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Lessons from the Lavatory: bright interior ideas

I was lucky enough to win a room set design opportunity at Grand Designs Live, the UK’s largest self-build and home improvement event, held last week at the ExCel in London. The brief was to design a downstairs toilet set (The Lavatory Project – “Design by You”, so I went all-out Bright Designs…) 

Now I realise that designing toilets doesn’t sound terribly glamorous, but I used the opportunity to talk to event visitors about my broader design ethos: MAXIMAL minimalism. It is this idea that I followed when designing the set, and discussed at length with more than 100 people over the course of nine days (no kidding). While I will introduce MAXIMAL minimalism properly in another blog post, this one will give an initial flavour of what it is.

Small spaces, big ideas

Ultimately, I think all of the designers of the lavatory sets at the event were trying to make the same point (even if we all went in wildly different directions with the actual design): you can do a lot with a small space. A number of visitors I spoke to said they are timid when it comes to using colour, pattern, and certainly the two together, in large spaces within their home. My suggestion is far from rocket science – try things out in a small space first! The very downstairs loo is a good place to start – often whitewashed, left for last or simply ignored. Why not try something bold instead, put your stamp on it and show your personality. See how you go; you may just discover a whole new dimension to decorating. It’s a tiny space, no one will judge you.

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The Lavatory Project at Grand Designs Live 2018, by Bright Designs

Embrace colour

The dominant colours in my scheme were turquoise blue and orange verging on red. These are complementary colours that will work together fantastically the vast majority of the time. If in doubt, consulting the colour wheel is always a good starting point. That’s not to say that other schemes don’t work, but it is certainly a useful tool to refer to if at all you have any doubts. The third colour in my scheme was yellow. Yellow is under-used in interiors in general, and bathrooms in particular. Just six yellow metro tiles, used vertically as a splashback, make a big impact. Working in unison with the splashback are more of the same tiles, used horizontally, as a skirting board. Seriously, which bathroom would you rather walk into on a gloomy winter morning: top-to-toe greige or one in a warm Mediterranean inspired scheme with yellow accents? 

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Dominant colours: turquoise blue and orange verging on red

Creative use of familiar products

Talking of metro tiles. These are possibly the cheapest tiles you can buy. More often than not, you will see them used in white, in a brick pattern, alongside white grout. That’s it. A cheap and cheerful look that’s made a bit of a comeback. By using mine vertically as a splashback and horizontally as a skirting board, I was trying to make a point: you can do interesting things with simple products. And yes, yellow and gloss, on turquoise and orange… it sounds like your head should be spinning, but trust me, it works! My favourite simple trick for sexing up metro tiles is using a contrast grout – they come in so many colours nowadays (as do matching silicone sealants) that you are certain to find something you like. 

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Yellow metro tile splashback, alongside some other details of the set (Photo credit: Om Dhumatkar)

Pattern scale

Mixing patterns can be risky business! Well, that’s what many people think, and that’s why very few even attempt it. The good news is, that just like with colours, there are some tricks here too that can be employed for better results. There were two distinct patterns in my toilet scheme: the 1930s suburbia pattern, melancholic and humorous at once, in a warm and uplifting orange colourway (on the wallpaper) and the cool blue and white geometric pattern on the tiles.

Why did the combination work? The patterns were of a different scale: small and large, respectively, and therefore did not compete with one another. This is my top tip for mixing patterns: whether there are two or more of them, the key is to vary their scale for maximum impact. I also made a point of taking one of the patterns all the way (the wallpaper covered the three walls of the set, in their entirety); while the pattern on the floor was framed with matching plain white tiles. In my opinion, contrast is key to a successful scheme, and delineating patterns is an easy way to achieve it.

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Large floor tile pattern meets small wallpaper pattern

Consider ergonomics

Not the sexiest of topics, but ever so important! A wall-hung vanity unit can be really useful, as it can be hung at a height that is suitable for your exact measurements (doh!) I am fairly short, a number of the show visitors who said that they liked the unit were particularly tall. Forget about the average, design for the exact user of the space. As for my three staggered mirrors – they could be interpreted as a naff attempt at decorating, but actually hanging them this way was a fully intentional decision, driven by practical considerations. All your guests will use your downstairs toilet, and all your guests will be of a different height. Really, the thought process is as simple as that. Another conscious decision was not to place the toilet in the middle of the set (1.2m in width), but on one side. Realistically, the vast majority of us would find it very difficult reaching for the toilet paper otherwise. (I’m sorry, perhaps I’m getting into TOO much detail now!)

