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No Room for Modesty: Local Bath Trends

Who says this is a conservative town? More Washingtonians want master baths that open right into the bedroom and that have more windows to let in natural light.

With no wall between this master bath and bedroom in Chevy Chase, more light flows through the space. Photograph By Greg Hadley.

It’s official: We’re no longer prudes in the nude—at least in the comfort of our homes. Perhaps it’s the rise of spa culture or that we’re inspired by hotels and spas overseas, but new and renovated bathrooms in Washington homes are leaving little to the imagination.

Bathrooms large and small are emphasizing the big (tile) and the open (more windows and glass). Natural light is a hot commodity. Showers are edging out tubs so they can occupy more space, and forget concealing things behind curtains or frosted-glass doors—instead, think clear glass (that is, if there’s any partition at all between the shower and the rest of the space). For those still dedicated to bathing, simple and elegant tubs—freed from being encased in decks and unburdened from fancy whirlpool systems—take the place of honor, sometimes in full view of the bed and fireplace.

“Function has become more of a driver,” says Jerry Levine of Levine Group Architects & Builders in Silver Spring. Whether it’s a large shower, sumptuous tile, or heated floors, people are spending their dollars on “focused treasures,” Levine says, “as opposed to ‘I want everything.’ ”

Those treasures are the details that contribute to the feeling of a spa. “The ‘because I deserve it’ thing continues,” says Leslie Roosevelt, a bath expert at Gilday Renovations in Silver Spring. And although traditional styling in area homes will never go away, more bathrooms are going contemporary, according to Jennifer Gilmer, who owns a kitchen-and-bath firm under her name in Chevy Chase. “They feel like contemporary is more calm. They want it to be more open,” she says. “In Europe, they’ve been doing it that way for years. It’s taken a long time for it to catch on here.”

Here’s a look at other local bath trends.

Blurring the Line Between Bed and Bath

Architect Janet Bloomberg of DC’s Kube Architecture was trying to devise different schemes to allow as much space and light as possible into the master bath of a 12-foot-wide rowhouse in Foggy Bottom. The conventional path would have been to wall it off from the bedroom, but the owners were looking for something more open. Another option was to build glass walls. A third choice was simply to have everything in the same space with no barrier at all, and—wouldn’t you know it?—“that’s what they wanted, which I found shocking,” Bloomberg says.

Now that the project is done, she sees the merits: “What’s cool about it is it’s so effective for a rowhouse.” Any room partition necessarily chops up space and blocks natural light, so when space is at a premium, it makes sense to forgo modesty. “If you’re willing to do it, as an owner, it’s the best use of space you can think of.”

Lots of examples are on popular design websites such as The technique’s popularity can be attributed to luxury hotels such as the W, whose guest rooms in Barcelona and Montreal, for example, offer a seamless transition between sleeping and bathing.

Architect Steven Spurlock found the look to be conducive to the loft he and his wife, Karin Strydom, renovated in downtown DC. Strydom travels often for her job at the International Finance Corporation and frequently stays in hotels where the bath and bedroom occupy one space. “She liked that feeling,” Spurlock says. And considering the vaulted space of their loft, a walled-in bathroom would have looked odd.

“We wanted it to feel like one big room, not a bathroom and a closet and a bedroom,” he says. In the interest of letting light flow throughout the space, the couple framed the tub and the shower in glass. “You can sit in the tub and see the fireplace. Karin can lounge in there, and I can bring her a glass of Champagne.” The bathroom storage surrounding the vanity was constructed with maple, so it looks more like bedroom furniture than bath cabinets.

This trend lends itself to modern design, but it can be adapted to a more traditional setting. Four Brothers, a contractor and custom-cabinetry firm in DC, was asked to turn a cramped attic in Chevy Chase into a master suite. “They wanted to keep it open,” project manager Leroy Johnson says, retaining only the original heart-pine floors and a brick column.

