Many of today’s bathrooms (including those in new houses) have a retro look, with clawfoot tub, gutsy medicine cabinet built into the woodwork, and acres of white subway tile. What’s odd is that this model is not always appropriate in renovation—even though century-old bathrooms inspired the look. The look is consistent, while old houses are individual, with different styles and quirks.
All this occurred to me as I was shown recent projects by the Chicago architecture firm of Greene & Proppe Design. Their bathroom designs—and every one is different— have a furnished quality. Each reflects the house it’s in, because the house itself provided style cues. That’s true in a tiny jewel-box of a powder room, and also in a more expansive revival bathroom in an addition.
In all the bathrooms shown here, character is more important than fidelity to one period. Bathrooms are remodeled and updated regularly, so it’s not unusual to find modern fixtures with old floor tile. Other reasons for change come into play. When a servants’ bath, for example, is remade as a powder room for guests, it will of course end up fancier than the original. Suitable bathrooms are most often of reasonable size. They remain in their original location, or are fitted into a traditional floor plan.
Design guidelines for an appropriate bathroom start with a simple layout of three fixtures, traditional materials like wood and tile, and a mix of freestanding and built-in furniture. Include salvage or an antique to keep the room from looking all-new. Some old-house bathrooms are entirely utilitarian; others pick up colors and style from surrounding rooms. Ignore trends, and let the house guide you.