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Wall-hung vanity unit and staggered mirrors

Less stuff, more impact

I have saved the best for last, as you do. If there is just one thing you take away from this post, I hope it is this. My MAXIMAL minimalism design ethos amounts to a very simple notion: everything that is in a space is there for a reason (the reason can be functional or aesthetic). My starting point is Scandi-inspired clean and simple lines and planes. Less stuff, clutter and ornament. (This is the minimalist part.) The 3D effect is largely achieved through 2D means: impactful colour, intriguing pattern and thoughtful detail (this is the MAXIMAL part).

Nothing trivial here; everything is thought-through and balanced. Be it the vanity with drawers to hide your toiletries in; a vertical radiator to keep the room nice and warm, while barely taking up any space; or an air-cleaning plant for the users’ health and wellbeing – practicality is always my first consideration when designing and decorating. Then comes the visual stuff: pattern, colour, unusual but practical accessories. More thinking, more impact, less stuff… knowing when to stop is key.

***

One of the most satisfying things about being an Interior Designer is seeing your work, your creation, come to life. An opportunity to see people react to it in real time, and talk to them about it, is even more amazing. But by far the best is seeing a space that you created put a smile on people’s faces (which is what I got to experience at GDL). Now there’s an idea: creating spaces that put a smile on people’s faces. 

A big THANK YOU to all of the below for their support and/or coverage of the set: Grand Designs Live, Mini Moderns, Walls and Floors, Porcelain Superstore, Trouva, KLC School of Design, Daily Mail, Utopia KB, Good Homes Magazine, House Beautiful, HappilyTaniaChristchurch Creative, Shelan Communications, @odbole, @littleannies_eyes, @leonnaise, @helencooperdesigns …and anyone else who I might have forgotten!

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Last day: shattered but all smiles!

The ‘other’ 90%, or why interiors matter

Last time I wrote, I promised to post soon on the value of Interior Design. If you’re wondering what on earth I am on about, read on.

The design discipline that is most profoundly connected to human concerns

Here’s a stat that might surprise and shock you in equal measure. On average, we spend 90% of our time indoors (no, there is no typo there). In other words, we spend most of our lives interacting with some form of interior (yes, we even interact with some form of interior when we sleep). It follows that what we do with our interiors has a significant effect on us, certainly bigger than I had imagined.  

The state of our built environment and interiors affects our wellbeing, mood, health, productivity, interaction with one another, comfort, safety and more. Not many regard Interior Design as overarching as this, but as the inspirational Shashi Caan argues (a guru Interior Design thinker and practitioner), Interior Design is the design discipline that is “most profoundly connected to human concerns” (http://www.sccollective.com/profile/publications – this book is my bible!) 

I first came across the 90% statistic when researching the concept of Healthy Spaces (more on that soon, in a different blog post); and have never looked at the built environment quite the same way again. Let’s break down the argument and look at some examples. 

Interiors impact your mood…

Can you recall a time you entered a space and your face lit up? A swoonsome new restaurant, a cool and relaxed co-working space, or the most amazing hotel bedroom you have ever slept in in your life. By the same token, you probably remember some drab spaces that have made you feel down in the dumps, wanting to turn around and leave. A miserable old-fashioned office, a cluttered and dingy home, or perhaps a drab function hall with ridiculously high ceilings, freezing temperature and cold lighting. In these instances, you will note that the state of a given interior has had a direct influence on how you felt. Well, this happens all the time, with every single space that we enter. It happens so much that we don’t even think about it, but perhaps we should?

