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It is the place of blissful escape where we steal a few moments of precious privacy. It is the place to which we see to make ourselves feel good--to relax, rejuvenate, recharge. Its importance goes well beyond the mundane practical functions of personal maintenance and the rituals of hygiene; it is where we cleanse ourselves spiritually as well as physically.
During various periods in its colorful history, the bathroom has enjoyed an elevated status in the home. Until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, bathrooms were extravagances reserved for the rich, and that halo of luxury still exists today. Though small in size, it is the room in which we find some of our greatest personal pleasures-and its decorative potential is enormous.
Bathroom design and decoration are rooted in a hierarchy of need fulfillment that begins with the functional and moves to the emotional and psychological. Every good bathroom is built around a kit of settings and fixtures. Choosing these basics is a question of "bath style"-are you someone who loves a long soak, or would you rather have a speedy shower?-but once those simple preferences have been determined, it is the nuances of private pleasures that guide your design decisions. With a dizzying array of decorating options, ranging from the look of a rustic farmhouse to the gilded splendor of an imperial palace, it helps to narrow the field by determining your personal "feel-good" factor.
Ask yourself: How do you want to feel when you're in your ultimate bathroom? What would you most like to gaze at from the tub? Do you want your bathroom to be as comfortable as a sitting room, with all the trappings of a properparlor, or do you prefer gleaming expanses of squeaky-clean tile? When you begin to imagine ideal environments, you'll find that the bathroom serves a multitude of functions, both emotional and physical, on a daily basis. In the morning, we may race to it to psych ourselves up to face the world.
Under the pulse of a shower or in the depths of a hot bath we might strategize, compose, and energize ourselves to meet the demands of the day. It is in the bathroom that we revert to our most natural state-nudity-but we also construct artifice, fashioning our outward selves for public presentation. In the midst of our nonprivate lives, we slip into the bathroom at various times of the day to have a moment alone, to look into the mirror and remind ourselves of who we are. At nightfall the bathroom is our restorative haven, the place where we literally let our hair down. There we can spend quiet time regrouping and editing, reconstructing our remembered day into something to save. Throughout any given week we retreat to the bathroom in the pursuit of luxury, therapy, healing, pampering, intimacy, solace, beauty. It is a place of self-transformation, where our outermost and innermost selves converge.
For all these reasons, the bathroom is a special place. Naturally we want it to look special, and the fulfillment of that wish requires energy, introspection, imagination, and an understanding of our own needs and desires. Of these, imagination is perhaps the most important-thinking about a place you may have taken for granted and seeing it in a new way. Do you want to start the day with a muscle-pounding power shower? Do you long to lounge in a tub filled with essential oils, immersed in the pages of a steamy novel?
Whether you yearn for the sparkle of high-tech chic (pages 124 and 125) or the ambience of an Edwardian gentleman's dressing room (page 115), you can make a splash and transform even the most ordinary space into a real bathing beauty.
The modern bathroom has come a long way since its earliest manifestations-and the refinement of personal cleanliness is only one small part of the picture. The room we consider private to the point of sanctity had, at various times during its evolution, a very public image. It has been a status symbol, a center of social life, and has even played a part in courtship rituals, celebrations, and entertainment.
For the ancients, bathing was a public affair where ritual reigned supreme. Private baths did exist in ancient Greece-one notable example was the Queen's bathroom in the Palace of Knossos at Crete (ca. 2000 b.c.), which was whimsically decorated with water motifs-but for most Greeks, bathing was a communal activity. The baths were a meeting ground where gossip was shared, politics were discussed, contacts were made, and business was informally conducted.
In ancient Rome, the social significance of the public bath reached an apotheosis. Roman baths were architecturally impressive and opulently decorated, often consisting of a collection of rooms ritualistically arranged within elegant garden complexes. Bathing was not a do-it-yourself operation: servants would pour water over the bathers from a series of containers and anoint them with oils. The bath's association with wealth no doubt had its roots in antiquity. The sheer laboriousness of the process and the key role of servants earned it a reputation as a luxurious leisure activity, even though both rich and poor visited the baths in ancient times. As for private baths, these, too were found in elite Roman villas, but they did not diminish the importance of public bathing and its association with both sensual pleasure and social status.
