Skip to main content

Fixtures, tile, flat trim—and a linen cupboard with drawers set high in the wall—all are original in a 1926 bath.

You’d never believe it, scanning the high-end decorating magazines or visiting a bath-fixtures showroom, but some people are perfectly happy with their small bathrooms. Usually, these people live in old houses. Theirs is not the spa bath with marble walls, a full sauna, and separate water closet. Old-house baths, sized for one occupant at a time, are efficient, easy to clean, and—well, seemly.

Bungalows, in particular, probably don’t have room for a luxury bathroom, unless you’ve added master suite or tak­en over a bedroom. (The latter is common in houses built before plumbing came indoors.) Nevertheless, an existing bathroom of modest size can be made to look good, and its capacity stretched.


An undermount tub tucks into a wall of built-ins in a bath by David Heide Design Studio; the mirror trim echoes a detail of the original Jacobean plaster ceiling in the living room.

Solutions include built-in cabinets, furniture, and enclo­sures; making use of nooks and low walls; choosing small bath fixtures; maximizing space with a few design tricks; and unify­ing the room with fixture style, color, and finishes.


In a new Arts & Crafts house by architect Richard Bubnowski, this room is a fresh take on the beadboard-clad baths of summer cottages and bungalows. A five-panel bungalow door is installed as a slider to save room.

Even in the bathroom, a period-inspired approach re­sults in a unique space that’s charming regardless of size. Oddly enough, you may have inherited the white subway tile, wood wainscot, capacious sink, clawfoot tub, deep linen closet, or old-fashioned medicine cabinet that are coveted in today’s mansion-size bathrooms. The bathroom familiar from the early 20th century works well in almost all houses (since the basics haven’t changed much since), but—depending on your decorating choices—the room can be rendered in classic, cot­tage, Craftsman, Deco, or Modern style.

Small Bath Strategies
1. Gain Space: Sometimes you do want a larger bath­room—for multiple users, to include both tub and shower, or because the existing room is a ca. 1900 water closet. If adding a master suite is not under consideration, you’ll have to borrow space from another room. Best bets include taking over the smallest bedroom; absorbing an adjacent closet; encroaching into the stair landing or hall.


Decorative cutouts ventilate the under-sink areas in a commodious wall of built-ins.

2. Maximize Space: Using glass expanses—for the shower enclosure or even in the linen-closet door—allows the eye to see to the full perimeter of the room. Large mirrors expand the perception of space. A pedestal or console sink reveals more of the floor area. A flat wall unit can replace the clunky old radiator. A spacious shower with a seat is more usable (and more space-efficient) than a bathtub; tiny sink basins and corner sinks and toilets are widely available. Wood strip flooring or linoleum tiles, laid on the diagonal, make a room feel bigger, as does a floor of small tiles.


A glass shower door lets the eye take in the full perimeter of the room, and maximizes light.

3. Find Storage: Build cabinets or shelves into wall spaces between studs. Use a vanity cabinet with hidden stor­age under your sink basin. Conversely, choose a wide pedestal lav for extra toiletry items, along with glass shelves. Taking a cue from pantry and kitch­en, build tall, shallow cabinets from countertop to ceiling. Make liberal use of old-fashioned hooks, rings, train shelves, tub caddies, and towel bars.


In an old house on the Maine coast, the marble countertop and drop-in basin are original in a bathroom redone in period style.

4. Create a Jewel Box: A tiny room is an opportunity to overdo it without spending a fortune (or over­whelming the house). Don’t go “all white” in an attempt to make the room feel bigger; it won’t. Instead, consider wallpaper or a papered dado or wood wainscot, color on the ceiling, art tile (or an exotic tiled floor), period or art lighting, and custom woodwork.

Art + Craft - this week's picks