Redefining an Arts & Crafts Bath


Designing a bathroom to comple­ment an early 20th century Four-Square house does not require slavish copying of every tiny design detail of an Arts & Crafts- era house. Witness this elegant bath that follows Art & Crafts design principles while incorporating modern fixtures and refinements.


This bathroom had one advantage not always found in Arts & Crafts-era houses. It was fairly large — 9' x 8', which for an early 20th century bath is generous. And, it had always been a bathroom — not something converted from an unused maid's room or spare bedroom — so the plumbing was at least adequate. It also had room to expand. The adjacent bedroom included a barely used second closet that was the perfect size for a 5' alcove bathtub.

Unfortunately, nothing of the exiting bath was worth saving. Originally it had been outfitted with a good enamel-on-steel American Standard tub, toilet, and wall mounted sink — all very characteristic of the late Craftsman era. Storage was probably one or two small free-standing chests or drawered tables. Except for the original tub, all of this was gone.

During the 1970s the then owners decided the bath needed updating and installed a perfectly horrid home-built colonial vanity painted off-white, with two wholly undistinguished drop-in lavatory basins and bottom-of-the-line Moen faucets in chrome. He had also taken the opportunity to paint the oak woodwork — not a nice thing to do to oak. We had to strip and restore all the original woodwork.

The toilet had originally faced south, but when we first saw the bath it faced east. It had been turned 90 when the home-built vanity was installed, but the toilet flange had not been moved, so the toilet was almost 10" from the wall behind it. It looked very odd. The sheet vinyl flooring was just the latest of several layers of resilient tile and sheet flooring interspaced with wood underlayment going back to the building of the house. The stack of flooring was almost 1/2" thick. To conceal holes in the north wall made by some inept plumber, a vinyl wainscot had been glued to the wall — a la 1950's gas station restroom.

A power ventilator added in the 1970s vented into the attic. This type of ventilation is no longer permitted since it puts a lot of moisture into the attic and causes mold and mildew. Venting must now be to the outside, through the roof or a wall. The vent fan was also much too small for the size of the room, which resulted an a lot of moisture remaining in the room after a shower, and a buildup of hidden mold and mildew, which we found behind and underneath the old cabinets.

Arts & Crafts Design Principles
Arts & Crafts interior design emphasized lots of light, open spaces, the use of natural materials and plain, uncomplicated furnishings and mouldings. Color schemes kept the subtle earth tones of the Victorian era but in a more monochromatic palette as opposed to the kaleidoscope of contrasting colors in the Victorian home. Wall paper was typically discouraged and wall colors were often not only specified by the architect, but often added to the final coat of plaster rather than painted on.

The walls were banded in wood, often at several heights: at the ceiling, above and below the windows and at the base of the wall a feature unabashedly borrowed from the traditional Japanese house. The banding gave the house a distinct horizontal aspect, visually enlarging it (and discouraging hanging pictures most Arts & Crafts designers thought pictures were an unnecessary adornment to an already perfectly decorated house).

Heavy, bright chrome was the most common finish for faucets and white enamel for sinks, tubs and toilets. Chrome was a relatively new finish at the time, and expensive. It eliminated the bother of constantly polishing brass fixtures and made bathroom maintenance a lot simpler, so it quickly became the standard. Stainless and brass would work in an Arts & Crafts bath, but bronze and other exotic finishes would look out of place.

The dominant styles of Arts & Crafts cabinetry are flat panel and bead board. Raised panel and flush cabinet doors are not consistent with the period. Glass panel doors are appropriate, especially art or stained glass. Wood cabinets were often given a dark hue through curing processes rather than staining, then varnished. Oak, elm, maple, and ash are commonly used, with oak and elm being by far the predominant woods in this area. The wood must be well-figured. In the Arts & Crafts era it was the beauty of the wood rather than the intricacy of the cabinet that was featured detail. Beautiful materials were considered their own decoration.

Redefining the Space
The homeowners did not want to move the existing toilet because of the mess and expense of the plumbing involved. But leaving the toilet where it was created some design restrictions just because of its location. It was right in front of the bathroom door. Generally, to ensure maximum privacy, the toilet needs to be located as far from the door as possible. We needed to hide it somehow so that it was not the first thing one saw when opening the door — which tends to create a lot of "Oops, excuse me" moments.

