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A Guide to Bathroom Design

Intriguing Bathroom Decor

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 EmphasisEmphasis 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.

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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