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The bathroom reborn: designers do a utilitarian U-turn

Laveta Brigham

Would you have a carpet in the bathroom? It’s a question that divides opinion. Most of us would recoil inwardly, picturing the moths and the mildew. But for some, nostalgic for the bathrooms of their grandparents, perhaps, padding barefoot from tub to towel rail across a velvety, toe-cosseting wool pile […]

Would you have a carpet in the bathroom? It’s a question that divides opinion. Most of us would recoil inwardly, picturing the moths and the mildew. But for some, nostalgic for the bathrooms of their grandparents, perhaps, padding barefoot from tub to towel rail across a velvety, toe-cosseting wool pile is the apex of sybaritic luxury.

And their number may be growing. Influential US interior designer Billy Cotton used a kaleidoscopically colourful carpet for singer and actress Lily Allen’s living room-like Brooklyn bathroom. Other, tactile vintage details — shower curtains, ruffled basins and even fabric-clad baths — are also back as designers champion a softer, less clinical approach to bathrooms.

Carpet remains divisive, says interior designer Sarah Vanrenen. “It appeals to a certain type, who likes to linger in the bath. Not practical, in and out of the shower sorts. I’ve always had carpet in the bathroom,” she says. “Thanks to good ventilation it’s worn well.” But you need the right space. “It’s not right for a splashy children’s bathroom. Or a basement shower.” 

There are other ways to bring texture to bathroom floors, though. Alternative Flooring’s sisal-look coverings are made from washable polypropylene (more aesthetic than it sounds) — herringbones or stripes in natural, grassy tones. Weaver Green pioneered the rug woven from plastic waste, while Peter Page and Jennifer Manners do equally colourful versions to sit under bath mats.

Cork, which owes its bad reputation to the 1970s when it was orange, crumbly and invariably twinned with avocado-green suites, has moved on. Current versions are pre-coated with a matt-lacquered substance for durability (the honeycomb-shaped structure of the cork also makes it good for insulation) and it can come in easy-to-install tiles or planks — available at Sinclair Till or the Colour Flooring Company.

Chequered cork bathroom floor
Cork has moved on since the 1970s, being durable, easy to install and inexpensive © The Colour Flooring Company/Malgosia Lonsdale

Bathroom with blue mirror
Wool carpet and wallpaper in a bathroom by Sarah Vanrenen

The shower curtain has also evolved from those clingy high-street incarnations. At Balineum, which specialises in artisanal bathroom fitting and accessories, founder Sarah Watson advises customers to make them “part of the decoration”. She suggests using a brass curtain pole and getting a waterproof lining (to sit inside the bath), along with decorous outer fabrics in cotton or linen weighted at the hem (look up Tinsmiths, Hackney Draper or Fanny Shorter for modern florals). Mould-proof “outdoor” fabrics are another option.

For baths without showers, Vanrenen hangs decorative curtains — caught with tie backs on either side — for a “cocooning” effect. Towels piled on shelves, or antique chests of drawers converted into vanities (check the depth first) are other soft-scaping devices. “Just because a bathroom has to be practical doesn’t mean it can’t be as decorative as the rest of your home,” she says.

Sanitary fittings — loo, sink, bath, shower — have hardly changed since the late 19th century, says interior designer Carlos Sánchez-García. “Everyone knows what to expect in a bathroom. Which is why I devote time to thinking of ways to soften the lines — whether it’s window seats, ruffled bistro curtains or rugs on wooden floors.” This is all classic English decorating, of course. “No one does the mix of comfort and practicality better,” says the Spanish-born designer.

“Some people find calmness in clean lines and neutrals. For me, mixing materials and patterns has the same effect,” says interior designer Octavia Dickinson. “There’s nothing better than lying in the bath looking at things
that make you happy.” In her case? Patterned wallpaper, shelves of ceramics and a painting by her sister, the artist Phoebe Dickinson, “to gaze up at” while wallowing.

