The traditional bathroom look – and how to get it

Let’s be brutally honest. Not everyone wants slate floors and gleaming white porcelain married with angular chrome taps and one tiny splash of colour in the shape of a £75 designer toilet brush that you don’t dare even use in case you depreciate its value.

There’s really not a lot of point in installing the latest in contemporary bathrooms if the style is completely at odds with the rest of your home. Or, indeed, if it makes you so uncomfortable that all you can stand to do is pop in, have a quick dust round then go and lie down in a darkened room because you’re dazzled by the glare off the tiles.

If you’d rather reside in a gentler world of brass taps, proper pedestal basins, carpeted floors with rag rugs, or even high-flush Victorian-style loos with a hanging chain, you can relax. You’re among friends now.

Country house chic

Among humankind’s endeavours, the history of the bathroom is relatively short.

During the last 600 years of European history the vast majority of the population would have at the very most enjoyed the facilities of an earth closet, a ewer and basin on a bedroom nightstand for washing (plus what gazunder the bed), and possibly a tin bath in front of the fire. We’re going to guess that this probably isn’t what most people would take the phrase ‘traditional bathroom’ to mean.

The concept of the indoor bathroom, and early experiments in indoor plumbing, were features of large country houses owned by a small number of aristocrats and rich members of the gentry. Therefore the traditional bathroom look is based on creating the illusion that you are enjoying palatial facilities during a luxurious weekend as the guest of a country landowner.

Close your eyes, sink into a lavender-scented bath and imagine that your maid or valet is standing just outside the door with discreetly averted eyes and a large pile of pre-warmed fluffy towels…

The elements of a traditional bathroom

With the image of a traditional bathroom firmly in mind, let’s look at some of the products that can help you achieve it:

  • Freestanding bath – if at all possible, try to incorporate a rolltop or slipper bath into your traditional bathroom design. Extreme bathroom makeovers could involve authentic copper slipper baths and they are indeed things of wonder. But plenty of more user-friendly designs also exist. Check the detailing of the feet to make sure they match the rest of your bathroom plans.
  • Shower with exposed pipework – a large, circular shower rose with a swan-neck riser is a good traditional bathroom look and the controls will also need to be suitably designed. Again, be wary of too much gleaming chrome. Forget glass shower screens or shower enclosures – this is an over-the-bath project and you’re looking for an appropriate shower rail and fabric shower curtain to complete your traditional shower design.
  • Brass, gold or silver taps and accessories – to get the right look, you might want to opt for separate pillar taps with a nice, chunky, old-fashioned handle on the top. Absolutely no chrome, although some good traditional mixer taps do exist. Check the detailing on top of the handle to make sure it doesn’t let you down.
  • Traditional bathroom suite – these do lurk in bathroom merchants’ catalogues and they all have the kind of names that suggest a place you might visit to watch horse trials. Basins should have pedestals and toilets should probably be of the close-coupled variety. You’re looking for square-edged designs with ridged detailing around the basin and cistern and possibly on the pedestal too. For a really traditional look, seek out a bathroom merchant that will sell you a high-flush toilet – those are the ones with a tank mounted near the ceiling and a chain pull.

Decor, accessories and furniture

So, what to put on the walls? You could consider paint with a vintage finish, period-style wallpaper or antique-looking tiles. Don’t be afraid to use strong colours, and to carry them over into your choice of towels and bathroom linen.

In terms of furniture, this is one of the areas in which you have most freedom to create a traditional period look. Wooden towel rails, dressers, chests and cabinets are all possibilites – why not have a rummage in a few junk shops then use paint or varnish to customise your new-found treasures? Washstands and even chairs are also possibilities. If you’re really lucky, you might find something in the basin and ewer line that will really add a dramatic decorative touch.

Glass jars and bottles, and china vases and caddies, are all popular accessories for the traditional bathroom. If you’re looking for something a bit more masculine, try traditional grooming accessories such as shaving mugs and brushes or wooden comb/brush sets. When choosing toiletries opt for scents like lavender or rose and old-fashioned products like bath salts.

And don’t underestimate the effect of plants – a delicate fern or, at the other extreme, a robust Victorian aspidistra can make excellent decorative touches for the traditional bathroom. A recent bathroom trend has been the resurgence of art on the walls – as long as you pick your artwork and its frame carefully to ensure it can withstand the heat and damp of the bathroom atmosphere. Hint: no pricey originals, stick firmly to reproductions here.

For flooring carpet is worth considering, although it must be suitable for bathroom use, and should be protected where possible with mats in a well-ventilated room. The adventurous may be prepared to look into the modern descendants of linoleum. There are a few companies who make wooden floor finishes that are robust enough to stand up to bathroom use, but these will likely not be cheap options. If you can pull it off, however, rugs are marvellous period touches whether it’s upmarket Persian or a wonderful hand-crafted rag rug.

Whatever you decide to do with your traditional bathroom, there are as many opportunities to make it fun, individual and deeply personal as its contemporary counterpart. Whatever you end up with, we hope it gives you years of enjoyment.

Further reading