It’s always good to sparkle but there needs to be substance under the gloss

“Discretion is the better part of valour” may have been Shakespeare’s Falstaff urging caution over bravery but I think it’s a great analogy to use in bathroom design.  There’s no point in having a sparkly bathroom – a sea of shiny white ceramic fittings, glossy tiles, glass and chrome – if the minute you start using it, there’s a messy collection of bottles, tubs and tubes spoiling the vista not to mention a tower of loo rolls on the window cill.  

Discreet storage is key to successful bathroom design – in fact whether it’s a downstairs loo, an en suite shower room or a full bathroom with or without a separate shower – they all need a degree of discreet storage and – my personal mantra – you can never have enough storage.

While your utility room is usually somewhere tucked out of the way where the domestic clutter of day-to-day can be hidden away, your cloakroom, shower room and bathroom are seen and used by family and friends; visitors to your home are more likely to see your bathroom than they are your bedroom.

A luxury bathroom by London Square with separate loo and shower & plenty of storage above and below the basins. An ornamental shelf beside the bath is perfect for a book – or perhaps glass of champagne

The downstairs loo

So let’s start with the downstairs loo – exactly what is all this ‘stuff’ that needs discreet storage?  The obvious is the loo roll; don’t get me wrong there are worse things to look at and while they’re not exactly a thing of beauty, they are highly necessary, and your guests need to know where to find one if the roll runs out while they’re on the job as it were.  Being frank, a mini loo roll tower on the window cill isn’t a good look, although I have a good friend who uses hers to reduce the draughts round the window until her refurbishment starts.

Pandemic panic-buying aside, how many spare loo rolls do you need? Well, that’s down to whether post-lockdown you intend to be resuming the hosting of large gatherings – let’s just say one won’t be enough but why leave embarrassment to chance? Add to that – as any parent will know – children of all ages are notoriously uneconomical so whether it’s just for the household – or your guests – I’m a great believer in safety in numbers.  In a downstairs loo I recommend enough storage for say three loo rolls, and the basin, if there’s no shelf, needs to have enough space for handwash/soap and hand cream as a basic minimum. Ideally there should also be a room spray – I agree most are horrible, so I recommend Aēsop’s’ Post Poo Drops – it’s sufficiently ‘cool’ and pharmaceutical in appearance to look OK on a shelf if storage is really in short supply – and it tends to raise a smile from unfamiliar, quizzical guests when they see it. It smells good too. Of course, a supermarket air freshener will suffice but as less attractive, it’s better to store it out of sight, but easily findable along with the spare loo rolls; if all else fails, leave a box of matches instead.  I know many people who have a decorative basket with loo rolls in them, often on an open shelf under a sink which is both practical and good to look at (I’m not that much of a snob) but I hate them when they are beside the loo… sorry guys, especially young boys… it’s all about the aim.

Personally, and from a purely practical point of view – it’s great to have enough storage in a downstairs cloakroom so you can check your hair/make up etc without having to go upstairs so ideally there should also be space for some basic ‘repair and renewal’ items – hairbrush/comb and hair spray at the very least and ideally a spare lippy and blusher for a quick refresh; while the latter  requires your cloakroom to have a good mirror and lighting  you don’t need this all littering the surfaces – and hairbrushes are never the most attractive or hygienic of items. I also think tissues are another must… but I guess there’s loo roll when all else fails.  And, finally while these don’t require hidden storage, a small bin and a loo brush cleaner should be a pre-requisite and neither should discolour or rust within a few months – better not to have them at all if that’s what you end up looking at.  If we’re thinking guests, then of course a scented candle is a worthy ornamental addition but again, requires a window cill or shelf. A towel is also a pre-requisite but another great look (and more hygienic) if there’s space is a decorative basket of small face towels (you often see them in hotels and restaurants) which are used once and thrown into another basket for washing.