After the Roman Empire's demise, the nature of bathing, along with the whole of domestic life, changed profoundly. By the Norman period, domestic architecture had taken on a communal character. Individual rooms were not assigned to specific functions; daily activities were centered in a cavernous hall. Privacy was an alien concept in these heavily populated settings. There, family members, retainers, employees, and guests would eat, cook, sleep, socialize, and even raise animals. When bathing was desired, large, round wooden tubs were brought to the hall and filled with heated water poured from jugs.
During the Middle Ages, a number of monasteries featured rooms with multiple tubs. There were conflicting attitudes toward the use of them, however. Some monks regarded washing as an act of piety, while others felt it was more religiously correct not to bathe. Among the general population there was a belief that water spread disease, and these concerns surrounded monastic baths as well as public baths. In the private arena, however, it appears that some people were more concerned with status than with piety when it came to washing. Illuminated manuscripts and paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (see illustration on this page) depict bathing as an important part of upper-class social life. Wooden tubs, designed to seat at least two people, were lined with linens-a potent sign of wealth due to their rarity and expense. These liners, often edged with delicate embroidery, were used to shield bathers from soggy wood and/or splinters, but were also very much on display. Some tubs were even piled with pillows, which, naturally, soon became sopping wet. In other cases, tubs were topped with billowing canopies, and although their stated function was to capture steam from the bath, more likely they served the same role as the canopies that towered over beds and chairs-to confer status on their owners and literally crown them with a halo of wealth. Since many medieval landowners traveled according to planting seasons, linens were a practical way to flaunt a flounce; they could be packed and unpacked as the household relocated.
Eventually, the elite act of "private" bathing was integrated into ceremonies, celebrations, and courtship rituals. Nudity, it should be noted, did not have the same associations with intimacy that it does today. So, with linens prominently in view, bathers would be wined, dined, and feted with music, and the bath became warmly established as something much more than an opportunity to become clean.
During the Renaissance, those people fortunate enough to have bedrooms often bathed there, too. The tubs they summoned had lids that partially covered the tops to keep the steam from escaping. In posh homes, tented baths were constructed in rooms of their own. These bathrooms, although rarely found before the seventeenth century, could be extravagantly decorated. A "bathing room" at Windsor Castle was described in 1598 as "wainscoted with a looking glass." According to historian Lawrence Wright, this may have been the place where Queen Elizabeth I took her monthly bath, "whether she needed it or no." A general distrust of water continued to abound, however, keeping many people bath-free. This growing paranoia about water, combined with an increased awareness of outward appearance, gave rise to a trend of washing only the exposed parts of one's body--that is, the face and hands. Frequent changes of clothing and the power of fragrances or floral pomanders were relied upon to take care of the rest.
Turkish-style public baths witnessed a revival in seventeenth-century Europe. The original Turkish bath, popular since the Ottoman Empire, had evolved as a part of Islamic culture. It featured a progression of increasingly warm rooms through which bathers passed until they reached a steam room so hot that it was necessary to wear protective shoes. This was followed by a cool-down period in a more temperate chamber, after which bathers were treated to a rigorous massage and a fragrant wash-down. European baths borrowed some architectural forms and also adopted certain rituals from the traditional Turkish bath. One notable exception was that in a true Turkish bath women and men were strictly forbidden to mingle within its chambers. Heat, however, was still a key attraction. According to the London Spy in 1699, Britain's version of the Turkish bath featured water as "hot as a pastry cook's oven." Public baths, in spite of their popularity, were still viewed with suspicion by a certain portion of the population. Pepys, the seventeenth-century diarist, observed the comings and goings of one communal bather: "My wife busy in going with her woman to the hot house to bathe herself, after her long being within doors in the dirt, so that she now pretends to a resolution of being hereafter very clean. How long it will hold, I can guess. . . . me thinks it cannot be clean to go so many bodies with the same water."
While "so many bodies" shared water at the public baths, private bathrooms were becoming "showstoppers." They were still reserved for an elite few, however. Historian Peter Thornton notes that in the seventeenth century French architect Louis Savot believed bathrooms were not "necessities" but that a "grandee might want to have a bath for some other reason."
