Bodacious Bathrooms

by Julie Sturgeon

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The dilemma with bathrooms is that our mothers passed down antiquated ideas about them. For years the attitude seemed to be that we did our Christian duty by allowing them into the house and that was enough.

That is until the dream homes and subdivision model homes began rolling out larger-than-life bathrooms decked out to tempt a sultan. And suddenly, our standard necessary rooms were, well, boring. But set aside part of our hard-earned income for a bathroom?

"A lot of us live on budgets, me included," says Mary Kay Kiefer, president and designer of Mary Kay Kiefer Design Group. "If homeowners think creatively when it comes to decorating this area of the house, we can have it all." Everything you need for an unforgettable retreat, she notes, can be found in a retail hardware or arts and crafts store. A morning shopping trip can produce an entirely new bathroom by sundown.

"Even though we're still a bit of a vain society, we think smarter," says Mary Wright, Economy Kitchen and Bath's designer. "We demand solutions that don't take a lot of time to maintain but still offer a high-end presentation."

Take paint, for instance. Wallpaper's heavy, cloying presence has fallen out of favor, replaced by the crispness of a neutral pigment such as eggshell or sand. As a bonus, it's the least expensive way to spice up a bathroom quickly. Citrus colors, such as tangerine, lime green and raspberry, are emerging as hot choices, especially when applied to the walls.

Red on black combinations and yellow complete the key cutting-edge color schemes.

For a real eye-opener, paint the ceiling a different color from the walls, Kiefer suggests. Wooden appliques from a craft store spray-painted in opposite colors and randomly glued to the walls produce a joyous, spontaneous look without a fuss. Or metallic highlights in silver, bronze or gold combed over any base paint for a striping effect provide a trendy way to provide depth in minutes.

What to Leave Out

According to professional interior designers, whether you want a formal or casual appearance, spartan is the watchword. You can update your bathroom simply by taking down window curtains and allow the blinds or shutters to stand alone, suggests Cheryl Schneider, partner at Jacobs/Schneider Interior Design.

To instantly convert the room from utilitarian to romantic, Kiefer removes the obligatory ceiling light and large vanity bulbs. (At the very least, a dimmer switch - complete with easy-to-follow installation instructions on the back of the package - allows you to alternate between the two extremes.) She then places lamps on the countertop or toilet tank. The plain-shade varieties present a perfect opportunity to add spice. Paint, cover, or stripe them for a unique touch. "This makes a major difference without gutting the room or redesigning the entire look," she assures.

Candle wall sconces mounted on either side of the mirror can duplicate this glowing effect with an even softer aura. Dig out the elegant glass-globed candle stands no doubt stored away with your December holiday decorations, surround them with seasonal greenery and instantly your bathroom sparkles with new life every three months.

Hardware Magic

Today's faucet sets feature sleek, streamlined shapes in satin chrome or a new grade of polished brass. To get the most fashion mileage from your purchase, select the up-and-coming chrome and brass combinations at the hardware store. Both selections show fewer water spots and require less care than their parents. And there's more good news in this aisle, says designer Greg Spivey at Spivey Construction. Yesterday's choice was an entirely new sink to accommodate chic spigot and handle fittings. Today's "mini-wide" option means separate pieces fit into the standard hole drillings in your existing basin, so you can have your sink and new hardware, too.

Special Touches

Some of the easier ways to update a bathroom are also the more overlooked, says Kiefer. In particular, she explains, unscrew your current towel bars and replace them with a freestanding rack to provide that kiss of class.

If you crave a splash of color, simply roll a few thick bath towels into logs and toss them in baskets stationed around the room, suggests Donna Thompson, owner of The Water Closet. Lack a market basket? Stacks of colorful towels tied with loose ribbons are not only chic but also efficient, particularly if you have a pedestal sink.

Photos are a natural decorating asset in a personal bathroom, especially when displayed in the multitude of funky hard-plastic frames. "Photo frames are very individualized these days, so why not create a family wall in this room?" Kiefer advises. One caution: Don't select great-Grandmother's wedding picture for this display. Old photographs may not stand up well to a bathroom's steam. However, your vacation pictures from last summer will be fine.

And since you still have cash in your bank account, you've created a charming retreat indeed.

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