For my final installment of White Bathroom Week (er, White Bathroom Fortnight?), I grilled architect/designer/blogger–and fervent tile enthusiast!–Dale Cohen, whose fab bathroom was featured in The Art of Tile. I knew she’d be a source of brilliant design advice:
Q. Any tips for keeping an all-white bath from looking too clinical?
A. In the wrong hands, white tile can look antiseptic. Be sure to choose the right white! Ideally one with a softness to it, like a handmade tile. If you are pairing white tile with thick stone countertops in Carrera or statuary marble, consider rounding the countertop edge, and then repeat the stone along the wall base as a molding. This could be as simple as 12-inch-square stone tiles cut in half and laid horizontally, which will bring the floor up to where the wall tile starts, thus creating a properly finished feel.
For the floor of my own New York bathroom, I chose a mosaic of hand-chopped stone—the technique used by the ancient Romans 2,000 years ago—and a wall base of handmade tile glazed a custom grey. These two handmade materials mesh gently with my stark white machine-made Italian tiles, softening the contemporary lines without being cloying. The feel is modern and chic.
Q. Tell us more about those Italian tiles. I remember you obsessed about finding one with a bright white bisque (i.e. the tile body)?
A. When designing a modern bathroom and using cool hues/tones, as so I often do, the color of the tile bisque is vital. It adds subtlety to the color of the glaze above. An off-white bisque makes the white glaze read warmer, while a white bisque gave a truer white. The Italian tiles I used in my bathroom—a modern, machine-made product—has a white bisque that works well with the cool, grey trim.
Q. Are you still digging the elongated format you chose for your wall tiles? Any subway-tile design advice?
I love the elongated tiles. And I think there are so many more ways to use subway tile than the standard running bond. Bring in pattern by adding some square tiles into the mix—alternating them to create a plaid, for example. I also like them installed vertically.
In addition to playing with pattern, using materials that are larger than you might feel comfortable with—not huge dimensions, just scaling up a bit—creates a greater sense of space. I’m not a fan of tiny, tiny anything; the little half-inch mosaics drive me wacky! When it comes to mosaics, tiles, and patterns in general, I find that people typically pick a smaller scale than is ideal. This is just a matter of inexperience with materials and their application (I may be shot for saying that, but oh well).
I remember working with my sister in Washington several years ago. I got a cry over the phone that could be heard the whole length of the Acela track: “Dale, I’m at the wallpaper store I am overwhelmed and have no idea what to do!” The next weekend I was in D.C. The three papers she’d chosen for her powder room were all tiny prints. I took her to her local paint/wallpaper store and chose three patterns that were larger in scale; when applied to the walls, they created a greater sense of space. Same with tile.
Q. Would love to hear your thoughts about when to splurge on handmade versus machine-made tiles, which I posted about earlier this week?
A. The reason to splurge on a handmade tile is for the look. They have a soft, old-world feeling and inject a sense of warmth that cannot be achieved with machine-made tiles. Don’t get me wrong, I love machine-made tiles—just in the right setting. When working on historic spaces like Gracie Mansion or a Victorian-era house in the West Village, I almost always use handmade tiles in subtle tones. They add a sense of patina and age and are historically appropriate; they’re still made similarly to how they were back in the day. If your floors are statuary marble and you live in a Brooklyn brownstone, for instance, I would use handmade tile because it makes a real difference.
Q. Do you ever source crazy-colored tiles in baths, or do you always favor a more neutral look?
A. The craziest I went was a mustard-yellow tile for the kitchen backsplash of an historic apartment on the Upper West Side—and that was only to complement the client’s mustardy granite.
The reason I choose neutrals for bathrooms is that they are very expensive rooms to design. If you’re going to live in your home for the next 10 or 20 years, you need to really love your material choices over that period time because the effort and expense to redo them is prohibitive.
Q. Any other advice about designing white-tiled loos??
A. White is just as complicated as any other color choice. Using white tile in a bathroom and making it feel warm and inviting takes work and an ever-so-subtle use of materials—everything screams “color!” against white. Small tonal changes will be noticed in a white bathroom. So choose tile with care and an eye for sophistication and your bathroom can go from everyday to spectacular!
Q. In your blog, A Bachelor’s Decorated Life, you discourse about about masculine style! Have you found bachelors to have specific taste in tile?
A. Bachelors generally like to play it safe and not add too much sparkle. I use warmer, earthier tones, sometimes deeper colors—although rarely in tile. The middle warm greys would be as dark as I might go, with the occasional subtle deep accent. I have found that men like a home that is inviting, laid back, and that can be easily maintained—nothing too fussy: i.e. clean lines, warm colors, and very little pattern. I like to think of it as their cool cave—leaving the caveman behind.
Stylish single gents (and you ladies who want to snag ‘em) take note!
[Photos 1, 3, and 4: Ben Ritter. Photos 2, 5: courtesy of Dale Cohen]