With so many design ideas out there, transforming your master bath into a luxurious and relaxing retreat can actually be a little stressful. To help make the process easier and provide a little inspiration, we talked to Atlanta-based interior designer Mark Williams, of Mark Williams Design Associates, about making the right choices in designing the bathroom of your dreams.
Ballard Designs: It seems as though we focus just as much of our attention on our bathrooms as we do our kitchens now more than ever before.
Mark Williams: There’s definitely been an evolution over the past 40 to 50 years, and what came out of it is a much larger, more luxurious master bath. A regular single home in the 1950s had one bathroom that was very small, and a home in the 1970s might have had a very small master bath that was considered luxurious. The 1980s is when the bathroom began to change. During this decade of wild excess we were building much larger homes, but we didn’t know what to do with all of that space. So we had these very large, very flashy bathrooms with awkward, open spaces that weren’t being utilized in the best way.
Moving into the 2000s, we got away from the excess and opulence and figured out what worked. We decided we did like that larger bathroom. This is a very active, useful space we use every day, after all. But we’re building them more wisely now. It’s not just a big, open space with all of the old-fashioned functions tucked around the perimeter of the space. We’re building more efficient, more integrated spaces. The evolution of modern media, such as HGTV and Dwell magazine, has certainly had an influence as well.
BD: As far as trends go, the white kitchen is huge. Is there a specific trend or look associated with the bathroom?
MW: There really isn’t. It’s all over the place. Bathrooms are more personal spaces. Kitchens are public spaces that are part of a larger space, so it wants to be a little more neutral and quiet as a single component of a larger composition. Whereas the bathroom is a sovereign space – its own little environment. It can take on characteristics that don’t necessarily involve or reference other spaces nearby, so you can get a little more personal or creative. And there is such a wide variety of product now, from traditional to transitional to classical modern to contemporary.
BD: With so many choices and more freedom to express yourself in the bathroom, how do you decide what to do? This sounds like it could be a recipe for disaster!
MW: Naturally, working with a designer can ensure success. I can edit very quickly and determine what a homeowner will enjoy based on what they’ve told me and based on my own beliefs and knowledge in design and how it can influence your life.
The most important thing is to create a peaceful space you’ll love long term. We like to build a foundation that is a little more quiet and peaceful and streamlined, so that when you add the stuff of your life on top of it – the products you use every day, linens and so on – it doesn’t become so cluttered and noisy. It’s the peacefulness of the place where you begin your day that’s important to us.
BD: Can you share your designer tips for someone who is maybe renovating his or her bathroom and doesn’t have the budget to hire a designer?
MW: The first thing I’d say is don’t get seduced at the tile store. There are so many beautiful products out there and it’s easy to fall in love with all of it. I’m all about that personal statement and being bold and fun – it doesn’t all have to be Zen and quiet. But make one creative gesture, and make your other choices around it a little quieter in support of that statement piece. You may love the busy tile mosaic, brightly colored lacquer cabinet and funky shaped faucet and matching showerhead. But I would say choose just one statement and restrain from using every single design idea you’ve ever had. There will be other bathrooms in your future!
BD: Let’s talk tile, an obviously necessary feature in any bathroom.
MW: Yes, using a hard surface tile or stone is a necessity in wet areas. While we’ve always used tile and stone, I think larger format tile is very much a trend right now. We’re using rectangular shapes as opposed to the typical 4” x 4,” and it’s installed in a variety of ways.
BD: Are you talking about subway tile?
MW: Subway tile has been around for about 10 years, and while that typical 3” x 6” white ceramic glazed tile we all think about is still a classic and we still use in some applications, the idea has expanded into new shapes, sizes and proportions. We’re seeing them in glass and all kinds of vivid colors. Stone mosaics are also making a strong comeback right now. There is a technology called water jet cutting that creates these beautiful, very intricate mosaics that used to be assembled by hand. They’re still expensive, so you want to use them in special places, but those costs are coming down as the technology grows in the industry. The stone mosaics that are being crafted now are really quite beautiful.
