The New Vanities

Rich woods, floral designs add style to bathroom cabinets

Focus On Home Decor

August 15, 2004|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

What's making the biggest splash in the bath today is not the sink, tub or super showerheads. It's the vanity.

Browse through home catalogs and department stores and you'll see cabinetry worthy of the living room -- if it weren't for the sink bowl and faucet.

There's a formidable selection of rich and exotic woods such as mahogany, walnut burl and zebrawood. Some cabinets are accented with carvings, decorative moldings, brackets, fluted columns, contrasting panel insets or inlays.

There are hand-painted vanities, some with scenic floral designs and landscapes, and finishes that are distressed, glazed, hand-rubbed and gilt-embellished. There's cladding with unexpected materials such as oyster shells, mirrors or leather topstitched like fine luggage. If you prefer, there are cabinet panels upholstered in fabrics such as toile.

Vanities have been elevated to fine furniture. Expect price tags to reflect that, with a range generally higher than $1,000, sometimes excluding bowl and faucet, leaving that selection to the consumer.

With options ranging from contemporary sculptural silhouettes to traditional period reproductions, and Japanese- to Tuscan-influenced designs that blend with all the other furniture under that famous sun, homeowners now have a simple way to transform the bath by introducing warm materials that offset cool porcelains, metals and ceramics.

"The richness of a wood vanity helps break up the hard plumbing features in a bathroom," says Connie Edwards, design director for Timberlake Cabinet Co.

Function over fashion

In a master bath, which these days is likely to contain a tub, shower and double vanity, there are a lot of fixtures. But until recently, vanities have missed the aesthetic mark. Builders and home improvement centers offered few options, providing little more than basic boxes in standard materials such as laminate, oak and perhaps a cherry upgrade.

With the possible exception of the guest powder room, bathroom vanities were more about function than fashion. Vanities hid the plumbing and provided the frame for a countertop and as much storage as could be eked out. Drawers on one or both sides were a bonus.

High-end designers countered the lack of stylish options with creativity. They had vanities custom-crafted in the character of prevailing styles elsewhere in the home. Or they looked to furniture -- even antiques -- and adapted them for the bath by substituting limestone, granite or marble for wood, cutting out the sink and installing a gleaming, jewel-like faucet. These one-of-a-kind pieces added personality and often elegance.

As the master bath grew in size in the 1980s and assumed spa status in the 1990s, fixtures improved in design. Some bath fixture manufacturers such as Kohler, American Standard and Porcher, as well as tile manufacturer Ann Sacks, now include well-designed wood vanities tailored to their basins and faucets.

For the Kohler Co., it makes perfect sense. Since Kohler owns Baker Furniture, it's possible to add vanities to existing furniture collections such as Stately Homes, which is based on antiques from the palaces and castles of England, Ireland, Scotland and Russia.

Other furniture manufacturers obviously have been paying attention. For the last two biannual furniture fashion shows at High Point, N.C., and at the spring K / BIS (Kitchen and Bath) show in Chicago, ready-to-install sink cabinets have emerged as a trend, blossoming like the housing for plasma TVs.

"People want furniture in the bathroom now," says Furniture Guild owner Chuck Johnson. "Decorative plumbing and sinks demand more than a kitchen cabinet."

Curves add interest

The emphasis now is on design.

"The bath has become increasingly important in home design," says Joyce Eddy, chairman and founder of Habersham Furniture Co. Eddy says the company's specialty hand-painted finishes elevate the vanity to "a whole new level of design elegance."

The level of design translates to the kinds of furniture details that are customary in other rooms of the home. By adding rosettes and fluted fillers (column-like spacers between drawers and doors) and rounded furniture feet or "toes," plain cabinets can be upgraded.

Although many of the new vanities are freestanding pieces, they can be combined with other cabinets to vary heights and depths and team open shelving with banks of drawers when more storage is required. Furniture that provides storage is a natural companion to vanities. Options are as simple as shelving packaged in an old-fashioned etagere, another growing category for the bath.

If you're shopping for a vanity, several features will influence your choice. Shape is one. Curves add interest, and they may be reflected in a bowing of the entire piece.

What distinguishes more conventional boxy forms is the choice of wood, its grain, staining or painting, inlays or applied moldings and decorations.

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