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Designers find fresh ways to add natural wood to bathrooms

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 11/24/2019 Marni Elyse Katz

Gone are the days of the sterile all-white bath.

“I didn’t want white-on-white with splashes of gray for our master bath,” said Meredith Andrews, who hired architectural designer Mary McKee to create a modern master suite addition for the 1930-era Colonial that she shares with her family in Newton. “I wanted something totally different — a master bath with a spa-like feel where I could escape from everyday life.”

Earlier this month, Houzz, a popular home renovation and design site that connects homeowners and home professionals, released the results of its annual bathroom trends study. Out of the 1,360 US homeowners the site surveyed about their recent or planned master bathroom renovations, 45 percent reported that the bathroom is a place where they relax.

Andrews, who said the master bath was the one room in the house for which she had a clear vision, was inspired by a Malibu beach hotel. To create their sanctuary, McKee incorporated custom teak elements, including a handcrafted floating vanity, against a crisp white backdrop. “There’s a real richness in the color and the streaking,” McKee said. She, like many designers, finds herself using more and more wood as a way to warm up baths, which are inherently hard and cold given all the porcelain, metal, and mirror. “People are drawn to its warmth,” she said. “You see a lot of natural wood at spa retreats.”

Designer Annie Hall embraced the coastal Cali vibe for clients in Jamaica Plain by lining the walls of their master bath with custom white oak shiplap finished with a flat varnish to protect against humidity. “I do a lot of natural wood vanities, but this is the first bath I’ve designed with wood walls,” Hall said. The siding channels a sauna interior, a look Hall said is coming back.

The all-wood look has roots in Scandinavia, as well as Japan. Architect Deborah Baskin lines entire shower enclosures in wood-effect porcelain tile planks in a vertical orientation. “It’s definitely Japanese-inspired,” Baskin said. In a master bathroom for a couple who relocated to the area from Finland, designer Vered Rosen installed wood-effect porcelain tile planks on the floor and used it horizontally to create an accent wall behind the tub. “The client wanted a blend of Scandinavian and Japanese design,” she said. “It’s very soothing.”

Katie Michael-Battaglia, design director of Nemo Tile + Stone, which opened a showroom in Boston’s Innovation District last summer, notes the onslaught of good wood-like porcelain products of late, including fun hexagonal tiles. “Technology has gotten better and better at emulating the real product,” Michael-Battaglia said. “Now people are like, ‘That’s really porcelain?’ ”

Beyond the spa aesthetic, wood also infuses character. Nikki Rioff hired designer Kylie Bodiya of Bee’s Knees Interior Design Studio in Hopkinton to update her master bath by injecting it with personality while keeping it classic to preserve its longevity. “I wanted character without investing in a trend that I would regret down the road,” said the Weston homeowner, who lives in a Cape built in 1961. “We considered painting the vanity in a color, but I was concerned I’d get tired of it.”

Laura Keeler Pierce of Keeler & Company chose a natural wood vanity for Teresa Schmitt Pierce’s master bath in Falmouth, Maine. Once they settled on color for the wood wainscot and a fabric for the window treatment, a wood vanity made sense. “The wood vanity feels classic and complements the palette without adding another color to the mix,” Schmitt Pierce explained.

While 34 percent of the participants in Houzz’s study opted for white vanities in their master baths, wood vanities weren’t far behind. “Twenty-nine percent of homeowners said they incorporated a wood vanity into their projects last year, making it the second-most-popular vanity color,” Gwendolyn Purdom, a home design editor there said. Furthermore, Houzz users are saving images featuring wood vanities. “Out of the 30 most popular photos saved this year, 18 include at least one natural wood element, most commonly in a medium or light wood tone,” Purdom said.

In the ’90s, wood vanities had yellow tones resulting from amber-colored stains. Later (after a lot of cherry), espresso finishes were popular. Oftentimes, the color and character of the wood itself were altered or obscured. Not anymore. “Nowadays we want to retain the natural color of woods,” said Nick Schiffer of NS Builders, whose workshop fabricated the teak vanity in Meredith Andrews’s bathroom. “There are finishes that are nearly invisible, leaving the wood in its natural tone once it dries.”

Wellesley-based designer Nicole Hirsch, who installed a rift-sawn oak vanity with a smoky gray stain in her own guest bathroom, favors this approach. “I’m recently opting for unique wood grains with hand-rubbed and custom stains versus always just painting millwork a color,” she said. “Showing off the grain of a gorgeous piece of wood can be a very modern look when applied to more clean, contemporary millwork.” For an upcoming project with four bathrooms, “I’ll be playing up statement, oversized hardware on the stains,” she said.

Bath showrooms are noticing the shift to more organic styles. “We still sell tons of white — it’s been white Shaker vanities all day long — but wood categories are growing,” said Jason Sevinor, owner and president of Designer Bath and Salem Plumbing Supply in Watertown and Beverly. “The warmer finishes like walnut and gray stains have become quite popular.”

Manufacturers are responding. In July, Strasser Woodenworks, which makes wood vanities popular in New England, introduced a finish called “Dusky Oak,” which resembles reclaimed wood. Peter Ollestad, vice president of sales, notes that those with a contemporary aesthetic are pairing it with minimalist hardware, while those who lean traditional love it with rugged wrought iron. “The vanity can go either way depending on how you accessorize it,” Ollestad said.

Vanities, shelves, and flooring aren’t the only ways to add wood to a bath. Sevinor points to wood accents on cabinet hardware and plumbing fixtures, as well as mahogany toilet seats. “The seats knock people’s socks off,” he said. “What more could you want?”

Marni Elyse Katz blogs about design at Send comments to


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