Decorating a Small Bathroom: Tips Straight From an Expert

Cathy Erickson

Small bathrooms can be challenging to decorate in a way that looks appealing while still being functional and useful. However, even if it's small, an attractive bathroom can add value to your home.

The following expert design tips for decorating a small bathroom are provided by interior designer Cathy Erickson, allied member ASID and owner of The Stylish House, LLC in Rochester, MI. Cathy's focus is residential interior design with a specialization in kitchens and baths. She has been a professional designer for over 20 years. Cathy also runs a design blog called The Stylish House where she shares helpful design tips, tricks and techniques.

Paint and Lighting Tips

LTK (LoveToKnow): What type of paint would you recommend for a small bathroom?

Cathy Erickson (Cathy) Semi gloss paint is a sensible choice because it guards against moisture and is cleanable. However, semi gloss magnifies wall imperfections and can appear harsh, so I prefer a lower sheen finish that's still washable for a softer look.

Evaluate how the room will be used! If makeup will be applied in the bathroom, think of using lighter colors that flatter skin tones. Select paint that coordinates and flows with adjacent spaces for a pulled together effect. Don't forget to include the ceiling when planning your color scheme.

In powder rooms, take more liberties since they're used for short periods of time. Here you can choose dramatic, rich, jewel box colors for a big effect. There are such wonderful products on the market to have fun with. Metallic paint on the ceiling adds unexpected sparkle without being overpowering. Darker colors are most effective and come alive at night, so a powder room is a perfect place to use them.

LTK: What are the best lighting options?

Cathy: Incorporating lighting with versatility is a smart move. Installing dimmer switches is an easy way to accomplish this. Rooms with darker paint colors need more lighting than lighter spaces, so plan for this. Mounting lighting on the mirror is a polished touch, however, it usually involves hiring an electrician. I usually select uplights so the light bulbs don't show or pick fixtures that cover the bulbs completely. Running rope lighting in the cabinet toe kick is a favorite of mine.

Vanities and Storage Tips

LTK: What type of sink and/or vanity would you recommend?

Cathy: Space saving pedestal sinks are good looking, however, I tend to use pedestal sinks in powder rooms because they don't have much available counter surface. A smart current look is streamlined, floating cabinets. For those not familiar, a floating cabinet is mounted on the wall with an open space between the floor and the bottom of the cabinet. It can have doors or open shelving. Open shelves look terrific, but take effort since the towels need to be kept folded neatly. Also, with open shelving, plumbing pipes might be exposed, so there could be extra cost involved to upgrade them.

floating bathroom cabinets

LTK: What about storage space?

Cathy: All bathrooms need a supply of toilet paper, soap and towels, so plan for them. Vanities can be ordered with a bank of drawers and additional shelving or existing cabinets can be modified with extra shelves to accommodate these items. Cabinets mounted over the toilet, called an OverJohn, are an old standby. There are so many great looking, freestanding cabinets around today, just keep your eyes open.

A recessed shelving niche looks great in showers or bath areas as a way to increase functionality and storage. It's easiest to add a niche if you're doing a new tile job, or it can also be added at a later date if you're careful and have extra coordinating tile.

Insider Design Tips for Small Bathrooms

LTK: What type of flooring would you recommend?

diagonal bathroom floor tiles

Cathy: Installing larger tile on the diagonal, such as a 12x12 size, is a design trick that expands a space. It's more expensive to install than a straight grid layout and requires more material, however, this is a handy technique to keep in mind. Also, select a smaller grout width that is close to the tile color.

LTK: Can you share any other design tips to make a small bath look bigger?

Cathy: Incorporate interesting materials into the design rather than cluttered, applied ornamentation. Doing this looks more expensive and creates a sophisticated look. Don't select busy patterns or a jumble of lines that break up your field of vision. Frameless shower doors are perfect for small bathrooms. Experiment with longer pulls for the cabinets to create the illusion of a larger space. Use uplights for your lighting to bring your eye upward.

LTK: Is it true that updating your bathroom brings value to your home?

Cathy: A resounding YES! Kitchens and bathrooms sell houses, especially in our new economy. Young buyers may have the will but not the extra money to invest in a remodel. Average buyers are often apprehensive of the inconvenience, work and expense involved and shy way from homes that need extensive design work. No two remodels are alike; they tend to be homes with age and unexpected issues can crop up. A bathroom is a wet room, which can cause unseen problems. There can be additional costs when a long time leak or mold is discovered after a shower wall is opened.

I've been doing mostly remodels in my area. My clients are either planning on staying in their home many years or know it needs remodeling before selling. They want to enjoy their new bathroom for awhile.

LTK: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Cathy: Creating good spaces usually doesn't happen by accident. It takes a bit of planning, however, it pays off in the end, saving costly mistakes or finished rooms that don't function or look right. Start by evaluating what is going on with the space and understand how it will be used and base your plan around this.

Get organized and take lots of photos and measurements to refer back to. Keep track of samples and ideas in a manila envelope and notebook for inspiration. Make note of things such as: Is there any natural light? How tall is the ceiling? Where is the plumbing and electrical located?

I like a current look, however, being kind to our environment is important along with stretching the decorating dollar. I evaluate if there are things that can be used again and if it makes sense to incorporate it into the new design.

small modern bathroom

Getting Expert Advice Can Save You Time and Money

You may think handling all of your home improvement projects yourself will save you money. However, unless you are an experienced home renovator, there is a good chance of making big mistakes that could cost you more money in the end than you would have spent hiring an expert in the first place. If you are a novice, save yourself time and the frustration of making costly mistakes by hiring a professional interior designer for any major home improvement projects.

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Decorating a Small Bathroom: Tips Straight From an Expert