If you’re thinking we’re still only on the downstairs cloakroom, it’s worth noting that since 1999 all new homes have to have a ground floor loo that is also wheelchair accessible; hence the reason why they are larger than they strictly need to be (remember the ones that used to be tucked under the stairs?),  yet despite the extra space, I have, in the last two years (2020 being a write-off in terms of much showhome viewing) occasionally seen cloakrooms in showhomes with no storage – just a loo at one end and a tiny basin, with almost no space even for soap at the other, with a mirror above at best – but sometimes only a picture – we all need mirrors! 

A more compact bathroom also by London Square but still with storage below the basin and a wide shelf.

The Loo or L’eau?

I should clarify my use of the word loo, I hate the word toilet.  It doesn’t matter how you speak – you can have the perfectly honed accent of Joanna Lumley – but in my opinion no one can say the word toilet nicely; it’s such an ugly word. Even when the word toilette is employed, it sounds a tad pretentious unless you’re in France. So, for me it’s ‘the loo’ which incidentally is reputed to originate also from a French word – l’eau – for water.  When I write about property and if propriety demands something more formal than ‘loo’, I refer to it as a cloakroom.  I don’t really like WC, lavatory or the American ‘Restroom’ or ‘Washroom’ either. 

Of course, all these musings about bathroom design are confined to new homes and to refurbishment projects – existing bathrooms are, at the end of the day what they are, so if there’s no current storage, the only way to provide it is by adding a freestanding piece of furniture – assuming there’s enough space of course – or embark on a complete re-design with new fixtures and fittings.

The Bath/Shower Room

So what’s good in bathroom design and what’s not – and why is storage so necessary?

Despite the amazing advancements in bathroom design, some housebuilders still cut corners (in my opinion) and opt for pedestal basins (some of which still have earth wires!) with pipes running down the back of the stand.  It’s unsightly and it’s a dust trap; the same goes for loos with gaps behind the U-bend.  There’s no need for it.   Even if you don’t like hyper-modern wall-hung basins or loos, there’s enough back-to-the-wall models of both in traditional and contemporary designs, that eliminate dust traps and deliver a more streamlined aesthetic.

However, wall-hung basins and loos deliver a hidden benefit – they usually require bulkheads to house the cistern or taps; what’s important about a bulkhead? It enables shelving to be provided and cupboards (preferably mirrored) above.  So if you’re about to embark on your own bathroom refurbishment, make sure that inside the cupboard, ensure the shelving is the height of a loo roll and make one shelf the height of two rolls – which means it will take taller bottles as well.  Another tip is to ensure the cupboard door hangs slightly lower at the bottom so your fingers can tuck underneath pull the door forward without leaving fingerprints on the mirror.

A sumptuous en suite bath and shower room by London Square with open shelving for ornaments and hidden storage behind the mirrors and below the basins.
A striking bath and shower room with display and hidden storage by Berkeley at Wimbledon Hill Park

So why is hidden storage de rigor?  The need for sufficient spare loo rolls has already been addressed in the downstairs cloakroom but if you’re in an apartment or a house (like ours) without a ground floor loo, then your bathroom or en suite shower room becomes ‘public property’ – no longer your private domain – but for use by family and friends too should they visit. You are unlikely to have all your food on display in your kitchen so why have your loo rolls and toiletries on show in your bathroom?   And yet, like cloakrooms, I’ve seen brand new showhomes with no bathroom storage at all and even some with no mirrors.

A concealed mirrored cupboard with an ornamental shelf below.

So much more to store

Everything I’ve already said about downstairs cloakrooms applies here too but, in the bath/shower room there’s so much more to conceal than loo rolls and air freshener.  Shampoo, conditioner and shaving materials are just the start together with toothpaste, toothbrush and deodorant – and that’s just for one.  If there’s two of you using the room – or the whole family – start doubling up and more. I love sitting at a dressing table in my bedroom to put on make-up and dry my hair – but even so, the ‘base layer’ starts in the bathroom so my cupboard hides a plethora of body lotions, serums, face creams and hair styling sprays/foams – not to mention a back-up spare of each – but many do everything from the bathroom so  a makeup bag is often permanently propped on the top of the cistern or cill when shortage is short. Your storage cupboard should also include a socket for recharging shavers and/or toothbrushes – no need for these to be on display either.

