large soaker tub accented by checkered tiles and odd-shaped 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.

A functional bathroom featuring a large mirror and two separate sinks. 
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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About The Author:

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.