Using those elements as design cues, Four Brothers created an open bath and closet space, shielding just the clothing racks and toilet with a wall of reclaimed barn siding, fitted with a stained-glass window the clients purchased in Chicago. The wood is lit from behind with LED lights, which double as a night-light. Subway tile and marble define the bath and vanity area, and retro pendant lighting hangs above the tub, making it a highlight of the suite.

Four Brothers has since used the bed/bath concept in an ultramodern renovation of a rowhouse in DC’s Mount Pleasant. As with Bloomberg’s clients in Foggy Bottom, it had a narrow width and many chopped-up spaces. The only wall in the master suite now is used to hold up a mirror. “They didn’t even want to separate the toilet off,” Johnson says. “They wanted to really open up the master suite and bring in light from the back.”

Window Dressing

It’s one thing to be revealing inside your own home with a seamless bed, bath, and dressing area, but opening it up to the outside? Absolutely, experts say. Some master bathrooms are getting the window treatment—and we don’t mean drapes—as designers put a premium on letting in light.

“There’s something comforting and relaxing—and uplifting—about natural light,” says Jerry Levine. Artificial light “is still not the same as a beautiful, sun-shiny day. Having that while you’re inside the house? That’s great stuff—it makes living worthwhile.”

Levine won a grand prize for bath design in 2011 from the National Association of the Remodeling Industry for a master bathroom he built for a Craftsman-style house in the Palisades section of DC. The bath, which occupies a rear corner of the house, is wrapped in windows, which are dressed with cafe curtains for privacy when necessary.

“He wanted a lot of windows all along the back of the house,” Levine says of his client, noting that this arrangement follows a trend in home design “where people want to have that connection between outside and inside.” The windows are such a prominent feature in the space that Levine had the shower partitions custom-made to echo the window frames.

For homeowners who live far enough from neighbors that privacy isn’t a concern, windows get the super-size treatment, framing the nature beyond as if it were a work of art on the wall. Jonas Carnemark of the Bethesda design/build firm Carnemark performed that feat for a home in Potomac Falls overlooking a golf course. He kept the rest of the colors muted, so that the view, along with a vivid red artwork adjacent to it, would steal the show.

Even more dramatic is the Great Falls bath that Kube Architecture built for a couple who travel often for the World Bank. Modesty wasn’t an issue, particularly with a wooded three-acre property bordered by county-owned land. A huge plate-glass window brings the space directly into the forest, where the changing seasons alter the look of the bath. “That is my favorite bathroom that I’ve ever done,” says architect Janet Bloomberg.

All the Shower’s a Stage

It used to be real-estate gospel that the master bath had to have a tub for resale purposes. Not anymore, as busy homeowners recognize that they rarely—if ever—take baths, choosing instead to invest in a bigger shower, which they use every day.

“ ‘We want this fantastic, spa-like shower,’ ” says Bill Millholland, executive vice president of Case Design/Remodeling, quoting many of his clients. “ ‘I’d rather that be my daily luxury than looking at this tub that I have to dust, which I haven’t used in three months.’ ”

Anthony Wilder, who runs a design/build firm in Cabin John, agrees: “We’ve been taking tubs out for 15 years—what they’re used for is putting racks in there to dry clothes.”

Most of his clients still hesitate to let go of their tub, but Wilder manages to convince them—especially when he shows what a larger shower can do for the space. Wilder’s firm is practicing what it preaches: It bought a dilapidated 1930s-era house across the street from its Cabin John office and restored its early 20th-century charm but incorporated 21st-century features such as a streamlined master bath with no tub in sight. Although the house is being rented, Wilder shows clients photos of the space as an example of how a master bath can look with just a single large shower. “They love it because it’s smart, it’s simple, it’s clean, and it’s classic,” he says. “That will never get old.”

In smaller spaces, it’s practically a no-brainer to get rid of the tub, as a Northwest DC couple did with the help of Studio Twenty Seven Architecture’s Jake Marzolf. The husband is a “big guy,” Marzolf says; at six-foot-five, “he wanted a big Texas shower.” And that’s what he got: a long, narrow space that juts into the main bathroom like a fashion catwalk encased in glass. Natural light floods the shower and interior dressing room through a large frosted window in the shower itself.

