Designing a Bathroom? 22 Tips for Selecting Colors and Materials


As an Interior Designer, I am often brought onto a project for assistance with residential bathroom designs. I think this is one of the trickiest areas of design for most homeowners...and designers! There are many materials to select, plumbing is involved, and the overhaul usually costs a pretty significant chunk of change. Needless to say, this is a space you want to get right the first time.

There are plenty of articles out there on bathroom trends, DIY tutorials and budget calculators, but when it comes to the details on how to select materials and color, I have found limited information. So, being that I'm currently working on a bathroom design project, and all this information is fresh in my head, I thought it'd be a good time to write down what I've learned from past projects. And hopefully in sharing what I have learned, I can help you make your next bathroom remodel project go more smoothly...and beautifully.

1) All Materials Have a Color
Wood, metal, windows, grout, hardware, fixtures - you name it! This is important to remember because all of these colors will ultimately impact the overall design.


2) Match Your Undertones
Not all greens work together. Not all blues work together. If you are using Verde Laguna granite on your countertop, make sure that any other green materials carry the same undertone. And if you think that you're going to avoid this whole undertones thing by using "neutrals", think again. Even beiges, ivories and whites have undertones. Some can look green, some can look grey, some can look pink. If you don't pay attention to these undertones your end design results will be "off" at best, and unbearably clashing at worst.

3) Using Natural Stone? Select Your Exact Slabs...Yourself.
Natural stone can vary greatly from slab to slab. It's in your best interest to go to the slab yard and hand pick the exact slabs you'd like to see in your bathroom. Don't leave this up to the contractor or fabricator. Choosing stone slabs is often like selecting a piece of art - very personal and subjective. What's perfect  to you, might be completely wrong to someone else.

4) Texture and Variety
A variety of textures and tile sizes will keep a bathroom from looking dull. Using 3x6 subway tile in the shower? Pop in a 1x2 brick pattern in the same tile color on your backsplash. Got a white marble countertop and floor tiles? Contrast the natural stone finish with an accent of a bold yellow pencil liner and a glass mosaic. There are many ways to add texture and variety. Look at sample boards, magazines and vendor websites for inspiration. What you don't want is a space covered entirely in one single material in one single size. Poor Travertine has been used and abused in this way in recent years.

5) View All Materials Samples Together
Best not to order anything until you have a sample of every single material in your hand, and have determined that they all work together as a whole. If you don't have all of your samples yet, wait. This is not a part of the process you want to rush.

6) Examine Materials in Different Lighting
View your samples in the actual space they will be installed. (New construction gets tricky...but my advice is to wait until the structure is built, if possible.) Lighting will change from the showroom, your car, your friend's house, etc. What looks great in one set of lighting conditions might look horrendous in another. The worst thing you can do is order materials based solely on the lighting in the tile showroom. Really bad idea.

7) Get Current Samples
Colors can change from lot to lot, especially when you are dealing with handmade tiles and natural stone. Be sure to get current samples of every material you will be using. This will take a little more time, but is well worth it.

8) Color Variation Rating
Not all products have this. It is most common with a material like slate or a product that comes in a blend of colors. The Color Variation is typically listed as V1, V2, V3, V4. The higher the rating, the higher the color variance. If there is a high variance, it's best to get your hands on a few tiles, as opposed to just one. This way you can see how the colors will vary from tile to tile.

Here's an example of a tile with a V4 rating:



9) Don't Forget the Grout
Make a conscious decision about the grout color that is used, and its thickness. If you want to see more tile and less grout, match the color to your tile. This is probably the most common approach these days. But there is a time and place to use contrasting grout colors...and to widen up that grout line. It creates a certain look. If that's what works in your space, go for it! (Bossy Color Blog recently did a post on this very topic.)

10) Repeat Colors, Textures and Patterns
Keep a sense of continuity by repeating a tile design and color from shower to backsplash to flooring. If you have black accents in your shower, bring those same accents into your backsplash. The floor is also an opportunity to repeat patterns and colors. The idea is to have the different surface planes relate to one another instead of feeling like disparate pieces.