BD: Is there a particular type of cabinetry that you recommend?
MW: In a bathroom where there are so many hard surfaces, you want that soft look of a wood frame. There’s a relatively new product called heat thermofoil that gives a fantastic wood look. This is a non-natural wood product that looks like wood – we rarely recommend products that are made to look like something else – but it’s very durable. We love to bring that wood look into a wet environment in a way that’s durable and long lasting. You might have to shop around to find the most realistic looking product at a reasonable price.
BD: And what about countertops?
MW: Granite has run its course. There are some beautiful stones out there, but the more typical modelled granite is waning in trend. We choose quartz composites countertops in most of our jobs, because of their simplicity and durability. It’s such a beautiful option.
BD: How do you use color in the bathroom?
MW: As I said, we start with a neutral foundation and think about how to pop up the style a bit. And that may be something that’s very bold or a more subtle color influence. Maybe it’s a tile that goes up the wall behind the toilet that might not be a bold color but is a surprising influence. Or if everything is white and you have something that’s celadon green, that creates a very stylish, elegant bathroom that has personality but is not overwhelmingly bold. Sometimes we might find a beautiful, bold stone tile mosaic and lay it almost like a floor mat in the center of the floor, and if one of those stones has a color influence that’s strong, then we might take that color and use it in a wall covering in the water closet. We don’t recommend too many bold colors in the master. You can get away with it more so in powder rooms or even secondary bathrooms. Go for that rich and moody palette there.
BD: What are some considerations for storage?
MW: Storage in a master bath is obviously very important, and we talk to our clients about what their daily needs are. Do you want to store your linens in the master bath? Do you stand up when you apply your makeup or prefer to sit down at a vanity? What are your personal habits like in the morning and evening? Definitely consider all of your storage needs, because it will affect the design outcome. Also, as we age we generally need more products and prescriptions, so a younger couple might have different storage needs.
BD: It seems like many people are forgoing the tub these days. Do you recommend that?
MW: It depends on the situation, and we always talk to our clients about their goals. Are you here for 25 years and this is for you or is resale a consideration for you? In larger single-family homes, we generally recommend a tub in the master bath, even if just for resale value. But if there’s another tub in the house – a shower/tub combination – then I might push for that larger, really luxurious shower. But I rarely recommend that if there is no other tub in the home. However, the choice may be a little different in our in-town work in condominiums where space is at a premium. If it’s a choice between a cramped shower and a tub or a really luxurious showering experience, we recommend the really luxurious showering experience.
BD: What types of lighting do you recommend in the bathroom?
MW: Lighting in a bathroom is very important, but there are different times where you need different light levels. In any lighting plan we always recommend dimmers for more versatility. Some people like bright light to wake them up while others like to wake up slowly with more subtle light. And in the evening when you’re getting ready for bed, you might want a more soft, calm light level.
We always recommend a combination of bathroom lighting: good general overhead lighting, like recessed can lights, and surround lighting, like a pair of sconces or vanity lights over your mirror. Sometimes we see bathrooms where only one or the other is installed, but both are useful. Cans provide good general lighting down on the surfaces of the floor and countertop, but everything else falls into shadow and that can be dreary. If all of the light is coming from above it’s going to cast a really harsh down light on your face, which can affect how you apply your makeup. Sconces flank your face to provide lighting from the side. If we don’t have that opportunity, then we do recommend the light bar up top to wash your face with light from the front.
BD: What about statement lighting, like a chandelier?
MW: There are specific codes about how close electricity is to your tub, so if we have high enough ceilings we might do a pendant. Or if there’s a room that has more of a central space, like the room with the floor mat stone tile mosaic with a higher ceiling, then we may do a statement lighting piece in the center of the room. It gets light down below the ceiling plane and sheds light back up onto the ceiling plane, so it’s a nice way to light a room.
BD: While we’re on the subject of lighting, what about bulbs? Which ones are right for the bathroom environment?