Then there’s the pharmaceutical provisions – even without any prescription drugs, most people need painkillers, plasters, vitamins and indigestion remedies to hand – and while the under 45s may raise a wry smile at the latter two, they are likely to have the pills, patches, caps or condoms not to mention – for the girls – those other periodic necessities that remind us that one of the aforementioned items has worked that month. And, ideally, these latter necessities ought to have a minor provision stored in the downstairs loo too – not just for you but to eliminate embarrassment for guests too if they get caught short. 

Lastly there’s the cleaning materials.  Of course, if space is at a premium these can be stored in the kitchen but if you live in a three or four storey home, you will find it much more helpful to have a set of cleaning materials on each floor where there is a bath or shower room.

A bathroom by Thakeham with a useful shelf and hidden storage below the basin
Even this small shower room serving a gym has a shelf below the basin and another below the mirror for the base necessities.

Making recessed shelving niche

Clearly there’s no point in hiding the shampoo/conditioner/shower gel in a cupboard – it needs to be at hand in the shower area, but there’s no need either for those wire trays (the bottles always fall over) in modern bath/shower room design; a niche built into the wall of the shower cubicle or above the bath if you have a bath with a shower above, is the only way to go.  My tiler – Patrick Collins has always recommended choosing your tiles at the outset of the design process, that way your builder can build the niche to the size of the tiles – whether it’s  a single large format tile or multiple smaller tiles, you want the niche to use ‘whole’ tiles so you don’t end up with multiple tile cuts and odd sizes – and the positioning of the niche also needs to allow for the right spacing of the surrounding wall tiling too – you don’t want to end up with odd slithers of tiling at the skirting or ceiling. I gave them my shampoo bottle too to ensure it was tall enough – it might seem obvious, but we got it wrong the first time. The base of the niche should also have a nominal gradient to stop water collecting.

There are of course other things – especially in family bathrooms in homes with young children – that need some kind of storage solution. Bath-time toys being the main one but until they are old enough to use yours, there’s also the children’s toothpaste, baby shampoo, soap and nappies to add to the tubes and bottles that need a home. I was reminded of all this when my son and grandson moved house last week.

Eliminate impracticalities

Lastly, in the design stakes – another thing that remains a bugbear of mine in modern bath and shower rooms is the towel rail.  Why don’t designers work out how many people could live in the house – if there’s an en suite shower room to the master bedroom suite and a family bathroom serving say, three other bedrooms, then it’s safe to assume the home – if everyone has a room each – could be expected to service a minimum of three children/young adults (more of course if they share or have returned home during the pandemic with their other half in tow). So why is only one ladder towel rail with the rails closely spaced together with only one decent sized gap for a towel to hang over, so often found in family bathrooms?  They may be quite efficient at providing heat but is only one person – two at best – ever allowed to have a dry towel?  Underfloor heating and a towel rail with multiple widely spaced rungs are the better option.   Don’t forget to include at least a couple of hooks too – either on the back of the door or on walls if there’s space – it’s somewhere to hang dressing gowns – or wet towels if the towel rail is full!

A luxury bathroom by Vanderbilt with useful storage below the basins, shelf for more ornamental items and plenty of towel rails.

There’s also nothing worse than getting wet before you get into the shower; make sure you put the controls ‘outside’ the shower tray so you can turn it on and wait for the water to get hot before you step underneath.

One increasing trend in luxury bathroom design is to have separate partitioning for a loo with its own door and the same for the shower room; while one’s bathroom should be a private room at certain times, there’s no avoiding the occasional unexpected interruption by a partner or child – to know you’re behind a closed door gives added peace of mind and saves over-familiarity – somethings after all, should be sacrosanct. 

Finally – and fortunately one thing no-one actually has to live with; why do interior designers continue to decorate their shower cubicles with a huge vase of flowers? It’s neither realistic nor aspirational.

So while your bathroom needs to sparkle, it needs to do its job aesthetically too – good luck with your bathroom design and may you or your guests never run out of loo rolls – that definitely removes the sparkle.