Home & Design December 15, 2008

Bathroom Bliss

Interior designers, architects, feng shui consultants, and trade pros share their secret for creating a state-of-the-art spa retreat.

The therapeutic effects of water have been praised since the beginning of civilization. Ancient Romans made regular trips to bathhouses as part of their regimen for cleanliness and good health. Medieval Japan took the idea a step further, making a deep wooden soaking tub an intrinsic part of every household. Indeed, a spa of one’s own—one that isn’t shared with the soiled masses—is perhaps the ultimate luxury.

While many Americans take advantage, in Roman fashion, of day and destination spas, a growing number are catching the Japanese bullet train to a spa retreat in their own home, making bathroom renovations today what kitchen makeovers were a decade ago. For some homeowners, it’s no longer enough for the bathroom merely to solve problems of physical hygiene. It must answer a higher calling: cleansing—or at least soothing—the soul.

“The industry has become a lot more fun,” says David Morgan of Rocky Mountain Hardware, a local manufacturer and international purveyor of fine fixtures. “People are always trying to come up with something new that works better.”

“The sky’s the limit,” agrees Lisa Admire, an interior designer for the Jarvis Group.

Good-bye, water closet. Hello, retreat, meeting room, and day spa—all in one. Just add a person or two in search of comfort, and the modern bathroom will step up like a dozen faithful servants, bent on fulfilling every desire.

When asked where he got his ideas, a prolific children’s book author once pointed to his shower. And it’s true: a shower combines the necessities of invention, offering solitude, comfort, and a lack of distraction. Interestingly, these things are also keys to relaxation. (Let’s hope no one ever invents a waterproof cell phone!) No longer limited to a tight fiberglass stall with a single nozzle, the shower is waking up and answering the call to become the ultimate relaxation machine. The Jarvis Group’s Admire designs double showers with multiple showerheads, built-in benches, and “enough room for a couple to sit and talk.” (Sounds like the ultimate couple’s therapy program.) If world leaders began their day in such surroundings, the planet might be a more peaceful place: especially if the shower is outfitted with therapeutic hydromassage, body jets that spray horizontally from shower walls; massage showerheads on handsets; and plate-size “rainshowers” that make it easy to imagine you’ve been caught in a tropical downpour. And with thermostatic controls on all fixtures, that jet of burning water caused by the flush of an adjacent toilet fades into distant memory.

Seal the shower described above, add a steam unit and a splash of eucalyptus oil, and you’ve got the hottest thing in bathroom bling. Eiron Schofield of Living Architecture in Ketchum explains that steam showers offer health benefits, opening pores to allow the passage of toxins from the body: you can literally sweat away your troubles. In our high-desert climate, it’s the fastest way to revitalize dry skin and brittle hair.

European exposed plumbing, in finishes such as brushed or polished nickel, is an option Admire calls “jewelry for the home.” Yes, letting it all hang out is “in,” and such handy features as a sliding rail for on-the-spot height adjustment, or the long neck of an Edwardian handset, make showering more pleasurable. Ever practical, Admire also notes how easy these handsets make it to clean a large shower. It’s unnecessary to point out how good that is for you.

In spite of the popularity of outdoor hot tubs in the Wood River Valley, Sandra Fisher of Sandra York Interiors installs jetted tubs in many bathrooms. After all, not everyone enjoys walking through a chlorinated cloud in a snowstorm.

Deep tubs featuring either powerful water jets or gentle air jets come in all shapes and sizes, but the newest trend, embodied in Kohler’s Sok tub, is a tub within a tub, with an endless circulation of water between the two. Anyone who’s ever gained solace and refreshment while sitting by the Big Wood River will acknowledge the wisdom of such engineering: water moving out rejuvenates, while water moving in relaxes.

But why stop there, when you can have colored water as well? Chromatherapy is the next big thing, and Kohler offers a tub model with walls that emit different colors of light, which can be adjusted according to your mood. Holistic healers claim that colored light can be used to relax the body at a cellular level, and it’s long been known that certain colors such as soft green can slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure. “Bathrooms should go beyond the functional to restore our minds as well as our bodies,” adds Marina Poole of Red Door Design House.

Even with these newfangled products, one basic tenet still rules: the bigger and deeper, the better. Today, many porcelain and synthetic models are available in depths up to 24 inches. Trajet’s 19-inch-deep tubs come in a variety of lengths and boast insulated walls to prolong a hot soak. Set-in tubs can be outfitted with wide rims in any material you can imagine, from polished marble to translucent glass tile—perfect for holding coffee mugs, magazines, candles, or flowers.

American tubs have recently taken a cue from their European counterparts, incorporating a matching shower handset in addition to a faucet. And with so many metals and finishes to choose from other than chrome, leaving the pipes exposed no longer means your bathroom will look like a ’57 Chevy.

