We’ve professed our love numerous times for the all-white kitchen and swooned over many rooms where the ivory hue rules, but the bathroom is where our adoration for the chalky color scheme truly lies—even our Instagram fans agree. A white bathroom sets our stylish hearts aflutter every time we see one. They scream classic, clean, and cool, but you don’t want them to be too cold. So how do you add warmth to a colorless space?
Barbara Sallick, co-founder and senior vice president of design at Waterworks and author of The Perfect Bath, is often referred to as the “queen of white,” and she says the white bathroom has much in common with the classic LBD. “My little black dress is a perfect fit,” she told MyDomaine. “It’s made of an elegant lightweight wool of the highest quality, the inside seams are beautifully finished, and its style and length are appropriate for a woman of my age. And with the mere change of a necklace or earrings, it can go from the office to dinner. A timeless white bath has the same approach.”
We tapped the lifelong design devotee to share her expert tips for decorating a stylish bleached-out bathroom, along with her #1 rule.
MYDOMAINE: What’s the #1 rule of decorating a white bathroom?
BARBARA SALLICK: The #1 rule when decorating a white bath applies to all baths: Plan carefully, edit your choices, and select a designer or architect whose taste aligns with your own. These three things are essential to the success of the bath.
The most essential ingredient in decorating an all-white bath is texture, and this is achieved by layering materials. For example, a shiny white subway tile should be paired with a honed white Venatino marble floor or a white polished Carrara hexagon mosaic. This layering effect gives the room its language, its depth, and its character.
Since the finish of the fittings and towel bars presents itself as color, you have to decide if you want the space to feel cool (chrome) or warm (nickel or brass). And don’t assume that because the bath is white you need to impose colored towels. Going back to texture, a luxurious white Egyptian cotton towel adds warmth and softness.
MYDOMAINE: How do you select the perfect white paint? What are your favorite brands?
BS: White is often called the colorless color, but I find that it has incredible range, depth, and infinite shading points. Farrow & Ball is my go-to brand. I love the brand’s paint pots and the quality of the paint—I have at least 20 in my basement. I have used many F&B colors, but my favorite is All White. It’s what I call a warm neutral, and it’s a great bridge between all of the tile and marble and the white of the sinks and water closets. Another universal white is Benjamin Moore’s White Dove.
MD: How do you stop a room from looking too monochromatic?
BS: The minute you add a vase of lovely flowers or an elegant white orchid, a tray of vintage silver bottles and a clock, the bath immediately feels less monochromatic. Art in the bath adds interest and immediately changes the monochromatic paradigm. If you have a wood vanity and paint it white, the texture of the wood along with the door hardware makes the space less clinical, as does open storage. A large mirror adds depth, and an architectural trim always adds dimension.
MD: How do you make a bathroom feel warm, not stark?
BS: In the design of the bath, a window is an important feature. The flow of natural light into a space infuses it with warmth. Then add some form of fabric window covering, which can be a patterned white on white or plain linen. In either case, it softens the bath and adds that all-important texture. Controllable light in the form of high hats delivers light for putting on makeup or shaving. Choosing the right lightbulb for warmth is essential.
Decorative objects, baskets for storage, wall sconces, family photos, and well-chosen accessories soften the space and more importantly make a personal statement of your style and taste. Don’t forget towel bars layered with fresh white cotton terry towels and some antique linens.
MD: What are the dos and don’ts of choosing colors for a white bath?
BS: The objective of creating an all-white bath is to achieve a feeling of purity, simplicity, and timelessness. So if you decide to add a color, I suggest light or medium tones to avoid too much of an abrupt contrast. In my all-white bath, which is actually many shades of white, I used a white marble basketweave floor tile with a tiny black dot. That little dot adds a lively point of reference. Likewise, sometimes I use white towels with black trim as an accent.
MYDOMAINE: How do you choose accessories for a white bath?
BS: The reason you have decided to do an all-white bath is for its classic and elegant style, so accessories should follow the same template. If your style is traditional, it’s an adventure to find vintage pieces to layer into the space. Or a cool modern look aligns well with simple unadorned shapes in resin or metal. There is no right or wrong when it comes to accessories. Since they are not attached to the wall or floor, it’s easy to change things up when you find a piece you love.
MD: How do you create a white bathroom that is timeless? You mentioned in the book that it’s the little black dress of bathrooms—why?
BS: Your choice of materials informs the direction of design. Handmade white tile is decidedly different from white marble, and dust-pressed tile is very different from mosaics. The key is how the materials are layered, similar to the dress and the necklace—as is the quality, authenticity, and originality of the designs. The way materials are installed is similar to the way the dress fits. The test of a timeless bath is if you still love it after 10 years. Take your time, shop carefully with an expert, and hire the best contractor you can afford.
MD: What defines the perfect bath?
BS: There is no one definition of the perfect bath. It needs to express one’s personal design and style preferences and the kind of experience you want to create. Material choices are based on many factors: the architectural style of the house, the location (beach, ranch, suburban, loft), one’s own decorative preferences, and finally the budget. It’s the ultimate retreat for relaxation and rejuvenation, complete with beautifully crafted objects and elegant materials, balanced with the right blend of practical considerations and design dynamics. It needs to feel just right for you.
With her unparalleled insight (refined during four decades as a sought-after bath expert), Sallick explores the process of designing a dream bathroom in The Perfect Bath. Her highly detailed book covers the essentials you need to consider, from planning to material choices and decoration, with interviews from some of the top names in design. This beautiful yet practical guide to planning a bath is a must-have for all design devotees.
This post was originally published on September 21, 2016, and has since been updated.