By the early eighteenth century the private bathroom was well-established as a status symbol, and important enough to figure in architectural designs. The French architect Jacques-François Blondel published a grand design for a salle de bain in 1738, with a matched pair of specially designed "before and after" tubs-one for washing and one for rinsing-both topped by elaborate, fabric-draped canopies (page 11). This opulent style was hardly wasted on bathers alone, however. The stylish practice of receiving visitors in one's private apartments-derived from the royal levee-put bathrooms on display for select guests. On the coveted house-tour routes of the day, visitors who ranked highly enough were able to gain access to an elite homeowner's inner chambers, including the bedroom and the bath. In 1802 English diarist and essayist Mary Berry's trip to Paris was made complete by a glimpse of Madame Recamier's ultra-chic bathroom: "Out of [her bedroom] is a beautiful little salle de bain. The walls are inlaid with satin-wood and mahogany, and slight arabesques patterns in black upon the satin-wood. The bath presents itself as a sofa in a recess, covered with a cushion of scarlet cloth embroidered and laced in black" (page 12).
The "private" bathroom, worthy of being put on display in its finery, had arrived. It was at last, in author Witold Rybczynski's words, a "fashionable accessory."
While the design of personal bathing chambers continued to evolve, certain public baths became stylish destinations. In Bath, England, for example, where the waters were believed to have therapeutic powers, the great and the good came together for the spa experience. These natural baths became the center of an elaborate social scene, including teas, dances, and assemblies. Intriguingly, it was one of the few places where the classes mixed and mingled.
In the midst of this public bath revival, private bathrooms were being outfitted with coy new accessories. Bathtubs, often copper, might be concealed in decorative rattan surrounds with high backs designed to look like sofas or daybeds, or painted with lavish decoration.
These, along with chamber-pot cupboards that were often disguised as chairs, graced the pages of pattern books, such as Chippendale's, Sheraton's, and Hepplewhite's, and were treated as grandly as any other piece of household furniture.
By mid-nineteenth century the Victorian passion for creating objects to suit every need and fancy was enthusiastically directed at the bathroom. The Great Exhibition of 1851, held at the Crystal Palace in London, featured all manner of baths, including shower, traveling, sponge, slipper, and soap baths, as well as other furnishings, such as washstands and shaving stands. These were all available from manufacturers' catalogs. Prescriptive literature extolled the virtues and vices, both medical and spiritual, of various water temperatures and degrees of wetness. Most enduring, however, were the advances in plumbing and manufacturing that made hot-and-cold running water available to a larger public. Servants and water carriers, though they still existed, were no longer essential to a good, hot bath, and bathroom rituals became more private. Eventually, tubs and shower baths were established as standard fixtures, and were shuttered away behind closed doors. The bathroom became the private inner sanctum we know today.
The first sinks were associated with dining and/or religious rituals. In the medieval period, hand-washing practices were strictly governed by rules laid out in etiquette manuals and prescriptive literature. At elite banquets, a servant would bring to the table a ewer or jug, often made of precious metals and ornamented with decorative motifs or the owner's coat of arms, and, in order of rank, would pour scented water over diners' outstretched hands. A basin was used to catch the overflow.
Pitchers and washbasins have since enjoyed a long history. During the Renaissance they were placed in sleeping chambers-where such chambers existed-and by the eighteenth century porcelain basins and pitchers were standard bedroom fixtures. People tended to use these for washing the "public" parts of their bodies-that is, face and hands. As the bathroom gained in status in the eighteenth century, major cabinetmakers introduced use-specific furniture, such as washstands and shaving stands, which could be placed either in the bedroom or the bathroom. The basic design of these pieces consisted of a porcelain bowl sunk neatly into a piece of decorative case furniture. With its function thus concealed, the cabinet would look appropriate in any room of the house. As the style evolved, washstands were embellished with elaborate folding tops, sometimes fitted with mirrors. Though diminutive, these cabinets were clearly status symbols.
In the nineteenth century, size mattered-at least where domestic objects were concerned. First, sinks were encased in majestic, oversized dressing tables; later, elaborate tiled back splashes were added to the tables to protect walls from water damage. By the late nineteenth century advances in plumbing and porcelain production gave rise to the pedestal sink, a design that endures to this day. Although running water at the turn of the tap had become available to a broad population, bowls and pitchers were still used into the twentieth century. Ironically, these could long be found in grand English country houses, because the cost of fully plumbing very large residences was prohibitive. Nevertheless, the availability of running water in private homes and the establishment of the sink as a standard fixture marked a key point in the evolution of domestic life. The water carrier, though forever fixed in the heavens, had been replaced.