Dickinson, who founded her eponymous practice in 2018, also likes to use gathered panels of fabric on the sides of baths or cupboard doors. “But I’ll use a stone finish — like slate — around the vanity or bath to take the edge off the prettiness,” she says. Mixing brass lights (try Vaughan Designs) with chrome taps “makes a room feel less matchy-matchy . . . It’s easy to co-ordinate every finish, but that looks bland and one-dimensional.”

A bathroom by Carlos García Interiors
Soft lines and ruffled bistro curtains by Carlos García Interiors

Bath with curtains
Decorative linen shower curtains for a ‘cocooning effect’ by Sarah Vanrenen

It is a departure from the boutique-hotel look, with its boringly inoffensive schemes — egg-shaped baths and floating basins adrift in schemes of grey or silver. “For many years design became very standardised,” says Martina Mondadori, editor and founder of Cabana design magazine. “Whether you were in Marrakesh or Beijing, bathrooms looked the same. Now we’re back to wanting to be quirky and eclectic . . . The bathroom becomes a place to experiment in,” she says.

“I find bathrooms fascinating,” she adds. “Like kitchens, they make a home because they’re where real life happens.”

There is a more prosaic reason for the shift to a cosier, softer look, too: cost. Shower curtains and cork tiles are cheaper than shower screens or gleaming expanses of marble.

If you do your best thinking in the bath, adding a few layers can be practical, says Emma Burns, a director at decorating company Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler. Her own bathroom features a tactile patchwork of vintage rugs. “Fabric helps to muffle acoustics, adding a Zen-like atmosphere,” she says.

For a Wisconsin new-build, Burns designed a tented ceiling with gauzy panels that can be pulled across the bath, diffusing the light to a meditative, milky haze. “A bathroom should be functional, but it doesn’t have to be utilitarian.”

It was the decorating company’s co-founder, John Fowler’s business partner, the Virginia-born decorator Nancy Lancaster, who brought comfort to spartan British bathrooms. Instead of having to queue, sponge bag in hand, for the solitary, lino-clad washing facility down the hallway, her guests discovered ensuites done up like studies with pictures and antique plates, rugs and — most radical of all — central heating.

In the 1960s, decorator David Hicks also capitalised on new technology — fitted carpets, improved mechanical ventilation — to swath baths, walls and furniture in fabric. “He treated bathrooms as rooms, with proper schemes,” says Mondadori. “The layout — with the bath as a focal point — combined with an incredible level of detail . . . It was function meets ornament.”

Buchanan Studio’s co-founder Angus Buchanan, an interior designer with a penchant for the theatrical, favours a similar approach. “There’s a tipping point between function and beauty in any space — which is the bit that fascinates me. But you can always have fun with the most conventional room in the house.”

Emma Burns’s tented ceiling and gauzy panels
Emma Burns’s tented ceiling and gauzy panels

Octavia Dickinson mixes patterns and materials
Octavia Dickinson mixes patterns and materials © Harry Crowder

In his own bathroom the “unaesthetic” loo and shower are housed in ventilated sheds, clad in colourful tiles, with pitched roofs. Floor-sweeping curtains frame the claw-foot bath and deep armchair. Downstairs, the children’s bathroom has bookshelves, Battenburg pink and yellow tiles and sturdy canvas shower curtains, unearthed at online US retailer Quiet Town.

The rooms provoked a flurry of comments on social media, says Buchanan. “People became very anxious . . . They said: ‘You can’t have books or curtains in a bathroom, they’ll get mildew’. There are so many preconceptions. After a year of daily use, I can confirm all is fine.”

He would like to see more of us flouting convention. “It’s time we stopped treating bathrooms as shiny, tile-lined boxes which need to be waterproofed and hosed down. Our living rooms and bedrooms aren’t sterile: so why can’t bathrooms be more imaginative — places to experiment with fabric or colour?” And carpet? “Yes — but with discretion.”

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