Perfectly Powdered Rooms

The small space most seen by guests can make some very powerful design statements

The small space most seen by guests can make some very powerful design statements

By Jennifer Shapira

Courtesy of Kohler
Archer™ petite vanity with Archer™ 24” pedestal lavatory basin (Courtesy of Kohler)

Powdering your nose. Just the phrase alone evokes bygone days of glamour. Gossiping women with Marcel waves may no longer be gathering in plush lavatories under the guise of touching up their makeup. Still, the timeless image of twisting a tube of red lipstick before a well-lit mirror persists.

The origin of the term “powder room” has a meandering history, says Bridget May, professor of interior design at Marymount University. Centuries ago, ships were equipped with rooms where gunpowder was stored. Later, in the 18th century, people used closets to have their wigs powdered. But “powdering your nose” likely emerged as a polite excusal. Someone said it, and it probably just stuck, May speculates.

Today, the traditional first-floor half-bath with a sink and toilet is making a strong statement.

Guest bathrooms were once cookie-cutter white boxes, their uses utilitarian and void of personality. Now, experts say, they are taking on new identities.

Destination: Bathroom
Once-overlooked powder rooms are becoming destinations. “It’s a room that’s created for company,” says interior designer June Shea. “The powder room is truly the room that’s created for your guests. It’s the one room in the house where you have a captive audience.”

Courtesy of June Shea
Courtesy of June Shea

Therefore, they must be interesting and have lasting impact. Because powder rooms are generally a tiny 35 square feet, there’s an opportunity to think outside that white box and “push yourself out of your comfort zone,” she says. For a modern vibe, consider sleek fixtures. Are your tastes more traditional? Select elegant, ornate items. “You can change the room’s entire flavor with just a few key pieces,” says Shea.

Case in point, a McLean homeowner wanted to showcase a decorative chandelier. Shea used that as her inspiration, constructing a graceful retreat. She chose a silvery, textured wallpaper by Winfield Design that meets clean white bead board. A petite mirrored cabinet holds—and hides—bathroom essentials, from toilet paper to cleaning products. Two mirrors enlarge the space, one above the pedestal sink for primping, and a circular one that expresses a bit of whimsy. Crown molding tops off the space.

Tiny touches like fresh-cut flowers and sheens and textures resonate with guests. The space is pleasant, a conversation starter.

“You want someone to say ‘Wow!’ when they use it,” says Shea. “When people walk into that powder room, it’s such a surprise. They just go, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s so lovely!’”

Bang for Your Buck
Powder rooms deserve special consideration, says Jay Ratcliffe, store manager at Lowe’s in Alexandria.

Ratcliffe has noticed an interest in sprucing up these spaces, but adds that improvements can be made at relatively low cost. “You can get more bang for your buck,” he says, “because there’s no need to compromise.”

Whether the room contains interesting pops of color, swirls of designer wallpaper or a sculptural basin, because the square footage is so low, selecting pricier materials is a viable option.

“It’s the room with the most visibility. If you think about where any guest is going to come into your home, it’s usually when you’re entertaining. Your kitchen and your powder room are the two most visible areas.”

It’s not that expensive to go in and replace the floor or put a quick coat of paint on the walls, he says. The most striking change will be the fixtures. “Adding a new pedestal sink or vessel basin on a furniture-grade vanity creates an amazing amount of character without a whole lot of expense,” he says.

Garden Bandana in Red and Vapour Pink-Dolce Vita Lavatory with Antique Lavatory Faucet from Kohler; furniture style vanity from Reico

Lovely Lavatories
These diminutive spaces play an important role, but they are also meant to be charming, says Diana Schrage, senior interior designer at Wisconsin-based Kohler Co. In recent years, as master baths have tripled in size and become true oases to relieve us of a tough workday, powder rooms have remained true to their dimensions and functionality.

Their need was so clearly identified as a secondary bathroom in a high-traffic part of the home, she says. They are accessible to guests, kids, and serve a purpose for the aging population.

“It’s like creating the perfect environment. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. And it lasts because it makes sense,” she says. “So, why not have some fun?”

Start with the mindset that the sink and the toilet do not need to match. The days of white-on-white porcelain are over. Today, it’s all about mixing materials and textures to achieve a sophisticated look.

As furniture-style vanities become more mainstream in today’s powder rooms, colorful, tactile under-mount basins and vessel bowls work in concert to set a dramatic tone. Whether brass, glass, stone or stainless steel, the experience of washing your hands can prove to be almost otherworldly.

These vessels sit atop equally beautiful vanities. While people today are seeking out darker woods and finishes, these furniture-style pieces can be just as eye-catching as the wash basins, says Bethanny Fox, a designer at Reico in Falls Church. And they fulfill a need, too. They provide ample storage, from thick stacks of hand towels to oversize bottles of soap refills.

Those with curved fronts might resemble an antique store find. An artfully chipped piece might look rustic. Sleek lines say modern.

Schrage says homeowners are much more daring today. For example, they’re going for illusion, choosing faucets that create a more dynamic water flow. Perhaps it pours from a stainless steel faucet that’s flush with the wall above the basin, or a brushed nickel spout where water decants from the mirror.

It’s all about tangible art, says Schrage. “You’ll see people immediately want to touch and interact with these products, and I think that’s what’s really exciting, the acceptance of these statement pieces.”

Courtesy of Barbara Hawthorn

Bold Use of Color
Because a home’s powder room “is used more gently, it can be fabulous,” says interior designer Barbara Hawthorn. These are spaces that lend themselves to a special sort of hospitality; everything about them should be inviting. And because they are small, they can be “over-the-top wonderful,” with the use of high-end pieces.

Hawthorn created such an environment with an overhaul of a Fairfax Station space. Atop the custom-made cherry vanity sits a hand-painted sink. Twin sconces on either side of the beveled gold-leaf mirror provide accent light. The walls are painted look-at-me Rectory Red from Farrow & Ball. The ceiling and trim are finished in Benjamin Moore’s Floral White.

In these tight spaces, experts say there’s a real opportunity to go bold, especially when it comes to paint color or wallpaper.

“I firmly believe, even if you have a small powder room, paint it dark and deep and yummy!” says interior designer Brooke Steuart. “What is that old theory, the smaller the room the lighter the color? I just do not believe in that theory one iota! The smaller room, the darker the color! It makes it more intimate and it kind of embraces you. It feels cozy.”

Too daring? Steuart begins with the basics, asking: What’s your favorite color? “It’s not going to be white!” she says. “It might be yellow. But mostly they’re going to say red, green, cobalt blue. I say, Why don’t we paint this room your favorite color!”

A Newfound Identity
As these once-lackluster rooms begin to experience a newfound identity, May says that could be an example of the progression of completed home renovations.

“We’ve kind of gone through this phase of designing the kitchen and the bathroom, and I think this is a natural outgrowth of focusing in on these more utilitarian spaces, along with the rest of the other spaces in the home. Once you’ve done the kitchen, the [powder room] is the last piece,” she says. “We hear over and over that kitchens and baths sell homes.”

As blank canvases, they should foster creativity, says Steuart. After updating the fixtures, use the walls to exhibit mementos. Consider arranging family photographs like those in a gallery. Showcase travel artifacts. Think of such pieces as jewelry, and dress up these spaces.

The powder room should be a showpiece that is special and reflective of your personality. After all, “it’s very easy to have mediocre,” says Shea. “It takes guts to have great.”

(April 2010)