Like tubs and sinks, toilets were originally portable. Although Sir John Harington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I, invented a flushing toilet in 1596, and Alexander Cummings patented his "valve closet" in England in 1775, various forms of flushing toilets remained luxuries until well into the nineteenth century. Most people used chamber pots. Historical folklore suggests that the term loo originated in eighteenth-century Edinburgh, when passers-by would hear a call of "Gardy-loo" (the local rendition of the French gardez l'eau) and know that the contents of a chamber pot were about to be flung out of a nearby window. Other historians speculate that the term may be a reference to the French usage of petits lieux or lieux a l'anglaise in architectural plans.
Early chamber pots, or "close stools," were cloaked in disguises. One such pot, made for the use of the "kynges mageste" in 1547, was grandly upholstered to resemble a high-backed throne. By the eighteenth century chamber pots were masquerading as carved chairs and elegant cupboards; one popular rendition was a stool that sported a pile of faux books with such titles as Mystères de Paris or Voyages au Pays Bas. These tongue-in-cheek names clearly revealed the furniture's hidden purpose to an au courant audience. In the nineteenth century ceramic toilets and chamber pots were often either lavishly decorated with floral and other motifs or hidden in thronelike chair surrounds.
Where permanent toilets existed, they were often placed in private rooms of their own. The modern convention of sink, toilet, and bathtub and/or shower in a single room is a late-nineteenth-century American concept initiated by luxury hotels. The European practice of placing the toilet in a separate room still endures in some places.
Today it is not the ability to have a steady stream of hot water on demand that astonishes us. Rather, it is the dazzling array of decorative choices we have at our disposal-our palette of opportunity stretches across cultures and across centuries.
So what does the ideal bathroom look like? When I was growing up in America in the 1950s and 1960s, bathroom design was rigidly governed by washable, waterproof surfaces, including yards of shiny ceramic tiles, vinyl wallpaper, and plastic shower curtains on plastic hooks. Every bathroom had a mirrored medicine cabinet and a plush rug/toilet seat cover set that could be easily thrown in the washing machine.
Thankfully, the cookie-cutter bathroom is a thing of the past. Now we can choose from an enormous range of fixtures and furnishings, from flea-market finds to industrial-issue flooring to vintage wall coverings. We can turn even the most ordinary space into a personal shrine of bathing, whether it be a clean, no-frills cubicle of tile and glass or a palatial bathing chamber. And because bathrooms are often the smallest room in the house, it's possible to indulge in a little fantasy decorating without breaking the bank.
Basic bathroom design falls into two broad categories: form follows function and form masks function. The first approach treats the utilitarian as inherently ornamental and makes no attempt to mask the practical, functional aspects of the bathroom. The fittings themselves do the decorating, and there is little superfluous ornament. Cleanliness informs the aesthetic: with shining fittings and sleek, uncluttered expanses, there is no place for grime (or even water spots) to hide, and these hygienic surfaces, in turn, can actually make us feel clean. The form-follows-function approach is perhaps epitomized by the elegant Art Deco bathrooms at Claridge's (page 53). Gleaming ceramic bathtubs, marble floors, and tiled walls are both practical and dramatic. The large watering-can shower head is fully functional, but if it were adopted into a modern bathroom design scheme it would become highly decorative, an anachronism infused with sentiment.
One excellent example of equipment-as-period-piece is the Edwardian shower-bath contraption that tops the tub on pages 49 and 52. The exposed system of pipes reveals its own inner workings, and a series of taps allows for variations in the flow of water. It's essential to the functions of the bathroom, but it's also a curiosity and forms a magnificent focal point. A more contemporary piece is a stainless-steel sink designed by London-based architect Nico Rensch. Its columnar base, inspired by a tree trunk, plays a decorative role as pure sculpture, yet it also performs the functional roles of towel rack and basin support.
