Our farmhouse had never known modern plumbing before we arrived, unless you want to count one pipe that had been brought to the sink (which then drained through a flexible pipe through the wall that dumped on the back lawn). This must not have been a great success for the grandparents, ‘cause by the time we got there, the incoming water wasn’t even hooked up anymore.
We think that the house was built in the late 1800s. There has never been a bathroom of any kind in the house, so we needed to put in a whole new septic system. (You can read about that on another post.) My goal in designing the decor of the downstairs bathroom was to have modern plumbing with as much of a retro look as possible.
First, I went to a cool local shop near me and found an antique, authentic bowl and pitcher. These cost me $110. If you’ve ever been shopping for vessel sinks, you’ll know that they generally start around $300, so this was a good deal. I partly got the deal because there was a small chip in the pitcher. I didn’t care; to me, it added to the authenticity of my retro look!
Next, I searched Craig’s List for a small sideboard. I found a cute little one for only $225. It had the exact measurements that I needed: 36” wide and relatively low. I loved the dark wood and decorative carving, and it was in good shape. I have a great memory of the day that my mom and I drove for about an hour to get it. We chatted the whole time, and I explained how to use Craig’s List, since Mom is computer-averse and had no idea how it works. She was pretty tickled with the deal I got, though!
Next, I chose my floor tile. I went to Overstock.com and got a great deal on black and white retro tile. These are small, 1” hexagonal tiles joined into 12” squares by a fine mesh on the back. They’re pretty easy to lay and, more importantly, they can easily bend and curve. (You’ll see why that matters later!) I was going to use gray grout because I know how hard it is to keep white grout looking nice, but I decided from this picture that the gray grout would make it look too busy for my eye. I determined to seal the grout within an inch of its life and also checked out grout cleaners and decided that they had enough bleach in them that I’d probably be able to keep them reasonably nice looking. I could always re-grout later if I regretted my decision!
The Shower Dilema
Because I was expecting to have big crowds come and go from the Farm during family get-togethers, and in case we ever had elderly invalids at the house, I wanted to include a shower in this downstairs bathroom. But, I didn’t want to ruin the retro look of this powder room by using a modern, glass shower stall. I felt like it would crowd the bathroom and totally throw off the look I was trying to achieve. As I searched through website after website looking for retro-looking shower stalls, I was coming up empty.
Well, truth to tell, there was one possibility. The very cool retro clawfoot shower pan (pictured at the right), but (aside from the fact that it costs over $800), I didn’t much care for the curtain hanger that it required. It’s made of wire and the style calls for exposed pipes as well as shower curtain hanger. If you look at the other picture (right), you’ll see what I’m talking about. Nope. That wasn’t gonna work for me.
The Shower Emerges
From the start, I knew that I wanted white wainscoting. It reminds me of my childhood years in New England. My father moved around a lot, and we lived in various older homes there, and had summer homes, and it has always meant “country” and “bathroom” to me. Very retro: check!
Randomly, I’ve also had the privilege of visiting Japan three times. There, you often have bathrooms with only a hand-held shower attached to a bracket in the wall. You stand in the open in the bathroom and the water hits the floor, the toilet, the sink–everything. I dunno–it has its points, I guess. Easier to clean, maybe, than shower stalls?
I decided to use the open concept shower, sort of. I had the wainscoting installed at chair-rail height to get the look I wanted but, behind the shower, I took it from chair rail height to six feet high on the wall. That would then form the back of my open-concept shower stall, while keeping water off the wall. I didn’t like the idea of having to clean up the entire room after showers, even if they were only for overflow company, so something else I’ve always loved came into play: women’s changing screens.
You know, the old fashioned woman goes behind a freestanding screen to change her clothes, lops them over the top, and then comes out in her new outfit? I had a brainstorm. I would get one, and put plastic shower curtain material on the inside and vintage fabric on the outside. When the shower was not in use, it would stand in the corner, looking pretty. When the shower was needed, one could pull it out and keep the water in the corner.
I found the screen pictured at left on eBay for about $110 with shipping. It had four panels. When we came to fit it into the corner, it fit differently than I had expected: it was too big. So, we took out one of the panels and packed it away. Now, if the dog ever eats one, or my grandchild decides that cutting up the fabric for a new doll’s dress is a good idea, I’ll have a spare!
Meanwhile, I instructed my carpenter to form a shower pan that was lower than the rest of the floor level, with a drain. He framed it in wood, then used a ton of silicone and a sheet of waterproofing rubber to waterproof the divot. Then, using self-leveling concrete, he formed a gentle slope from the rest of the floor down to the drain. Basically, because of the tile I chose, there’s this almost imperceptible downslope to an off-center drain in the corner of the room. The screen stands over the drain, so you don’t notice it on the floor if you’re not looking for it.
Here’s a Tip: it turns out that you have to find footies for the screen to stand on in the back panel because the floor slopes down, unless your carpenter forms a ring around the back of the sunken shower pan as well. Otherwise, the lower level of the floor in the back of the shower causes the screen to flop backwards towards the wall, and I think that ruins the effect.
I found a combination of white furniture footies that I put together and adhered to the tile in the shower pan to form permanent supports for the back of my folding screen. They are near the back wall so you don’t step on them when showering, yet they hold the screen erect when you put it back after you’re done. They also indicate to guests the correct placement of the screen after they’ve finished showering.