The problem was easily solved by building a half wall to hide the toilet. We chose a half wall rather than one all the way to the ceiling so the toilet niche would not seem enclosed in a cave. The toilet alcove could still communicate with the rest of the bath without being visually exposed to the rest of the bath.

To get a vanity of the size needed for the twin sinks the owners had in mind, it had to be located on the east wall under a large window. Ordinarily a large window in a bathroom is a welcome design plus. But the bottom of this window was 32" from the floor — too low to fit a 36" vanity under it. Both owners were tall, so a 32" vanity height was not workable. We needed to figure out how to make the window and vanity work together. Our solution was to install a 30"-high vanity top under the window, then place 7" vessel sinks on the countertop — raising the working surface to 37". This is an ideal height for this taller-than-average couple.

The owners were also in some dis­agree­ment over the overall look of the bath. Mrs. Owner preferred a strict Arts & Crafts interpretation while Mr. Owner wanted a more modern look with Asian influences. The compromise was an Arts & Crafts bath with modern features and Asian influences.

The owners rejected the first two designs for various reasons, but agreed to the third design. This included rift oak cabinetry in medium brown, a tiled floor and tiled wainscot with chair railing and flat moulding at the ceiling. These robust horizontal mouldings are typical of Arts & Crafts-era rooms, lending them a horizontal aspect reminiscent of traditional Japanese houses.

The Floor
Early on in the design process, the owners wavered between true oak strip flooring and ceramic tile. What broke the decision log-jam was the tile we found for the bathroom. It was a fortunate find, and purely an accident.

One of our designers was driving through a town in Kansas and noticed a sign announcing a liquidation sale at a local tile distributor. Included in the tiles for sale was some Mexican tile from the 1940s complete with the straw-lined wood boxes such tile was packaged in at the time. She bought the whole lot, figuring we would be certain to have a use for it sometime. And it turned out to be perfect for this bathroom. The tile contains slight imperfections consistent with ordinary tiles of the early 20th century. For some odd reason, it was 11-1/4" square instead of the usual 12" square, but the strange sizing made little difference to the look of the room.

Cabinets and Countertops
The cabinets were custom made by our cabinet shop in the Craftsman 2-over-2 style with glass-insert upper doors. To hide the expected clutter, pebble glass was selected for the door glazing. The drawers in each cabinet were made from a single oak plank and carefully matched for grain and color consistency. The wood for the cabinets is a standard mill item: rift-sawn red oak. Rift-cut oak is characterized by straight, close set, parallel grain. It is uncommon, and usually expensive. Quartersawn oak was more common in Arts & Crafts period cabinets. Quartersawn oak shows perpendicular "flecks" (sometimes called "flakes"). The darker the wood is stained, the more obvious the flecks become. It is more available and less costly than rift oak. Flat- or plain-sawn oak with the coarse arched grain commonly associated with oak was also an option. The woodwork in the rest of the house was old-growth oak. The owners thought rift grain oak was a better fit with the original woodwork. The four cabinets proposed for the room did not actually require all that much wood, so the owners felt the more costly rift-sawn oak was a little luxury they could afford to get precisely the look they wanted. For more information about the varied appearance of oak, see Arts and Crafts Styles: Craftsman, Prairie and Four-Square Architecture .

The original thought was that the vanity countertop would be tile to match the floor and wainscot. All agreed, however, after looking at the full-color computer images of the design that this would be just a little too much tile. The choice in the final design was solid surfacing in a green to complement the tile. LG's "Oregano Sand" was the material selected after considerable debate between Mr. and Mrs. Owner. We used the same material to make the shelf in the tub/shower area and to cap the half wall in front of the toilet.

The cabinets have some nice features apart from the standard adjustable shelves. The drawers all have positive-close/soft-close hidden drawer glides from Hafele. The drawer will finish closing on its own after it reaches the 3/4 closed mark. No more drawers hanging half-open to snag the unwary. The soft-close feature keeps drawers from being slammed. They stop themselves about 3 inches away from closing, then close themselves softly. This protects any glass or ceramic stored in the drawers from breaking.