The flexibility of certain fixtures can open up new design possibilities. For instance, a shower head and hose apparatus, such as the one on page 30, attaches to the floor or edge of the tub. Not only is there a certain Old World charm to such a setup, it also eliminates the need for installing a separate shower.
In some cases, interesting fittings already exist in a bathroom, but their decorative impact is lost in a jumble of textures and patterns. Here, a reductive mentality may work best. By taking nonessential elements away, you can highlight the "bones" of a room-aspects such as high ceilings, a curiously shaped window, an expanse of floor-and allow the dynamics of architecture and basic equipment to create drama. The bathroom at Manderston (page 40) has such fine proportions that it needs little more than marble walls and a sparkling white vintage tub to radiate turn-of-the-century grandeur.
The form-masks-function aesthetic de-emphasizes the bathroom's utilitarian aspects and focuses instead on its decorative elements. Popular in the eighteenth century, when ornamental objects were used to conceal the bathroom's basic functions, this design approach treats the bathroom like any other room in the house. All rules about conventional furnishings are cast aside: instead, bathrooms are made over to look like libraries, sitting rooms, or picture galleries.
Such artful camouflage is used to great effect in fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld's bathroom in Rome (page 60). With sumptuous pictures, an antique table, walls painted to simulate paneling, and charming painted chairs that hold anything from towels to books, it most resembles a cozy boudoir. The secret to its success is that, with the exception of the sink and the bathtub (encased in faux paneling), the room's furnishings and accessories could be found in any room.
In furnishing a great escapist bathroom, the found object plays a major role. When you spot a Victorian metal washstand at an auction, think twice-it could be plumbed and outfitted as a sink. The nineteenth-century chest that caught your eye at the flea market may be redundant in your bedroom, but why not employ it to store towels and toiletries in the bathroom (page 62)? You could eschew sets of terry towels and instead use time-worn tea towels, each with a unique embroidered design, as your main bathroom linens (page 111). Romantic brush sets (pages 6, 24, 70) could be destined for an honored place in the bathroom, as could the ultimate luxury: a daybed for lounging after the bath (page 74).
My personal tastes run toward the form-masks-function approach, if only because it offers more possibilities. When I restored the bathroom of my Regency house in London (see illustration on this page), I began by defining my personal feel-good factor. It wasn't difficult: I have long known that my favorite brand of escapism involves harking back to another era. So I let my imagination put me in a tub in a room with old-fashioned charm and lots of atmosphere.
For inspiration, I pored over period pattern books, prints, paintings, and vintage photographs. Then I reflected on wonderful memories of travel experiences, from the deep Art Deco bathtubs at Claridge's in London (page 53) to a Victorian tub beside a crackling fire in a splendid paneled room in a French château, similar to the one on page 72.
Having decided upon the general atmosphere of my dream bathroom, I made the first two purchases: a reproduction nineteenth-century bathtub with brass and porcelain taps, and an Edwardian toilet with an elevated cistern and a chain with a porcelain pull. The sanitary ware went a long way toward establishing the room's tone, so I was ready to set out on a long and satisfying flea-market adventure.
My foraging through London, Paris, and Provence yielded great treasures. First I found a Regency corona. Though it would have originally graced a bed, in my bathroom it was perfect as a decorative device for hanging toile de flora curtains, which can be pulled around the tub. (I lined the curtains with plastic to prevent water damage.) Future expeditions produced a roomy, marble-topped Empire chest for storage; two pairs of sconces; a romantic dry sink in a state of disrepair; and a vintage French mirror, wonderfully beribboned but painted a hideous brown. I reclaimed the mirror by applying a faux finish and some gilding, and painted the sink and tub with a pattern of ribbons and garlands copied from a decorative panel in a famous English country house. Cupboard doors were made out of inexpensive fiberboard, then camouflaged with botanical prints hung from ribbons. The final purchase was an antique French marble fireplace found at an architectural salvage shop. At last I was able to indulge my long-awaited fantasy: a luscious bath on a wintry evening in the warm glow of firelight. I felt as though I was tucked away in another world, in another century-and I still do today.
No matter what your personal bath style might be, almost any material can be used on walls, floors, and other surfaces, provided you have the means to protect them from water damage. Tiles, the tried-and-true standard of bathroom surfaces, are now available in everything from basic white to hand-glazed ceramic reproductions of classical patterns to retro linoleum designs. With tiles you can re-create the watery softness of a 1930s seafoam green bathroom or the jazz-age snap of black and white optics (pages 50, 100).