Bringing everyday furniture into a bathroom makes it “not only a place to take a bath, but a place to lounge, to hang out,” says Lisa Admire. Adding a daybed, for example, gives you a place to relax and read a book. A desk with multiple drawers can be used to hold not only facial creams, but also a sensuous art nouveau vase and old-fashioned writing paper, perhaps for the transcription of an inspirational spark that arrived in the shower. >>>



Antique renovation is also part of the new wave, notes Admire: “People are taking old porcelain and cast iron fixtures and refurbishing them.” Homeowners and designers pluck bathroom treasures from as far away as Europe and Asia, or as close to home as the Hailey Antique Fair. And if your 18th-century knotty pine dresser from Vermont wasn’t designed to hold a sink, you can customize: Set a basin into it or place one on top, and then fit the cabinet with taps and faucet.

A clean, well-organized environment is a relaxing environment—but clearing counters of clutter doesn’t mean simply moving it out of sight. Susan Witman, ASID, owner of Center Q Interior Design, advocates cabinet drawers outfitted with sections for makeup and medicines, like a spice drawer. Medicine cabinets have also become roomier and more user-friendly. Robern makes an 8-inch-deep recessed cabinet that can be opened with the touch of a finger. Mirrored inside and out, it boasts electrical outlets at the back for easy use and storage of blow-dryers and electric toothbrushes.

According to the Old Testament version of creation, the first thing God did after creating Heaven and Earth was to add light. Susan Witman applauds those priorities. “Lighting, lighting, lighting,” she says emphatically. “Don’t, don’t skimp in the bathroom.” Witman combines light sources for drama and practicality. “Have lighting as a focus for art, as background, and for makeup. It shouldn’t be an afterthought; it should be a major part of the design.” She hangs chandeliers in bathrooms, and always installs a dimmer switch. Wall sconces add a warm, indirect glow, and inset ceiling lights can draw the eye to artwork or a bathtub.

Sun Valley Lighting’s Kathleen Hughes recommends carved alabaster sconces that throw soft, even light—their smooth, minimalist lines won’t compete with the focal points of a small room. Alex Taylor of Simple Grace Feng Shui likes to place a lamp in the bathroom for focus and visual interest.

Ever conscious about saving energy, Eiron Schofield of Living Architecture suggests using windows and skylights to bring in natural light. “We have such wonderful sun here that we like to bring as much of it into the house as possible,” she explains. She also points out that good lighting is important when it comes time to clean the bathroom.

And, of course, there’s nothing like the light of a live flame. Candles set on tub rims, shelves, and windowsills add enchanting ambiance. Local architects often take it one step further, with a fireplace. For those who flunked Fire-Building 101 in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, a gas flame makes it quick and easy to set the mood.

As the French Impressionists taught us, colors change in different lights. No matter how good your bath lighting is, it won’t work relaxing magic unless it interacts with soothing shades—preferably in a different color from the rest of the home, to demarcate it as a special place. While many designers prefer neutral, earthy hues, Alex Taylor likes soft, warm tones of blue or green. But, aren’t those cool colors? Taylor reminds us that any color can have a warm tone.

Witman, who often decorates large spaces, recommends dark shades for high ceilings. “In the last bathroom I did, you could see outdoors,” she explains, “so I painted the ceiling evergreen, which lowered the ceiling and made the room cozier.”

Today’s bathrooms could easily have been created by James Bond’s genius of gadgetry, Q. Center Q’s Susan Witman offers a sumptuous techno improvement: built-in warming drawers for towels. Once found only in kitchens to heat plates, deep warming drawers are perfect for invisible towel storage. For a more conventional approach, heated towel racks are available in countless shapes and styles. Living Architecture sometimes places them within easy reach on the outside of a raised tub.
Designers agree: A radiant heated floor is no longer a luxury option, but a must. If you’re planning a remodel, specialized electric mats can be added on top of subflooring.

Telephones, televisions, and CD players contribute to making the bathroom a place to linger. Water-resistant, battery-operated CD player/MP3/radio combos that hang in the shower mean you never have to leave your music behind.

Fog-free mirrors are made for the shower these days, as well. No more shaving over the sink while rubbing your mug back into view.

Hardly high-tech—just transported from its native habitat—a coffeemaker in the bathroom can save a trip in the morning. Architects are also building wet bars and small refrigerator into bathrooms, hidden in custom cabinetry or an antique armoire. Who could have guessed that the words “I’m going to the powder room” would someday be so filled with possibility?

Betsy Andrews wrote this article in her head while taking a shower. Her younger brother, whose home in Japan has an automated tub that he sets to fill at a certain time and temperature, claims he moved far away so he wouldn’t have to share a bathroom with Betsy.


This article appears in the Fall 2005 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.