As director of one of Britain’s most cutting-edge kitchen and bathroom showrooms, Laurence Pidgeon of Alternative Plans knows a trend when he sees one, and right now he is seeing one that is transforming the way we think about master bathrooms.
“In largely open-plan family homes, the master bathroom is the most private space in the house,” Pidgeon explains. “It has moved on from being a purely functional space to being a place of relaxation and conversation as well. We have been putting baths in large bedrooms for a while, and now, as a development of that trend, we are seeing master bathrooms and bedrooms merge into a single space.”
In design terms, the effect of this shift from functional en suite to recreational bedroom extension is twofold: bathrooms are occupying ever bigger spaces in the home (leveraging the fifth or sixth bedroom for a generous master suite is now common) and bathroom furniture is taking on an altogether more bedroom-like appearance. “If bedrooms and bathrooms are to read as single spaces you need a visual connection between them,” Pidgeon says.
Steven de Munnich, design director of British company Smallbone of Devizes, agrees: “These sanctuaries seamlessly meld state-of-the-art bathing areas with dressing rooms, beauty stations and clothes and accessories storage. Each zone and its furniture must be united by an overall theme so they unite to create the ultimate luxe retreat.”
So out go the high-tech, glossy cupboards we favoured for our en-suite temples of efficiency, and in come matching cabinets, such as Italian company Boffi’s acacia wood B15 (price on request) that blur the boundaries between sleeping and bathing zones.
We have been here before, of course. Prior to the invention of the modern bathroom at the turn of the past century, master bedrooms of large houses, such as Lanhydrock in Cornwall, boasted adjoining “boudoirs”, which functioned as private sitting rooms, washrooms and dressing rooms, and were furnished accordingly.
Decades on, high-end boutique hotels adopted the look, giving their clientele a chance to experience the bathroom as boudoir first-hand. As guests moved seamlessly from sofa to bath to wardrobe, they found they were smitten with the easy luxury of the concept, and thus a trend was born.
Style-wise there are currently two big looks for furnishing these master suites. The first, and most on-trend, is “functional glamour” led by Spanish designer Jaime Hayón. The Hayón Collection, which he has created for Bisazza Bagno, the Italian company most famous for its extraordinary way with glass-mosaic tiles, is a witty celebration of showpiece bathroom furniture. Think glass-fronted cabinets (from £5,299) that wouldn’t look out of place in a fashionable sitting room, and wash basins with integral lights designed to resemble traditional table lamps (£3,024). “With this collection the bathroom becomes a room full of charm and style,” says Hayón.
Leading German bathroom company Burgbad is also pushing this look. Its latest collection, Masterpiece, features a deeply glamorous console finished with lacquered gold leaf (£15,028), and a matte-velvet lacquer cabinet (£4,015) designed, according to the brochure, “to reinforce the impression that you are in the boudoir of a femme fatale”.
British bespoke-furniture-maker Johnny Egg has long been a fan of what he terms “theatrical minimalism”. His Venice washstand (£2,520), for example, is made from low-iron glass (the low-iron content ensures that the glass is pure white rather than green white) and sports four pretty Queen Anne-style legs so it reads more as decorative chest than functional wash basin.
“Quality has always been important to our customers,” says Hayley Tarrington, head of design at British bathroom showroom C P Hart, “but they are now looking for the kind of detail we would normally associate with traditional cabinetry, such as the book-matched wood grain on the Modulnova Twenty furniture [£4,000] or the Artelinea furniture.”
These details are even more important for devotees of the pared-down aesthetics of the second look, “sleek chic”. Less edgy and therefore likely to be more enduring than functional glamour, sleek chic is all about natural-looking materials and simplicity of form. The linchpin of this look is the barely there washbasin that acts as washing station, storage unit and room divider. For open-plan bedroom-bathrooms to work on an aesthetic level it is crucial that the functional pieces, such as the sinks and the taps, are hidden from view so, while proponents of the boudoir look have created sink units that look like dressing tables, more minimally minded designers have turned their basins into sideboards. Long and wall-hung, these units appear to float above the floor and the best of them, such as Norbert Wangen’s beautifully understated B15 washbasins for Boffi (price on request), have sunken basins, pull-out drawers and the sparest, wall-mounted taps.
Not long ago, anyone after a sleek modern bathroom would have gone for high-gloss finishes but master suites now call for something softer. “Composite materials, such as Corian, Hi-Macs and Cristal Plant, are increasingly popular for bathroom furniture as they provide a softer, matte texture to the space. In the same vein we are seeing matte finishes in furniture,” says Hayley Tarrington.
Contemporary bespoke furniture maker Paul Kelley has seen a rise in demand for free-standing bathroom furniture made from rich timbers such as teak, which he has used in his Red Cross Cupboard (£3,600). “This is a homage to the iconic red-cross medicine cupboard,” he says, “but because it’s made from teak it is also a luxury piece of furniture that could be used in any room.”
Textured wood is also a major trend at Alternative Plans, where the Twenty book-matched Mississippi willow units are priced at £1,750 each (£8,256 in total), while the most popular collection at that bastion of English tradition, Czech & Speake, is made from Central American sustainable mahogany (from £3,260).
But even the latest luxury master suites are pretty warm and watery places so just how practical is it to opt for wood? Most experts agree that wood veneers are a better option than solid wood because they are more stable. “All wood going into a bathroom must be moisture-resistant,” explains Tarrington. “The best option is a wood veneer over marine MDF or marine ply.” While MDF has had a bad press thanks to its popularity with DIY enthusiasts, it is the base material of choice for the majority of top brands, and once it’s covered with a high-quality veneer most of us would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
However, if you do want solid wood, Paul Kelley advises using one with a high oil content, such as teak or cedar, while Czech & Speake founder Frank Sawkins guarantees moisture-resistance by insisting that all the company’s wooden pieces are finished in a clear lacquer before being waxed by hand. “The bathroom is a potentially hostile atmosphere,” he says, “so products must be fit for purpose. We give customers decades of enjoyment from our products through a classical approach to design with the highest standards of detailing and manufacture.”
And a renewed appreciation of craftsmanship is the other factor driving the current trend for go-anywhere bathroom furniture. We have always demanded quality finishes, of course, but for a time bathrooms became places of technological innovation – more laboratories of cleanliness than domestic rooms. The emergence of the all-in-one master suite has led to a return to the bathroom as sanctuary, a place to escape the fast pace of modern life and we want the furniture we fill it with to reflect that. Yes, we want units that function efficiently, but we want them to look like wardrobes, sideboards or tallboys – and we want them with dovetail joints.