Finally in the design process, there was the question of fixtures. I believe in buying high-quality fixtures once, so I shop online for discounted products. I started by choosing oiled bronze finishes and quickly realized that I was adding about 20% to the costs across the board, so I changed the entire bathroom’s hardware finishes to brushed nickel. It looks like pewter, so still looks retro, but is far less expensive. I chose a regular bowl, white toilet that would blend into the wainscoting and floor as much as possible.
Details on the Vanity
By now, you’ve probably guessed that I drilled the antique bowl of the bowl and pitcher set to make a vessel sink and companion flower vase. I purchased a faucet that had a single handle that looked like a pump. The antique sideboard became the vanity. The pitcher sits nearby the bowl on the top of the vanity to add that touch of “old world class” and provide a place to put wildflowers that change with the seasons. The picture at the left shows everything installed, but not yet decorated.
Repurposing a used sideboard to become a vanity is easy, and generally the vanity turns out to be both cheaper and sturdier. As I shared above, I got mine on Craig’s List for a fraction of the price you’d pay for a new vanity.
Here’s a Tip: You need to look for one that’s going to have room inside it for the sink drain and trap. So, you don’t want one with drawers, usually, unless you’re doing a double vanity, like I did in my other, upstairs bath. In that case, you can find one with drawers in the middle, but not on the sides.
To install the sink and faucet, you just have to drill the surface and the back to give the pipes access to the sink bowl and the faucet. (By the way, the single handle pump faucet I chose was perfect also because it only required one hole for all the plumbing: many fixtures require three holes. Be sure to figure that in when converting your sideboard!)
Also, generally speaking, if you’re going to do a vessel sink, you want your sideboard to be a little shorter than the one I got, which stood 34” from the floor. My sink rim is kind of high up as a result, but this doesn’t worry me because very few people will ever use it to wash their face or take off their makeup. This is really my powder room with the ability for people to shower there when we have a lot of guests. Most people will only wash their hands in it. I did consider chopping it down, but there were lovely wooden cross supports down there that I didn’t want to disturb, so I opted for the higher height. In my upstairs bath, the sideboard that I bought will need to be cut way down, losing almost all of its legs’ length.
Here’s a Tip: About water. If you’re going to do sideboard conversions, you really have to think about water and wood. We’ve all seen wooden vanities that look awful after about five years of everyday use. I was going to buy a piece of glass to protect this sideboard, but I’ve learned that, in steamy situations, water gets under the glass and ruins the surface.
So, instead what I did was to refinish the top of this sideboard while waiting for the rest of the bathroom to be built. I gave it two coats of stain, and then I put four coats of acrylic polyurethane on the surface and on the sides, since I knew that the folding shower stall might allow water to spray it. Again, this was not going to be a high-traffic bathroom in the long run. (In the short run, it’s our only bathroom, though, and plenty of showers, hand washing, and tooth brushing have gone on!) After about five years’ use, however, it is showing its age. I wish now that I had varnished the wood (which is what I intended to do, but–true confessions–I mistakenly bought a can of the acrylic polyurethane, and was too cheap to return it. Live and learn!)
Finishing off the subject of fixtures, details are so important when you’re going for an overall look like this. It may sound funny, but it’s true: if you get all the little things right, no one will notice the details. They’ll just admire the overall effect. But, if you get it wrong, the mistake will stick out like a sore thumb and ruin the overall effect, and many folks will notice.
I chose a family of bath towel holders, toilet paper holders, and back-of-the-door robe holders that all matched from one collection, carried by Home Depot. I bought the simplest possible shower valve trim, and chose a rainshower shower head with two settings. (At the time, I had parrots, and they were very particular about their shower settings. I thought some of my guests might like a choice, too.)
The pipes for the shower are in the wall behind the wainscoting, and the shower head comes down out of the ceiling. You might be surprised at how few people look up. Many of my guests have not realized that there even is a shower there; they just think it’s a funky screen for decoration in the corner!
Speaking of the screen, if anyone wants details on how you make it pretty on one side and functional on the other with the ability to take it off and wash it, comment below and I’ll do another post explaining the construction.
The cost of the decorator fabrics for the window curtains and the screen nearly gave me heart failure, but I really loved the patterns and colors, and was able to use coupons to bring the price down some. I did my own sewing, so that was also a cost saver.
Finally, on the construction and design phase of this decorating post, let me just say that vinyl wainscoting is the bomb. It’s not expensive, it’s totally water repellent, it’s easy to install, and it cleans like a dream. One of the best choices I made was to not go with real wood wainscoting for my bathroom. You can buy what I used at Home Depot. It goes up quickly, and only requires liquid nails adhesive and a few finishing nails.
I have yet to purchase a medicine cabinet for over the sink, but I have found a the perfect little antique curio cabinet for the corner behind the door. I purposefully had the bathroom framed with 18” of clearance in mind for this feature. I knew that storage is at a premium in my little farmhouse, and I wanted a place for guests to be able to park their toiletries, and me to store extra towels, soaps, toilet paper, etc. within easy reach.
What do you think? Did I achieve my goals of making this bathroom look like it’s always been a part of an antique farmhouse? Do you have any similar stories or extra tips to share? Feel free to comment below!