The first powder rooms date back to the early 18th century and bear little resemblance to the room we call a powder room in contemporary homes. From their inception, powder rooms were always small rooms resembling a closet. Both ladies and gentlemen used the space to enclose themselves whilst powdering their wigs—a daily dousing with powder was required to keep them, ahem, fresh. As societies evolved to such niceties as indoor plumbing, and fashions moved away from the powdered wig, the “powder room” began to evolve its purpose into what we understand it to be today: a small bathroom most commonly found on the first floor of homes.
These “half baths,” once rare, are now so ubiquitous that most modern homes are designed and built with one on the first floor, and owners of older homes have already installed one or have “Powder Room” at the top of their renovation wish-lists. And why not? Having a first-floor powder room eliminates the need to send guests traipsing upstairs through more private, family areas of the home when they need to use the facilities. Powder rooms are very desirable selling points, and conversions of small first-floor spaces (such as space under staircases, corners of larger rooms, or even actual closets) to powder rooms are common—generally accepted to be a worthwhile return on a homeowner’s investment.
Unlike full baths, where tubs, showers, storage items and linen closets claim a lot of space, a powder room can be small because the only requirements for functionality are a toilet and a sink. Because of the size and relative simplicity, a powder room is a great room to experiment with your decorating style. Even if your tastes run toward the traditional, a powder room is an excellent place to try something a little different. Smaller rooms are usually easier and less expensive to make over than larger spaces, making the powder room an ideal space to experiment with an exciting new color scheme or bold design features. There’s no need to cringe or make excuses when asked about this small but necessary room. A powder room can be transformed from blah to wow with a few simple considerations. Read on for some ideas to transform this space into a room with true “wow factor.”
Furniture and Fixtures
At the minimum, a powder room will need a toilet and a sink, and you should consider them design elements in their own right. Even the humble commode can now be purchased with almost as many features as some cars. A quick wander down to the plumbing supply store will open your eyes to an array of features: one-piece construction, “comfort height,” low-flow flushing and more. While you are there, have a look at the second necessity: sinks. The sink itself can be designed in several ways depending on your taste and space: the basin, the fixtures, and the vanity or pedestal are all design elements. The basin itself can be crafted to sit on top of a base, dropped inside, or mounted under the countertop.
Scale is important. A very small powder room will feel crowded with a large sink and vanity, so if your powder room is cozy, then consider a simple but elegant porcelain pedestal. Historic homes often benefit from a clean, white porcelain stand-alone sink with chrome fixtures to reflect the age of the home. In a larger powder room, the sink and its trappings can be a real centerpiece. A large vanity with interesting cabinetry and a beautifully crafted countertop is always stunning.
Speaking of countertops, the powder room is a fun place to try countertop materials that you love such as marble, or recycled glass, or even poured concrete, without the fear that they may not stand up to the wear and tear of say, a kitchen or family bath. Often, a piece of furniture such as an antique wooden chest, desk or cabinet can be customized to a unique sink base, and will give the room a special heirloom feel. This look is also frequently mimicked by ingenious cabinetry designers and can be purchased ready-made. If replacing the toilet, sink or vanity is not in the budget, consider just painting the existing vanity and replacing the countertop material and fixtures. Often this facelift is enough to make the whole room feel brand new.
Walls and Flooring
Nothing makes a room pop like bold walls. Whether you choose to go for a richly colored paint, or a fun wallpaper, this is the place to really embrace color and pattern. Bold color, geometrics or whimsical graphics work especially well in a powder room. A color or pattern that would be overwhelming in a larger room actually suits this smaller space, lending excitement and interest. Love the idea of bold wallpaper, but get concerned about papering an entire space? In a powder room, it’s perfectly acceptable to paper only one accent wall and paint the others. This can be an especially attractive treatment on the wall behind the sink, where mirror, sconces and other features such as wall art or countertop decor can be complementary features.
Because the space is small, be sure that the walls and the flooring choice don’t compete with each other: If one is bold, the other should be more demure, and don’t forget to paint your trim (doorframe, door and moldings) with a fresh coat of coordinating or neutral color.
