Powder Rooms: The Best Place in the House to Take Decorating Risks

Kelsey Keith
·3-min read
Photo credit: Richard Powers
Photo credit: Richard Powers

From ELLE Decor

While every bit of our homes has gotten more usage during the past year in quarantine, never before have our humble sinks seemed quite so ho-hum. Even brass swan taps lovingly sourced from estate sales inevitably bear the brunt of so much handwashing—and hand-wringing. Woe, indeed, is the washbasin.

But the hygienic realities of the half bath have historically been tempered, at least with euphemisms if not with a decorative flair that belies the room’s intended usage. (Did we mention the brass swan taps?) Our current chapter in domestic hygiene, blighted as it is by COVID-19, arrives in the wake of two centuries of engineering innovation alongside evolving social mores—the advent of indoor plumbing; a lavatory for guests’ use—while what we commonly call “powder rooms” came to prominence even earlier.

Photo credit: Thomas Loof
Photo credit: Thomas Loof

Originating in noble courts as a dedicated space for freshening wigs—“with live birds and tons of powder,” as historian R. Grant Gilmore III describes them—powder rooms eventually “trickled down into society. The Industrial Revolution created the middle class—and rooms were a way to show status and wealth.”

The half bath, the powder room’s more genial, practical cousin, took a similar path from rarity to routine. Wallpaper, with roots tracing back to ancient China, had become accessible elsewhere by the mid-19th century, thanks to a combination of industrial advancements. Manufacturers made a point to advertise that their paper patterns could obscure dirt, and worse. By the turn of the century, Victorians were fluent enough in hygienics to prefer more sanitary surfaces in a bathroom, hence the popularity of white tile.

Photo credit: Richard Powers
Photo credit: Richard Powers

Today, the powder room remains a space that lends itself to bold design gestures. A maximalist approach makes the most of such a small footprint; even decorators on a budget tend to specify more luxurious materials, given that there’s a limited amount of square footage to clad in marble—or mirror, or horsehair.

Tamsin Johnson, an interior designer based in Paddington, Australia, notes that: “You don’t need to worry about the practical concerns of exhaust, steam, and splashes as much, so it’s the perfect place to experiment” with materials. Designer David Kaihoi of Redd Kaihoi similarly embraces that spirit of experimentation, advising homeowners to play up the room’s petite dimensions and unique qualities. “Put your best art in your powder room!” he says. “It’s intimate—you can get up close.”

Photo credit: Stephen Karlisch
Photo credit: Stephen Karlisch

A well-executed powder room can be both show pony and workhorse: Even the most outré designers are pragmatists where it counts, particularly in an era defined by virus-particle avoidance. In addition to status hand soap from the likes of Byredo or Aesop, hand sanitizer has become a powder-room staple. “Now that people are buying it in bulk,” designer Young Huh points out, “consider putting it in an attractive marble soap dispenser.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

This story originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of ELLE Decor. SUBSCRIBE

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