Timeless Design: Critiquing a Paris Inspired Bathroom.
I was reminded of the effort it takes to create timeless design as a big stack of great design ideas fell on the floor while I was emptying the DXV Design Panel plan file drawer in preparation for our move from Salem to Northborough. Sketch after sketch, doodle after doodle, lay there staring up at me, reminding me of conversations we often have with our clients. The essence being, “Just because it’s a good idea, doesn’t mean you have to or need to use it. If we try to use every good idea we have on a project, the finished project will look confused and chaotic, with all those ideas fighting each other for attention.”
Sometimes, it’s better to tuck an idea away and save it for another time or project.
While I stood there looking at the sketches and they looked back at me, I realized the first year anniversary of the Big Reveal of our DXV Design Panel bathroom was coming up in mid-September. I found myself thinking what better way to celebrate the anniversary than to share some of the ideas Sally and I discarded as we prepared our design submittal for consideration during the Design Panel selection process. We left a lot of good ideas on the cutting room floor. That’s a big piece of creating a timeless design. Editing, editing, editing.
TIMELESS DESIGN: THE CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK
Our submittal’s design challenge was “Design a Paris inspired bathroom.” Understanding what ever we designed architecturally had to support/enhance/showcase DXV’s bathroom fixtures and products, where/how did we start?
In order to create a timeless design, start by establishing a strong conceptual framework or idea. Without a strong conceptual framework, you have no basis for evaluating/critiquing your ideas for fit in your design or with each other as the design progresses. All you have just a bunch of ideas and things. And that’s exactly what the finishes space will look like, a room full of furniture.
We wanted to design a bathroom that merged our Paris trip(s) experiences with our passion for Classicism and our Modernist training, while using the time honored building blocks of Classical Design.
What are the classic building blocks we observed during our visits to Paris?
- Tall windows and French doors.
- Multiple mirrors in a room to maximize light.
- Multiple sconces, torchieres and chandelier for lighting.
- Symmetry. Strong XY axis to help create order.
The first three are all about creating as much ambient light in a room as possible. Remember, when these historic homes/rooms were originally built in the 17th and 18th Centuries, there was no electricity. Ambient light was all they had. Symmetry, with it’s rhythm and order, is the foundation of Classicism and is present everywhere, from the Louvre to Haussman’s vision of Paris streetscapes and interiors.
Parameters established, we began to sketch. In fact, we sketched at least 8 floor plans before settling on the final layout.
THE FLOOR PLAN: How we ARRIVED at the final plan
We began with a “napkin sketch”. A small doodle of a plan. Tub in a niche, across from an exterior wall with two tall windows. Shower and WC to the left of the tub niche. His/her vanities looking out the windows. Perhaps built in storage, makeup, walk in closets on the walls running perpendicular to the exterior wall.
We rejected this idea because the symmetry wasn’t strong enough. Glare at the windows, made for poor display of DXV’s vanities. We liked the tub elevation and decided to develop it further.
While the plan did not meet our criteria, it’s actually a very good plan. Generously laid out with a seating group in the middle the room. The WC has privacy. Shower could even be a steam shower. The potential for developing the walls perpendicular to the exterior wall is obvious.
Keeping the tub wall, we put his/her vanities in the middle of the bathroom, creating a beautiful focal point. Locating a fireplace with mirror above on the right and a piece of furniture on the left with mirror above helped strengthen the room’s symmetry.
This is very strong layout. Why did we discard it? Architecturally, it had potential. The problem? We needed to feature DXV’s products and we hid the shower and WC behind doors. Perhaps we could do better.
In response, we tried opening up the entire tub/shower/WC area via a large framed opening around the tub. The fixtures are certainly more prominently featured. We added another fireplace on the left, strengthening the X axis. Ultimately, in the real world, we felt access to the WC and shower were simply too awkward. Layout discarded.
Back to the drawing board. Perhaps the fireplaces were limiting our options. Replace the fireplaces with his/her vanities, pull the tub into the middle of the room. Leave the shower in the niche. We still have symmetry, right? Let’s not loose so much sleep over the fact that the WC was hidden behind a concealed door. Many bathrooms are designed that way. The cons? We lost the fire place(s). The Pros? Strong symmetry on the X and Y axis. The tub is a much stronger focal point in the middle of the room. We’ve got tall windows, lots of light and fabulous architectural potential. We felt the fireplace/vanity trade was worth it. We checked all the DXV boxes. Layout done! (Or so we thought…)
(Design Tip: Note how we’re playing with the corners of the room by introducing an angled corner. In doing so, the corner of the room becomes softer, more ambiguous.)
But, as we began working thru the elevations, we realized something was missing. While the shower was terrific, without the fireplace(s), a major component of the romance and luxury of an 18th Century french Neo-classical room was lost. Out went the shower, replaced with a fireplace. VOILA! Our final plan.
We hoped DXV would understand…
Timeless design is about weighing the pros and cons of an idea and, if necessary, letting go of that idea in order to achieve something better.
ELEVATIONS: Their evolution
Let’s first look at elevations 1 and 3, as they presented us with the most challenges and design opportunities. The key design challenge was making sure the two elevations related to each other. This could be accomplished in two ways.
- The elevations could be symmetrical mirror images of each other.
- They could be symmetrical within themselves, while sharing common details.
Both are perfectly good Neoclassical design solutions.
Let’s first look at the mirror image sketches I prepared. (All drawings below are of Elevation #3. Elevation 1 is similar but with only one door closest to exterior wall.) Classic French paneling with concealed doors and a plaster cove ceiling are the constants from elevation to elevation. In each elevation I played with the room’s corners as I investigated making them “disappear”.
