In the early days of American domestic architecture, no one had to worry about where to put the bathroom. Bathers used a pitcher and bowl or maybe a portable metal washtub and often bathed in the kitchen, for that was the warmest room in the house. Toilets were strictly an outdoor affair, with the midnight trip to the privy ranking high on the list of childhood terrors. In the 1870s and 1880s, larger cities and towns began building municipal water and sewer systems in response to new discoveries about germ theory and sanitation, and the modern bathroom was born.
Early bathrooms focused on basic functions and their designs were utilitarian, almost as if designers felt embarrassed to have to consider such functions. Easily washable surfaces that resisted water damage reigned supreme. These were not rooms for lingering: One bathroom served the entire household and hot water was still considered a luxury, so dallying was discouraged.
Over the decades, however, our attitudes toward the bathroom have shifted. Households now demand two, three or even more bathrooms to accommodate the daily bathing habits of the family. The addition or expansion of a bathroom is one of the most common household remodeling projects.
We've also developed some contradictory ideas about bathing. While the morning shower is meant to be fast and efficient, we also desire a time and place for relaxation and escape. This notion of the bathroom as sanctuary has been gaining ground in recent years and it's what drives most of the newer bath decor trends in the market.
"The trends we see, like the spa bath, for example, have almost become necessities to create a bathroom environment that is a place of escape," says Carrie Vielle, an interior design instructor at Spokane Falls Community College. "People are looking for a relaxing place at home, a place for over-the-top pampering."
Texture is important in today's bathrooms, Vielle says, especially in wall and floor surfaces. "There are a lot of beautiful stones available now - tumbled marble, sealed granite - and you see them taking the place of ordinary tiles."
Texture also comes into play in thick, thirsty towels and woven rugs, she says, but there's an effort to draw in all of the senses. "The bathroom today has become a total sensory experience. We have potpourris for the sense of smell, textures for luxurious touch, and a lot of the colors of nature, the more subtle tones, that are restful for the visual sense."
Bathroom designs in upper-end homes tend to fall into two distinct trend categories. One is indulgent, with rich colors and textures, lots of space, and plenty of luxuries - a raised bath, elegant lighting fixtures, even a fireplace. Bathers in these rooms could easily imagine themselves in a mansion or a resort spa, with every sensual pleasure - well, almost - available at one's beck and call. The second trend relies on the minimalist aesthetic, with smooth surfaces and streamlined silhouettes. Tempered glass lavatories with sleek metal fixtures tell the story of this style, which can reflect both Asian and Scandinavian influences.
"Both of these styles draw from the idea of turning the bathroom into a calm and peaceful retreat," Vielle says.
In period homes, it's now possible to create a sanctuary of modern conveniences without sacrificing the integrity of the home's design. "The best example of this would be the variety of shower head fixtures available now," she says. "They look old-fashioned, but they're up-to-date and made of modern metal alloys. You can also find spa tubs in period styles, which is a wonderful combination."
For those who aren't in the market for a totally new high-end bathroom, Vielle says not to despair: Creating a restful, nurturing space for bathing can be done on a budget with a few relatively simple changes.
"The easiest way to change a room is by painting," she says. "It's the least expensive and yet the most effective change." Because of the high level of moisture in bathrooms, Vielle says remodelers have to be careful about what kind of paint they choose. "I like to use latex semi-gloss enamel, and all the major paint companies make it."
The second approach suggested by Vielle is to add texture with fabrics. "New window treatments can make a tremendous difference," she says. "A new shower curtain and some new towels are another treat." At the low end of the budget, the local dollar store can be a surprising source for bathroom luxury, she says. "Pick up some loofah brushes and scrubbers, for the visual sense."
To update the flavor of a bathroom without changing the permanent pieces - tub, sink, toilet, etc. - Vielle recommends new fixtures. "Take a look at the lighting, the mirrors, maybe add a new towel bar or two," she says. "These are things that you can fix for yourself with simple household tools."
If you're looking for some bathroom inspiration, there's a bevy of design magazines to help. Or check out the aptly named book, Bathrooms, by Vinny Lee, published in 2000 by Ryland Peters & amp; Small. Lee is the interiors editor of The Times Magazine of London, and she has written and edited style and design articles for numerous publications.