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Return of the Ugly Bathroom

We call in the experts to help three challengers for the title of World’s Ugliest Bathroom.

I am humbled. For many months now, I’ve believed that my upstairs bath — with its green tile and garish plaid wallpaper — has to be one of the ugliest bathrooms in the world. I was wrong.

After my column on ugly bathrooms appeared in the HGTV Ideas newsletter, I was inundated with hundreds of e-mails. Some complete with photos of truly ugly bathrooms.

Beth Ittleson’s bathroom, in West Hartford, Conn., includes orange countertops and shiny, mirrored wallpaper all over. Even the ceiling is covered with the stuff. Nicole has a bathroom so small that she has to sit sideways on the toilet to avoid “kneeing” the tub. In Monee Gagliardo’s bathroom in San Diego, it “looks like a bottle of Pepto-Bismol exploded in the room,” as she puts it. The bright pink tile even covers the ceiling. Believe me, my plaid bathroom looks positively polished and upscale next to some of these rooms. As I said, I am humbled.

Like me, most of the homeowners who wrote in don’t have the budget to rip out their ugly baths and install the bathroom of their dreams. But a little paint and creativity can go a long way, design experts say. So we chose three ugly baths that seemed to represent common problems (dated tile colors, tacky countertops, bright-colored fixtures) and asked design experts to give us some ideas for transforming these rooms with not much more than paint, fabric and accessories.

The Experts
Sue Adams, interior designer and owner, Sue Adams Interiors (www.sueadamsinteriors.com), Andover, Mass. See a collection Sue Adams' works in Designers' Portfolio.

Joan Kohn, host of HGTV’s Bed & Bath Design and author of It's Your Bed and Bath: Hundreds of Beautiful Design Ideas (Bulfinch, 2004).

Ugly Bathroom: 1970s Flashback
Beth Ittleson and her husband moved into their 1960s ranch-style house in Connecticut just a year ago. One of the bathrooms, used by Ittleson’s son and daughter (ages 2 and 4), has a bright orange Formica countertop and reflective metallic wallpaper patterned in orange (the ceiling is simply plain reflective metallic wallpaper). The tub, sink and toilet are all gray, as are the vanity and the tile on the walls and the floor. “I’m not sure if the wallpaper is the original 1960s paper,” Ittleson says, “but it’s pretty old.”

“That foil paper is ugly,” says Kohn, “although it could be the right paper for, say, an Arabian Nights prom.” Kohn and Adams both suggest immediately stripping the wallpaper from the floors and ceiling (which Ittleson has done) and finding something to work with the orange.

Ittleson’s daughter wants to give the bathroom a Finding Nemo theme, since the orange countertops are the same brilliant shade as the clown fish in Disney’s 2003 movie. “I think she is 100 percent right,” says Kohn, who suggests painting the walls in soft stripes of gray and several shades of blue to give the room an underwater feel. Then she’d add a clear plastic shower curtain with pockets. In the pockets she’d put laminated pictures of Nemo and friends.

On the wall, Kohn likes the idea of floating a large clear plastic box with a stuffed Nemo inside. To accessorize, Kohn would add blue-gray towels and a blue-gray shade over the window and one long rug in gray so the floor “disappears.” She’d put a large, clear fishbowl on the counter and roll up orange fingertip towels to put inside. A smaller fishbowl would hold toothbrushes.

Adams also loves the Nemo idea. Another option: Since it’s a children’s bathroom, find a brilliant color of the same hue, such as lime green. “Orange is hot right now,” Adams adds. “Everything that goes around comes around.” She suggests first searching for accessories—towels, bathmats, shower curtain—and then finding just the right paint color to coordinate with those items. “There are a million paint colors out there but only so many shower curtains,” she says. A strong color such as lime green will make the gray look more subdued and plays up the orange. “It’s back in style and perfect for a kids’ bath,” she says.

Ugly Bathroom: Pink to the Max
Dina Bica’s house in Irvington, N.Y., was built in 1952. The master bath features a peachy pink tile, a pink tub, sink and toilet, and black marbleized Formica countertops. The medicine cabinet is also framed in black Formica. Because the house desperately needs a kitchen remodel, Bica can’t afford to remodel the bathroom right now.

She tried to buy some pink towels to spruce up the room but found the salmon shades in the bathroom impossible to match. Her husband, she says, hates the room with a passion. “He thinks it’s the ugliest thing in our house.” On the positive side, the tub is large, and the previous owners installed new faucets on the sink and new light fixtures above the mirror.