The shower directed the rest of the master-suite design, Marzolf says. The frosted glass is repeated along the doors of the closets, which are lit from within. “We created these containers of light,” he says, so they become “lanterns” on the way to the bath area. Additional skylights also feed the bedroom with light. “We looked at it as the cycle of your day—waking light, bathing light, and dressing light.”

Place Of Honor

In spaces where the tub endures, the latest designs are featuring it as a centerpiece, almost like sculpture—an updated interpretation of its claw-foot forebears.

When Chantilly designer Marisa Moore redid her own master bath, she wanted the tub to anchor the space, more for aesthetics than for use. “I’m not into the whole Jacuzzi thing—and every client I’ve had is like that,” she says. “Nobody has time to take a bath for two hours; they just want the look.”

The Wyndham Collection tub she chose is juxtaposed against stone from the Tile Shop; the material is dark from the floor to the top of the tub but turns to white the rest of the way up the ceiling. The aptly named Fascination chandelier by Uttermost crowns the space. Moore reports getting “tons of calls” once she placed the image on her profile: “It has proven to me that this is the look people are going for.”

In Potomac, Carolyn Thomas of Jennifer Gilmer Kitchen & Bath freed one client’s master tub from a large, white, ’80s-era enclosed deck. During the renovation, her clients opted for a standalone air-jet tub by BainUltra, splurging on Italian fixtures and glass-tile mosaic installed vertically in the back. Along with cove lighting in the newly coffered ceiling, the bath alcove has much more presence. The tile, she adds, “is like a waterfall coming into the tub,” and the lighting makes it seem to glow from within.

Putting the Accent on Tile

Whatever design is adopted for a bathroom, tile is always part of the equation. Whereas other rooms have draperies and wallpaper to wrap the space in color and tone, tile assumes that role in the bathroom.

“We’re definitely seeing this idea of working with tile to create texture,” says Nadia Subaran, co-owner of Aidan Design in Bethesda. “It’s a sculptural element.”

Designers are moving away from thin borders of accent tile to entire walls that define elements of the room. Subaran adopted that technique for a client in DC’s Forest Hills. She used hand-molded and -glazed tile from Ann Sacks to reinforce the sculptural qualities of the tub and to echo the waves of the light fixture over the vanity. The tile also picks up the deep gray of Aidan’s custom cabinetry. “It creates texture and stark contrast,” Subaran says, adding that investing in artisanal tile is akin to hanging beautiful art in any other room.

Textured tile—even waterproof wall coverings—can work especially well in monochromatic rooms. For an all-white lady’s bath in DC’s Kalorama, architect Bruce Wentworth used painted wall panels by ModularArts that are sculpted in relief. “Clients love this wavy look because it has a watery quality,” he says. The wall panels make a sophisticated backdrop for the crystal chandelier, and they evoke the beach with help from a large painting on an adjacent wall.

Tile can also be used to define a space in a bathroom, much like a decorative rug can define a seating area in a larger room. DC designer Tricia Huntley used this technique in a small Georgetown bathroom. She wrapped the wall and ceiling around the vanity in dark faux-leather embossed tile, visually separating it from the toilet and shower area, “so it feels like it’s its own little space,” she says.

She also used tile in the shower to play visual tricks: The textured mosaic stone on the back wall pulls the eye through the space, making it look larger than it is. Huntley took the same Calacatta marble from the floor and wrapped it up the side walls and onto the ceiling of the shower—again, defining a separate niche without anything structural to cut up the small bathroom.

“We had all these weird little tiny spaces to deal with” throughout the apartment, Huntley says. Tile helped her both open them up and define them.

Luxury tile can be a bathroom’s biggest cost, according to designers, but because the space is used every day, Jonas Carnemark urges clients to spend as much as they’re able to: “Treat yourself to the luxury you can afford, and really think about what it is that makes you smile. Put the money where the smiles are.”

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