The 7 key design rules for small bathrooms
A small bathroom is the perfect canvas to unleash your inner designer
7 must-read tips for turning even the smallest bathroom into a stylish, user-friendly space
While a bathroom is, first and foremost, a functional room and there are certain elements it simply has to include, there’s no reason it can’t also be a relaxing, beautiful space that provides a welcoming haven away from the hustle-bustle of the outside world.
A small bathroom is the perfect canvas to unleash your inner designer, spoil yourself and choose the very best products to decorate it, without having to compromise due to budget. After all, reduced wall and floor surfaces mean you only have to purchase a small quantity of tiles, for example, so why not splash out on that dream texture in natural stone you saved to your Pinterest page?
Out of interest, just how small is a small bathroom? Everything is relative, and it can also vary by country, but anything under around 4 square metres (or 40 square feet) could be classed as a small bathroom. We’re usually talking here about the smallest room in a home, meaning it presents certain challenges in terms of furnishing it. How do you design a small bathroom, fitting in all those essential components, without making it feel cramped?
The good news is that there are solutions! All you need to do is follow a few simple, but effective rules of thumb and you will be surprised at just how much potential there is to create a small but stylish and practical bathroom. We’ve put together 7 tips or tricks, call them what you will, to help transform your small bathroom into a stylish sanctuary you won’t want to leave!
7 secrets to creating a functional but stylish small bathroom
As we’ve already pointed out above, a small bathroom can be tricky to design, but, on the positive side, it’s also a room where you can let your imagination run riot. Let’s take a look at the 7 key aspects to consider when it comes to thinking about a small bathroom, whether you’re starting from scratch or planning a makeover:
- Shower vs bathtub
- Space-saving solutions
- Mirrors and lighting
Let’s take a look at each of them in a little more detail.
Bathroom shape: square or rectangular?
The starting point is, unsurprisingly, the shape of the bathroom. While you can see all sorts of odd shapes, in general, they tend to fall into two rough categories: rectangular and square.
Small rectangular bathrooms (long and skinny)
A great trick for an elongated bathroom is to paint or decorate the ceiling. It not only creates the perception of a longer, bigger space, but also draws the eyes upward, so that you don’t focus on the smallness or narrowness.
A rectangular bathroom can also be the perfect space to have a bath rather than shower, placing it at the far end, but more on that further on.
Small square bathrooms
When it comes to square bathrooms, there is no firm rule of thumb, as much of how you furnish it will depend on where the door is. Nine times out of ten in a long, narrow room, the door will be placed on the short wall but when it comes to a square, there are no hard and fast rules.
If you are designing from scratch and have no plumbing limitations to consider, the important thing is to think about how to best place the key elements (usually shower, toilet and basin) so that you can move around freely, and think about how the door will impact your movements, especially when you open it (and don’t forget to pay attention to whether it will open into the bathroom or outwards, and to the left or right!).
How can the colour of the floor and walls change the perception of space in a small bathroom? Colour plays a critical role here, but the good news is that here you are in total control, with nothing to hold you back, such as plumbing limitations, window placement and so on. It’s all about your own personal taste, together with a couple of guidelines that can help make a bathroom seem larger.
Generally speaking, lighter, softer colours will create a sense of airiness and spaciousness, and of course they are also a wonderfully versatile canvas for accessories. White is an easy, safe solution, but you could also opt for pastels, beige, or light green or grey, if your priority is to make your bathroom seem larger than it is.
Having said that, however, over the past few years, darker colours have started to be used more widely, even in the tiniest bathroom, and they can create a lovely moody atmosphere. Black can be a little overpowering on its own, but if applied in the right dose, it can be a stylish and striking accent against softer or more neutral hues.
Bathtub or shower?
It goes almost without saying that in a bathroom where you are pressed for space, a shower is the simple, smart and functional solution. For those who love nothing better than a lovely hot bubble bath at the end of a day, sadly, this is often the first thing to be sacrificed and, in some spaces, even we can’t magic up a trick to get around this. Having said that, there are so many variants available today compared to a few years ago, that you may find one that fits, otherwise, why not go for a gorgeous bespoke shortened but deep built-in tub in natural stone nestled neatly into a corner or the far end?
However, if the shape or size of your bathroom means that a shower is the only sensible (or even possible) option, you still have some flexibility. There are two main shower solutions that lend themselves to small bathroom layouts:
- Quadrant shower.
This is like a square which nestles into a corner, and has had the two sides facing into the bathroom smoothed off so they are curved. It optimises the usable space inside the shower enclosure without eating into the rest of the room.
- A clear glass door.
Avoid any patterned or smoked glass or Perspex, and instead open up the entire space by opting for transparent glass.
When planning your bathroom layout, there are set standards that determine how much space should be kept free around key fixtures. As these differ from country to country, you will need to check out your local regulations. There will generally be minimum distances, but often it is advisable to increase these to ensure comfort. For example, is there enough space between the toilet and the wall for a tall person to be able to comfortably sit?
Obviously, if you are already tight for space in your bathroom, having to create clearance space according to regulations can pose yet another obstacle, but, at the same time, the rules are a useful tool for creating a bathroom that is actually usable. There is nothing worse than having everything installed, only to find you have to scuttle sideways out of your shower or pull your knees in when sitting on the toilet.
Obviously, you can mitigate some space issues by choosing a smaller basin, whether in terms of width or depth, and the same goes for your shower. If the depth of your floor allows, opting for a floor-mounted toilet rather than one with wall plumbing can also save a few valuable centimetres. In a small bathroom, every centimetre can count!
The good news is that with technology and great design, we’re seeing more and more smart solutions that make designing a small bathroom much easier than a few years ago. The most important of these is the introduction of wall-mounted sanitaryware and vanity units. They not only make cleaning less of a chore, but make a space seem lighter on the eye and less cluttered.
If there is one room in your home where you want to use tiles, it’s the bathroom and they have, in fact, long been a staple design element. However, apart from floors, when it comes to vertical surfaces, they have traditionally tended to be used only in “watery” areas such as a basin splashback or on shower walls, whereas there is no reason they can’t be used to cover an entire wall, or even walls.
Drawing on recent technological innovations, the design sector has been highly successful in developing practical and stunning textures that go beyond the conventional idea of a tile. Whether in natural stone or ceramic, there are a myriad of fantastic tiles for all styles and tastes, and even some that deliver on the sustainability front, made from offcuts of natural materials.
They come in all sizes, but when it comes to choosing tiles for the walls of a small bathroom, there is one cardinal rule. If you want your bathroom to appear bigger than it is, even though it may seem counterintuitive, you should use larger format tiles on the walls, rather than small dimensions.
The magic of lighting and mirrors
Last, but most definitely not least when it comes to decorating a small bathroom, you need to give some serious thought to how you use lighting and mirrors . We’ve grouped these two elements together because they really are a winning combination, especially in a small space.
Alone, or together, mirrors and lights are invaluable when it comes to altering the perception of space and creating the right atmosphere. Avoid opting for one, centrally-placed light, and instead scatter different light sources around the bathroom, placing them over the shower or bathtub, the WC and, of course, most importantly, above the basin and / or vanity unit, which should also be crowned by a gorgeous and sizeable mirror. Don’t go scrimping on size when it comes to mirrors, especially in a small bathroom!