Curved plaster… Soft and subtle. But somehow, the plaster frames the flat portion of the wall. Pretty, but as drawn, not good enough. Perhaps if we’d added trim…
Full height frameless mirror. The mirror makes the corner disappear but in the context of the rest of the elevation, out of place. Or contemporary in the wrong place? Stay tuned…
Angled mirrored panel with trim in the corners of the room. Consistent detailing and the mirror makes the corner “disappear”. By varying the paneling on either side of the center panel, we create a focal point on the wall and a strong axis thru the center of the room. This is a keeper.
However, the problem with all of these elevations is there are no clearly defined entry/exit point(s). The room feels ambiguous/confusing. We could be better. What’s interesting is I never drew any elevations in which the entry/exit doors next to the exterior wall were expressed as doors with jambs. A “normal door”. I can only surmise I decided I would not like the lack of balance a door/jamb assembly on one side of the elevation and a concealed door on the other would create.
(Keep in mind, while I’m presenting these elevations one at a time to you, in real time, I was bouncing back and forth between all four walls thinking/creating/juggling parts and pieces three dimensionally, seeing/testing how they all fit together. One of the requirements of timeless design is to constantly checking and rechecking each decision you make against those that have already been made.)
Consequently, we drew another series of sketches in which Elevations 1 and 3 are different from each other. Elevation 3 has framed doors, while Elevation 1 has concealed doors. (Refer to key plan above.) In addition, we replaced the French detailing in the middle panel in both elevations with a very contemporary stone panel design, emphasizing the axis in the room. The design instantly went from safe to bold, blending old and new architecture. (We’re saving the safe solution for another day…)
In our final elevation, we extended the mirror in the middle panel to the floor, floating the wall hung vanity.
Let’s see how we handled the opposite wall. We considered adding niches. Flatly rejected. Clunky. In hind sight, I think the tall niches weren’t the right shape. Perhaps with a curved back and arched top. But still, the potential of creating too much visual buzz is there, inconsistent with our design vision.
Maybe small niches up high? Keep concealed doors below. This notion had potential.
In the final elevation, you can clearly see the influence of the paneled wall elevations with the concealed doors. We have a winner. Screams “Quiet luxury!”
The fireplace wall presented it’s own unique challenges. Elevation #2. In this series of elevations, you will see the evolution of ideas from classic French to the modern form we finally settled on. All terrific ideas in their own right. But only one worked within the parameters of this particular design.
This first elevation is actually from one of the early floor plan concepts where we still had the tub/shower in a niche. Mantel/mirror combo is classic Neoclassical French. Beautiful, but not what was needed.
This elevation shows the tub in the middle of the room. Still studying the classic French solution, but you can see the mirror simplifying as the design evolves. Both mantels are beautiful, just not right for this design.
The mantel/mirror are becoming more modern. But we haven’t made the leap yet.
Now the mantel’s leap to bold begins to happen, but it kind of feels like those awkward teenage years you’d rather forget. As an idea, this one still needs work.
Mirror and mantel stripped to it’s essence. Both X and Y axis now have strength and symmetry, with a modern DXV tub at the pivot point.
Juxtaposition of new and old. Architecture supporting and enhancing the overall design = Timeless Design.
Last but not least, Elevation # 4, the exterior wall. We’re asking it to sit there quietly, with the view out the tall French doors balancing the tall mirror/mantel combination across the room.
In truth, by the time we got to this elevation, we knew we needed to put a modern door in a modern stone frame. We were still playing slightly with panel proportion. In this first elevation, we fill the entire opening with door and jamb. Clean, simple contemporary details. Unfortunately, it’s detail did not relate to the mantel or the two vanities, which all float inside a French panel. By itself, very elegant. Not a good fit in the context of this design. Save it for another day.
So we set the door and stone jamb within a panel. Now we have the same bold detail and visual consistency.
Oddly enough, this was the one place where the modern design element within the modern stone frame didn’t feel right. The opening felt empty… So we broke with the design vocabulary we had established and put in a classic French Neoclassical door, right down to the cremone bolts. The point being, sometimes, in order to create timeless design, making an exception to “the rule” is what makes “the rule” work.
Let’s put it all together…
Finally, what about finishes? We played around with so many.
Some were classic and safe, like this study where we looked at adding subtle contrasting colors to the wood trim of the paneling. Lovely, but too fussy for the bold look we envisioned.
Then there was the over the top look. Stealing a page from the Supergraphics of the 70’s and early 80’s, we blew up am 18th Century damask fabric pattern. We actually gave this serious consideration, but finally decided it would significantly distract from showcasing DXV’s fixtures. Having said that, I secretly really, really, really want to design something this some day….
Finally, from an early study of the tub/shower niche in the wall, we play the classic French gold trim/white walls off a modern niche in the same jewel tones. Such extravagence. Since this concept was stillborn, it never saw the light of day.
TIMELESS DESIGN: THE TAKE AWAYS
- Start by establishing a strong conceptual framework or idea. Without a strong conceptual framework, you have no basis for evaluating/critiquing your ideas for fit in your design or with each other. All you have is a bunch of ideas and things. That’s exactly what your finished space will look like, a room full of furniture.
- Just because it’s a good idea, doesn’t mean you have to use it. Save it for another day or the next project.
- Weigh the pros and cons of each idea. You may need to consider letting go of an idea in order to achieve something better is the best course action.
- Sometimes it is the exception to “the rule” that makes “the rule” work. Be open minded. Always be listening for that little bird in the back of our head.
- Create architecture that supports and enhances the overall design.
- You are the designer. You are responsible for every design decision. Every detail. Make sure your details are consistent. Track them around the entire space. Find that unresolved condition and solve it. Don’t leave it up to the next guy or the contractor.
- Finally… Edit. Edit. Edit.
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