Pink bathrooms are prevalent in many 1950s-era homes. Pink, the color of optimism, was a reflection of the buoyant mood of postwar America in the 1950s, says Kohn. Kohn also attributes pink’s popularity to the pink silk ball gown (embroidered with 2,000 pink rhinestones) that Mamie Eisenhower wore to the 1953 inaugural ball (www.chron.com).

Mamie aside, pink can be a tough color to decorate around. Adams says the color is so dated that the best solution is to cover it up. She recommends installing a new white toilet and sink, reglazing the tub, and painting the tile white, but she warns, “Kids, don’t try this at home, because you’ll never achieve the right finish.” Adams says local tile-glazing companies in her area (Boston) charge about $7 per square foot to reglaze tiles in white.

Adams would keep the black accent tile and the black Formica and do an elegant black-and-white color scheme. Black-and-white wallpaper in a toile pattern could work well then, with matching fabric for the window and shower curtain. Another possibility is to add a third accent color with the black and white, such as red or chartreuse. White tile would “definitely make the bath look bigger,” Adams says. “Those colors from the ‘50s had a definite hue and are pretty recognizable as outdated. Ask yourself if the color is one you like and want to live with.”

If the answer is “yes,” the other option is to keep the tile and play it up. Kohn recommends painting the walls a soft cream and painting the window frame black to match the accent tile and Formica. “The matching mirror and countertop are sort of a funny, authentic piece of architecture,” Kohn says.

Choose one long black area rug for the floor, and then “make this a fabulous ‘50s look,” she says. Kohn suggests installing a vintage knickknack shelf painted black and filling it with a collection of 1950s figurines and a vintage pink transistor radio. Add some framed Rosemary Clooney album covers and “you’ve got yourself a motif,” Kohn says. Other ideas for walls and accessories include framed black-and-white family photos or framed magazine covers from that era. Other motifs from the 1950s include playing cards and zebra stripes. Towels should be black.

Ugly Bathroom: Blue and Busy
Gail Arnold moved into her 1962 trilevel brick-and-siding home 11 years ago, and the main bath still looks exactly as it did in 1994, and probably before that. "It’s small and it’s very busy," says Arnold, who hopes to one day be able to install a jetted tub. "It’s very dated."

Gail Arnold moved into her 1962 tri-level brick-and-siding home 11 years ago, and the main bath still looks exactly as it did in 1994 and probably before that. “It’s small and it’s very busy,” says Arnold, who hopes to one day be able to install a jetted tub. “It’s very dated.”

The first thing to do, says Kohn, is to “eliminate the froufrou” and replace the ruffled shower curtain and window treatment with something as plain and simple as possible. She suggests a plain cream-colored shower curtain, a simple translucent window covering and white walls. Add a white rug to de-clutter the busy tile on the floor and a strong, simple floral image in a frame on the wall as a focal point. And as impossible as it may be to match, a toilet seat in the same turquoise as the commode would also make the room look less busy.

Adams, who also has a shower/bath with a window in her own home, suggests replacing the wood-framed window with a vinyl window and a marble sill that can double as a shelf for shampoo and other toiletries. She would replace the toilet with a white one and reglaze the tub in white, then paint the walls a pretty purple or lime green to go with the turquoise accent tile. She’d buy a white shower curtain and sew large colored buttons on it as accents to “freshen it up, keep it looking updated.”

Points to Remember

  • Work with the architecture: "The toilet, tub and sink are as irrefutably elements of the architecture as the roof of the home," says Kohn. If you’re not going to rip it all out and remodel, then you’ve got to work with it. "Team up with your architecture," Kohn says. "It’s a marriage."
  • Simplify: When spaces are small, as is the case in the majority of older bathrooms, choose a single dominant motif. Using busy, multi-colored wallpaper to distract from an ugly tile color, for instance, almost never works. If your bathroom has a strong tile color, paint the walls cream and eliminate anything extraneous such as spray bottles, hair products, lotions and other toiletries.
  • Accept the function: Bathrooms in older houses were meant to be "little chambers for cleansing rituals," says Kohn, not the spacious dressing room/lounge/personal retreat that bathrooms have become today. Don’t expect to turn your space into something it’s not. While it can be clean, simple, pleasant and functional it's probably never going to become a home version of The Red Door Spa.

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