The tall cabinet to the right of the sinks contains an internal fourplex outlet for plugging in electric appliances like the hair drier and curlers. Since the appliances plug in right in the cabinet where they are stored, there are no more issues with cords running across the sinks and possibly dangling in water. The cords store neatly away alongside the appliance in the appliance caddy we bought from the The Furniture Guild. These are more commonly used in beauty salons to store driers and curling irons not in use, but work equally wall in a home bathroom. This cabinet also provides access to the laundry chute. There had been a laundry chute in the bathroom before the last "renovation", but it had been covered up. We resurrected it. A pullout stainless steel wire trash basket is also tucked away in this cabinet.

The Walls
The room still had its original true plaster walls, so we did not have to go through any of the elaborate processes required to make modern gypsum board look like real plaster. (To find out how we do it, take a look at How to Fix Loose Plaster). Wet plaster is not usually perfectly flat and has a sheen and texture not seen with drywall — hence the laborious techniques such as Venetian Plastering to give plain drywall a little more character.

But in this room the lower part of two walls had been severely damaged, probably by someone fixing a leak sometime in the past half century. Rather than repairing the old lath and plaster walls, which was certainly one option, we decided to hide the damage with a rough gypsum board patch and a tile wainscot. We had more than enough tile. The tile would be capped with an oak chair rail extending all around the room, except inside the shower (for obvious reasons). This would add to the Arts & Crafts-like feel of the room and eliminate a lot of labor cost to tear-out, replace and patch bad plaster. We also made no effort to lay the tile perfectly flat so it looked more like tile set in the 1930s on a rough wall.

To provide more horizontal strength in the design, we added a picture rail spaced one foot from the ceiling and aligned with the top of the tall cabinets. Because this band is high enough on the wall to avoid most shower water, we also ran this railing into the shower for a continuous look.

The Plumbing
The first thing we did to the plumbing was to remove the old galvanized steel pipes and replace them with PEX tubing. PEX is the material quickly replacing copper piping in most plumbing updates. It is stronger, cheaper, and less costly to install, and less likely to freeze than copper. Because the shower would need a lot of pressure, we used 3/4" piping rather than the 1/2" that is standard for bathroom to feed the shower. This provides double the usual volume of water so sudden loss of water pressure in the shower when someone flushes is not a problem in this bathroom. The showerhead is set to deliver a water-conserving 2.5 gallons per minute. The particular head mixes air in with the water to make it feel like you're actually getting much more water, but you're not.

The toilet flange — the piece the toilet sits on — was original and cracked. We replaced it with a new flange slightly elevated to account for the additional thickness of the tile floor.

The vessel sinks are located on an exterior wall. Because pipes in exterior walls tend to freeze in winter in Nebraska, we decided to move the pipes out of the wall cavity and into the heated bathroom space. To hide them, we fashioned an oak panel below the vanity and attached with with heavy-duty Velcro™. This holds the panel firmly but allows it to be easily removed if the pipes ever need servicing.

The original tub also had its piping in an exterior wall (with an access panel actually cut into the siding of the house so it could be reached from a ladder — we had never seen anything like this before). This piping froze period­ically, so we moved it to an interior wall to prevent this from happening. We also ran a pair or 3/4" PEX lines, one hot and one cold, to the unfinished attic — just in case the owners decide to finish the attic space later.

Fixtures
The Tub and Shower: The original American Standard tub was well over 80 years old, and due a well-earned retirement. Mrs. Owner wanted a nice, deep tub for soaking and relaxing. Mr. Owner wanted a multi-spray shower. There was not enough room for a tub and separate shower, so we combined the two. The tub is a deep Kohler fiberglass tub. We installed this in a dense foam insulation bed both to stabilize the tub and to protect the occupants from any cold coming through the floor. The shower walls are ordinary gypsum board covered with a new waterproof membrane from Schluter designed especially for tile in showers. The older method using cement board backing is not as water resistant. The tile is the first barrier to water infiltration. But if any water gets around the tile, the membrane stops it dead and routes it back into the tub where it drains away. The grout we used is also a brand new product. Older grouts are essentially colored concrete. They are not actually waterproof and can stain over time. The new grout is urethane. It is waterproof and cannot stain. It is also very easy to keep clean — so soap scum in the grout is a thing of the past.