Paint is a terrific tool in the bathroom as well. Color can do wonders: a basic white tub looks entirely different when it's set against a dramatic red wall. Those with creative ambitions can try more advanced paint techniques, such as trompe l'oeil murals or faux finishes; equally dramatic are decoupage treatments or do-it-yourself stencils, available in kits. Of course, wallpaper is always an option, and can offer everything from a simple, sophisticated striped design (page 36) to a grand ribbon motif (page 78), while multiple mirrors not only make a space seem larger but also let you enjoy the whole room-even when your back is turned.
Window treatments depend on two basic requirements: privacy and light. Drapes can range from formal, full-length curtains to the tiniest wisp of vintage lace. Wooden shutters are a natural because they provide total privacy when closed, but allow the sun to stream in when open (pages 95, 98).
Most people's bathrooms are overflowing with things: soaps, lotions, potions, towels, appliances. When it comes to storage, the question is: should you conceal, or should you reveal? Each solution has its merits. Those who choose to conceal may find that chests, cabinets, and armoires work well in the bathroom. Under-sink storage can be created with cupboard like surrounds or more simply with gathered fabric attached with Velcro. Freestanding towel racks are both useful and decorative, and don't forget the humble nightstand: in the bathroom, it's ideal for displaying all sorts of grooming equipment on top, while other utilitarian items can be stashed below.
Yet so many of the accessories needed in the bathroom are pleasingly tactile and colorful-why not show them off? A cluster of perfume bottles (pages 106 and 107), new or vintage, makes a beautiful play of light when arranged on a tabletop, and even the most prosaic items can be stunning when they're presented in volume. A single cotton ball is a stray, but a mountain of cotton balls in an antique cache-pot is a statement. You may find that some of your best decorating tools are already hidden away in your cabinets. Stacks of fresh white towels can be liberated from your linen closet, tied together with ribbons, and displayed on a petite side chair. Bars of soap piled high in a country basket not only add texture and color but smell divine. Vintage glassware, metal garden pails, baskets, odd teacups and saucers, even in/out trays designed for office use can all be employed as storage units in the bathroom. Once you've found one or more motifs to work with, the fun of collecting begins: can you imagine amassing a small army of miniature shopping bags, then hanging them on pegs to store and display cosmetics? My bathroom is filled with shiny Chanel bags as well as bags emblazoned with Gainsborough reproductions. I love to stare at them from the tub.
Because of its inherently private nature, the bathroom is the ideal place to make your wildest decorating fantasies come true. In a creative reverie you may picture yourself lolling in a tub while gazing at an endless, ever-changing seascape or soaking in theatrical opulence with gilded and painted surfaces shimmering in candlelight (page 131). Your imagination may plunge you into a deep marble pool, surrounded by the exotic splendor of an Indian palace (page 123), or find you luxuriating in a scented bath of floating flower petals in a Balinese garden.
Ultimately, it is your personal feel-good factor that will lead you to your perfect bath. On the following pages you'll find bath styles that range from the scrupulously sanitary to the dreamily decadent; with imagination and creative sleight of hand, each can be realized in your own real world. And whether you choose an exhilarating plunge into a Jacuzzi after a hard day's work or an evening-long soak in a sea of movie-star bubbles, one thing remains the same: the act of bathing is quality time you spend with yourself. In that most intimate and private of rooms, you can be absolutely free.
Bathing Beauties: Basic Elements
Pure and Simple: Form Follows Function
Beauty Treatments: Form Masks Function
Bath Robes: Surface Treatments
Beauty Secrets: Storage Solutions
Making a Splash: Fantasy Bathrooms
Author Biography: Diane Berger, a decorative-arts historian and exhibition curator, is author of The Dining Room and The Bedroom and a contributor to such periodicals as Period Living & Traditional Homes and Apollo. An American, she lives in London.
Fritz von der Schulenburg's photography appears regularly in The World of Interiors, House & Garden, and Schoener Wohnen. In addition to The Dining Room and The Bedroom, his books include Empire and Neoclassicism in the North. He lives in London.