Flooring options for powder rooms vary widely, but by far the most popular (and durable) is either tile or hardwood. Though some may have concerns about hardwoods in a bathroom, fear not: Powder rooms generally do not have the constant exposure to moisture that a full bath does, and so hardwoods stand up nicely here. In some powder rooms, tile is not only a flooring choice, but a wall choice as well, and as such, will need to be incorporated into your larger design in terms of paint or wallpaper for a cohesive space. Thankfully, tile comes in every hue and texture imaginable, and tile walls and backsplashes can be a good idea, particularly if there are children who will be using the space.
Lighting, Mirrors and Artwork
Lighting, mirrors and artwork are the icing on the cake of your powder room design. Hardly any powder room would be complete without lighting and a mirror. First consider the natural lighting: If you do have a window in your powder room, some thought will be required to provide adequate privacy for your family and guests. Shades, plantation shutters and café curtains provide privacy without compromising all your natural light. Powder rooms are one of the few rooms in your home where it is perfectly acceptable not to have a window, but even the lucky homeowners who do will still need to consider an artificial lighting plan. While overhead lighting is usually sufficient, it is not always the most flattering. Try standing in front of the sink and look in the mirror. Is there enough light to say, put on lipstick? If not, you may need to consider a secondary lighting plan. This could be as easy as a small plug-in lamp on a stand nearby, a tiny pendant lamp over the sink, or perhaps sconces installed to one or both sides of the sink. When selecting your lighting, consider the theme you have established with your fixtures, furniture (sink base or vanity) and wall coverings—be sure to choose complementary lighting. Vintage glass looks wonderful in a period home, small chandeliers are stunning against patterned wallpaper, and recessed cup lighting is a great way to add overhead lighting in rooms with lower ceilings.
Mirrors are a must as well. Traditionally (and practically) hung over the sink, a mirror is often the undisputed focal point of the room. If you’ve already gone bold with walls and/or fixtures, be sure your mirror doesn’t compete with the look you’ve already established. A simple but adequately sized mirror often works best against busy walls. If you’ve chosen a more neutral theme, then your mirror (or its frame) can be the showstopper. From carved and gilded, to modern and sleek…even framed in unusual items such as driftwood orseashells, mirrors can be as beautiful as they are functional.
Finally, consider other artwork for your powder room. Keep in mind the scale of the room, and your design as you choose what, if anything, will adorn the walls or surfaces. If wall space is at a premium, and you’ve chosen a bold-patterned wallpaper, your walls will likely need nothing at all, but more often than not, a few well-chosen items will enhance your design. If the space is very small, do not hang artwork where it can be easily knocked off or knocked into. If your artwork is freestanding, like a sculpture or a vase, place it out of harm’s way where guests can enjoy it without being nervous that a careless elbow or swinging pocketbook will wreak havoc.
Since a powder room is often used by both family and guests, it is important to stock the room with essentials as well as some thoughtful extras for guests to use. At the minimum, provide soap for hand washing, several clean towels, plenty of toilet paper and a trashcan. You might consider providing an attractive but accessible basket of things a guest might need in a pinch: stain removal wipes, band-aids, a box of dental floss, mouthwash (with disposable cups!), aspirin, hand lotion, and sanitary items. Cleaning equipment, plungers and the like should always be stored neatly out of sight.
As with any room of your home that will be used by the family and guests alike, the powder room should be regularly checked for cleanliness. The object is to have a space that is always guest-friendly, at a moment’s notice, so it may take some gentle reminders initially, especially if there are children in the house, to keep it up to par. You could have the most stunning powder room in town, but if there are boots drying on the countertop, hairbrushes or toothbrushes laying around, toilet seats up, you will still cringe when someone asks to use your powder room.
So cringe not, and boldly point the way when guests request the facilities! Your powder room can be a hidden gem and an elegant surprise for your family and guests, and a fun palette upon which to try out some of your bolder decorating ideas. As long as you keep in mind the functionality of the space and the scale of the design, the possibilities are endless.