The shower unit is an multi-spray unit. It has six massaging jets plus and overhead rain-shower head and a hand shower with an extra-long hose. We plumbed the tub spout and shower separately so they do not interfere with each other — the water lines to the tub are separate from those to the shower. A lot of water is needed to fill this tub, and it should still not take more than 5-7 minutes to fill. Each shower head must be by federal law factory-fitted with a device to limit flow to not more than 2.5 gallons per minute. In this unit, the jets are limited to 1 gpm. But if all six jets and two shower heads are being used at the same time, the flow could theoretically be 11 gpm, which is why we needed a 3/4" rather than the standard 1/2" water line. The shower also contains the now mandatory anti-scald device. If the cold water suddenly shuts off for any reason, the hot water will also shut off, preventing possible injury from scalding.

The Sinks and Faucets: The vessel sinks are white vitreous china sinks from Decolav that include an overflow. Vessels without overflows may be pretty, but create a mess if you leave the water running. These sinks were surprisingly affordable at the time — but we notice they are not in Decolav's latest catalog. The faucets are from American Standard and designed for vessel sinks.

The Toilet: Gerber is probably a name you associate with baby food. But there is a company called Gerber Plumbing Fixtures that makes excellent bathroom fixtures. It was recently bought up by the huge Asian conglomerate, Globe Union, and manufacturing moved to China. But so far the products remain excellent, and the first choice of many plumbers. The toilet our plumber selected is a low consumption 1.6 gallons-per-flush unit with a siphon vortex bowl that works very well every time. No more double-flushing. The 1.6 gallons-per-flush limit is a federal requirement. You cannot legally buy a toilet that uses more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush.

Ventilation
A few years ago, building codes did not require power ventilation unless a bathroom did not have a window. Eventually it occurred to the building code writers that with most houses being air-conditioned, no on actually opens the bathroom window any more. Now all baths are required to be power ventilated. The amount of ventilation is determined by the size of the room, and must be carefully calculated. Too much ventilation is just as bad as too little.

Venting your bathroom adequately is one of the best ways to prevent the formation of mold and mildew. Most modern bathrooms have an exhaust vent fan, but seldom do we run the fan long enough to remove all excess moisture from the room. Most of the time, the fan runs for about the five minutes it takes for us to dry off after a shower and leave the room. The recommended minimum time for reasonable ventilation is 20 minutes. To solve that problem, Energy Federation, Inc (EFI). has developed a time-delay combination fan/light switch. The switch controls both the fan and ceiling light (often incorporated into one fan/light unit). When switched on, both light and fan come on. When switched off, the light immediately goes off, but the fan continues to run for a pre-set amount of time up to 60 minutes.

All the work is done by a tiny computer chip inside the switch. Once the timer is set (it's pre-set to 30 minutes delay), all you do is switch it off, the computer takes care of the rest. The switch looks identical to a regular wall switch and comes in all the regular wall switch colors.

Another solution would be one of the new fan-light fixtures that sense humidity level and turn on when the humidity gets to high. Once the humidity is lowered to an acceptable level (about 50% in most bathrooms), it turns itself off. These units are a lot more expensive than our solution, which works just as well.

Our vent fan selection was a Broan super-quiet fan/light unit to ensure this bathroom had more than adequate ventilation. The Broan unit is Energy Star rated and Underwriter Laboratories approved. It is very efficient and very quiet — so quiet that it is almost impossible to tell when it is operating. It is possible to buy vent fans that look more like Arts & Crafts fixtures, and it is possible to hide a vent fan in the cabinetry or attic so it does not show. But these are all additional costs that these owners though were "nice" but not necessary. And, actually, the vent fan is hardly noticeable.

The Palette
The color palette for this room is pure Arts & Crafts. The paints are from the Sherwin-Williams Arts & Crafts Collection. The upper wall, above the picture moulding, is Hubbard Squash. The middle of the wall, between the picture moulding and chair rail, is Ruskin Room Green. The bottom of the wall is all tile.

The tile complements the Ruskin Room Green walls, and is in turn enhanced by the LG solid surfacing in Oregano Sand. the slight red cast to the brown dye used on the cabinetry is a nice contrast to all of the green in the room and helps the cabinets stand out from their background.


Can we Design a Bathroom for You?
To explore a new bathroom for your old home, please contact us at your convenience.




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