11) Look for Trim Pieces
When selecting a field tile, or base tile, it's a good idea to choose a line that has lots of trim pieces. If you don't have the appropriate pieces for corners, caps, etc., your tile design can end up looking sloppy.

12) Spend Money Where It Counts
Don't be afraid of really expensive decorative tile. You usually don't need much, so it's a good place to splurge. You'd be surprised what a $60 a square foot accent tile can do for your a $5 a square foot field tile.

13) Paint Color Should Not Be An Afterthought
Don't wait until the entire bathroom is completed to think about paint color. The color on the bathroom walls is just as important as the other elements. You don't need to have the exact paint color decided from the get-go, but having an idea can help tremendously when selecting all the other bathroom materials.

14) Draw It Up
There's no better way to visualize proportion and color distribution than with to-scale design drawings. Tile drawings require little more than a sharp pencil, a ruler and graph paper....and a little patience. I always draw tile designs for bathroom projects. It's a great way to explore options, share ideas with clients, and communicate with tile installers. They are also extremely helpful in deciding how to design around windows, power outlets, and shower heads, etc. (Note: they don't have to be perfect! These are typical drawings that I do for clients. They won't win any rendering awards, but they get the job done.)

15) Think About Lavatory, Toilet and Tub Colors
White is usually a first choice, but sometimes it can be too harsh. In some bathroom designs, "bisque" or "almond" is better. Or maybe black. The point it, make sure your lavatory and toilet colors work with your overall color scheme. If there's a finish sample available, get one.

16) Don't Get Style Confusion
It's important to match colors, yes, but make sure that your materials also work together stylistically. A glossy white subway tile is in a completely different style than a rustic 12" x 12" unfilled travertine. (If you get stuck with this one, call a designer!)

17) Get Inspired
Look at magazines for inspiration. Tear sheets and digital images help you communicate with your designer, contractor, etc. what you want and what you don't want. There are sooooo many design options and a picture really is worth 1000 words. Remember - you don't need to copy a design to a tee, you just need to create a vision...or at least a direction for a vision.

18) Design Holistically
Unless you're designing an outhouse, the bathroom will be surrounded by other areas in the home. It's important to consider the relationship the bathroom will have to its adjacent spaces. Try to create a cohesion between the bathroom and the rest of your home. (Again, call a designer if you need help.)

19) Educate Yourself on Materials
Basically, tile and countertop materials fall into two categories - natural stone and man-made materials. Within these two categories there are many options, from granite to limestone to solid surface to hand-painted porcelain mosaics. A designer can help you untangle the web of options, but only you can determine what you are and aren't comfortable living with. Marble can be a great countertop if you don't mind a patina over time, but isn't a great choice for those looking for a stone that will look the same in 10 years as it does the day it's installed. The more you know, the better.

20) Match Your Metals
There are a lot of metal finishes in bathrooms -  hardware, hinges, doorknobs, light fixtures, shower door, faucets, etc. Make sure that each of these finishes are considered. They don't have to all be exactly the same, but typically it's a good idea to stick with either a "gold" or "silver" - not both. (If you happen to like the two-toned gold and silver metal look, well, that's your prerogative. I have to say, it's not my favorite look. It tells me someone couldn't decide which finish to use, so they went with both. Either that, or it was on sale.)

21) Don't Rely on Colorful Towels
Many bathrooms are designed with the intention of bringing color in with the towels. No doubt towels and rugs and shower curtains are an opportunity to add a kick of color and pattern, but I never did understand this theory. Why not design the bathroom WITH color and texture so that it looks beautiful even without towels?

22) Don't Rush
Last but not least, please don't rush the project. Bad decisions are usually made when there is a time crunch. Slow down and think things through. And if you love a tile with an 8 week lead time, wait for it. It'll be worth it. What's 8 weeks when you'll be living with your new bathroom for the next 5-25 years?


If you are interested in color and interior design services, please call me at 650.867.3896, or shoot me an email at kelly@artestyling.com to discuss your project.