Limitations. Is it good to have them, or good only to transcend them? If movies about sports are any indication, the answer can only be the latter. But the relationship between victory and limitation is more complicated than anthems of overcoming like Eye of the Tiger let on. There's often a productive tension between what you want to do and what a situation will allow.
Such was our lot recently on a full redesign we did of the master bathroom of a five-bedroom home in West Vancouver. The client had a vision of a modern, spa-like bathroom that felt quiet and luxurious. To him, this meant a boxy, freestanding bathtub for two, matching vessel sinks, a large glass shower and a separate room for the toilet.
There is a "but." Putting together a spacious modern room is simple if you're building from the ground up; not so if your starting point is a house of mediocre construction from the early 1990s. The home, with its peach carpets, gaudy fittings, and flesh-toned walls, radiated a distinctly Floridian feel. And that style, such as it was, was concentrated in the master bath: brass taps, a faux terrazzo floor, walls with ropes and fluffy details, and pickled oak cabinetry. It looked like the set for a melodrama about a love-triangle suicide, to be made for Italian TV.
Clearly, our task was to scrub the room of its dated elements and find clean lines to work with. We stripped the room to the studs, uncovering a generous rectangular box to design within. After that brisk downhill sprint, though, came a steep incline. Even stripped to the studs, the room retained a depressing reminder of its former self: a window, shaped like a slice of pie, on the focal wall. With it, our modern design would be foiled – the window's curve mocked the notion of a room full of right angles.
Could we take it out? It would depend on the client. Puncturing the envelope of a home causes the cost of a renovation to spiral. We crossed our fingers and made the call. Days passed. Finally came the reluctant permission – yes, fine, the "piesore" could come out. The large rectangular window that replaced it gave light and visual balance to the room.
The plumbing was our next headache. This master bathroom was built "slab on grade," which means its floor is the concrete foundation, resting upon the rock underlying the home. All of the drains and some of the pipes were cast into the foundation; relocating them would have been beyond expensive, and we'd already used up our one phone call to the client. There was no getting around it: We were stuck with the existing locations for the vanity, the tub, shower and toilet.
This meant big trouble for the tub. Without moving the drain we couldn't fit in a freestanding one, as per the clients' request. Our solution was to enclose a huge tub in slabs of engineered stone and create a large, monochromatic box. Its girth grounded the space and its deep deck could accommodate candles, incense, orchids, or whatever sundry spa items their hearts desired.
The toilet's location required an even bigger work-around. Tucked in the far corner, facing the shower, its perimeter was too narrow to allow us to frame in a water closet. Instead, we focused on hiding it from view. We erected a floor-to-ceiling partition and clad it in stained oak, with cubbies on the outside for towels. In the end, the toilet was only visible from the shower and the wood partition added a pleasant earthiness to the room.
The plumbing for the sinks and faucets posed the least challenge. The pipes were in the wall adjacent to the tub, easy to locate, and the drainpipes, though cast in concrete six inches out from the wall, were simple enough to conceal inside a vanity with a closed kick. The length of the vanity – eight feet – would allow us to lay in large vessel sinks and still have tons of counter space.
After the battle of the tub and toilet, selecting room tile and countertops was a breeze. We chose a 12-by-24 porcelain tile to clad the walls and floor. A warm neutral, it prevented the space from feeling stark, and its lack of embellishment will keep it from looking dated in the future. For the countertops, we used the same engineered stone as on the tub deck.
Limitations are never what you want to start by thinking about, in life or at home. Everyone prefers a flight of pure imagination. But interior design is, more than anything, a negotiation with constraint – the limitations of a room and of a project are the whetstone upon which you sharpen your instincts. Like many of the things that perplex us, we should be grateful for them.