MW: The kind of bulbs you use is so important. People get really concerned about what the lighting fixture looks like, but if it doesn’t provide the right light, then it’s not the right fixture for you. For example, there are intense halogen light bulbs called MR16s that are in many fixtures today. They’re the silver ones with the half dome. The light is very directional, so if it’s pointed at your face you’re going to get some very harsh shadows, and if it’s pointed elsewhere you won’t get any light on your face.
I typically recommend using a combination of bulbs. The incandescent bulb uses a lot of energy, but it’s still the best light for your face, so use them in just your sconces or vanity bar. Then use compact fluorescent or LEDs in your overhead lighting. LEDs are great for a variety of lighting scenarios, and you can get a warmer light similar to an incandescent. They’re expensive, but they last a long time and they don’t throw off any measurable heat, so the savings will balance out the initial cost.
BD: The right light for makeup doesn’t matter if you don’t have a mirror. What are popular trends for mirror installations?
MW: If it’s a more traditional, decorative bathroom, we might choose to use a framed mirror and hang it. And in a more sleek, contemporary bathroom – or one that is size challenged – we might permanently install a mirror from the top of the backsplash all the way up to the crown molding and from side to side to create that big, large breadth of mirror. We then mount lighting fixtures directly through the mirror to really expand the visual sensation. But choice of mirror totally depends on the style of the bathroom.
BD: What’s the final word on matching finishes on your lighting, plumbing fixtures and cabinetry hardware?
MW: People do get a bit obsessed about an exact match. I always recommend keeping your metal tones consistent to create a successful environment. Say you find a reasonably priced polished nickel faucet and matching shower head, but the cabinet hardware in the same finish is expensive, because you have to buy so many pieces. Then it’s okay to look for a complementing finish at a better price point. Polished nickel, polished chrome and polished stainless steel all complement each other. Or if you’re using warm metal tones, antique brass, antique gold and natural bronze (not the oil-rubbed bronze) all work well together. It’s not that big of a deal – no one is studying it that hard! Besides, being matchy-matchy is not always the best option.
BD: Are there any particular fun, luxurious or tech-savvy installations you recommend?
MW: There are two high-impact items with a relatively low cost that I always like to recommend. Both have to be installed as the bathroom is being constructed, so it’s for a major bathroom renovation or new construction. One is heated floors. When you’re putting in a new tile floor, you can lay a mat in the grout bed that is electrified and connects to a programmable thermostat in your bathroom. You can program it to come on before you wake up in the mornings. It warms the floors and gives off a bit of ambient heat. The second is primarily for men who shave in the shower. You can have a mirror installed flush into the shower like tile. It has an electric heater behind it that heats the mirror’s surface so it doesn’t fog up.
BD: Much of our focus is on the master bathroom, because it’s where we begin and end each day. But powder rooms are important, too. What’s your take on this space?
MW: They tend to be smaller, so this is your chance to choose a more luxurious material for the floor or the wall. You don’t have to buy as much of it! Also, you don’t spend as much time in this space as you do a master. It’s primarily a place for your guests to use. So we tend to have more fun and get a little bit glitzier. Think of them as little jewel boxes. Maybe we tile all four walls with something that’s a little bit sparkly or choose a dramatic unexpected lighting piece. We definitely have fun in powder rooms.
BD: Any final words of wisdom for someone who is renovating or designing a new bathroom?
MW: We talked about this with kitchen design trends: we always recommend balancing scale, texture and contrast. Those are the three paintbrushes you need to use in a balanced way to create a great environment. For example, if all of the tile in your bathroom is 1×1 mosaic, it can become a little bit bland and uniform. So use a smaller scale tile on the floor – the more grout lines you have the more slip resistance you have – and select a larger scale tile for the walls. There may be a color or tonal shift in the two or they might be the exact same product, just different sizes. So by shifting that scale you’re creating visual interest. Another example is if you’re using a light tile, then consider doing something darker for your cabinetry so you add a little bit of contrast and you don’t end up with a big bowl of oatmeal.