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Uplifting restaurant interior (Perrachica Madrid) – how would you feel entering this space? Source: http://perrachica.com

…and interiors impact your health and wellbeing

As for health and wellbeing, don’t even get me started. I’m sorry to say, but I have recently found out that more often than not, interiors contribute to making us physically unwell (in addition to making us less happy and less productive!) There is a growing body of authoritative evidence suggesting that indoor air quality can be more seriously polluted than outdoor air, even in the largest most industrial cities. E.g. the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates indoor air quality to be 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor air, on average. I will go into the detail of why this is the case, and what can be done about it, in a separate post. Do make a mental note to check back soon and read it, if interested. The bottom line is, that just like healthy food and healthy lifestyles are becoming mainstream, something similar is sure to happen in the sphere of the built environment. The transition will take time, and will be uncomfortable for many in the industry (but it will happen). 

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A less cheery topic: indoor air pollution.
Source: https://www.aplusinspections.net/indoor-air-quality-mold-inspections/

Interiors even impact how we interact with one another

Moving on to interaction and our dealings with one another. I cannot help but notice how much these are affected by the way our interiors are set up. Example. I take my children to a gymnastics class, and the organisers have been clever enough to separate a small part of the hall for parents and children to sit in before and after their class. Now unfortunately the cleverness ends there, as the chairs are always arranged in long rows, all facing into one direction. In addition to being uncomfortable and impractical (oh, and you are literally staring at a wall), the arrangement also discourages interaction. How about putting them in a circle, into clusters, or even scattering randomly around the space.

This is just one real-life example. Time and time again, I notice people: A) not interacting with one another when they could be; or B) being visibly uncomfortable when dealing with others, in settings where interiors have been poorly designed. At reception desks, commercial counters, offices, you name it.

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Comfort (or lack thereof) in an office setting. Source: http://www.hysdfurniture.com/?p=2984

Poorly designed interiors are a problem

Sure, these are just little things and situations, but they all add up to a bigger problem. When interiors are poorly designed (or not designed at all), their users suffer. (I’m not trying to be overly dramatic, to be clear this may be literal or metaphorical!) I know that some people will be sceptical, suggesting I tone down my cheerleading for Interior Designers. But maybe try this thought process:

Most of the housing, commercial, institutional and retail building stock that we will come across in our lifetimes has already been built, i.e. it exists. It follows that what we do with these existing buildings and their interiors, the very definition of Interior Design, can make a meaningful difference to our lives (and our planet – more on this in another forthcoming blog post). Interior Design is at its most useful when it concerns itself first with people, and second with spaces (not vice versa). 

What is Interior Design, again? Hint: you’ll be surprised.

This post was meant to be called The value of Interior Design. However, as I was writing it, I got too carried away with defining Interior Design, and so I am afraid you will have to come back soon to read said post on the value of Interior Design. Rest assured, this one is at least as important.

Honestly, there are so many misconceptions out there about Interior Design that I feel there is a need to clarify what it really is. By and large, Interior Design has become known as a luxury sector, associated with lavish lifestyles, picture-perfect room sets in glossy magazines, and bloated budgets. In this blog post, I set out to rethink and redefine Interior Design as what it is at the core.

New career: Interior Design, really?

I recently retrained at KLC School of Design, completing an Interior Design Diploma course. In my previous life I worked in the completely unrelated world of Investment Banking (a hotbed of creative talent, it is not!) and studied International Relations at the London School of Economics (well, another place that is not a hotbed of creative talent). 

When I decided to retrain as an Interior Designer, my intentions were met with some scepticism. “What exactly is there to study? Aren’t you just going to be matching curtains with cushions?” Etc etc. I don’t think my friends are the only ones out there who think this is all it’s about, and I don’t really blame them.

Interior Design is often confused with the related, but different, practice of Interior Decoration. In fact, many projects will involve both processes, and many professionals will wear both hats [puts hand up]. To be clear, I am not saying that Interior Decoration is inferior to Interior Design. However, many people think that Interior Decoration is all there is to Interior Design, and that is not the case. 

Interior mood boards and plans
Examples of some of the Interior Decoration and Interior Design elements of a project

Dictionary definitions of Interior Design – semantics, semantics

It’s in the dictionary, so it must be true. Actually, not always. A cursory look at online dictionary definitions of the concept of Interior Design yields a range of answers, all of which look incomplete to me, if not outright incorrect. Let’s see…

Cambridge Dictionary:
The art of planning the decoration of the inside of a building such as a house or office. 

[The art of planning? What’s that about? I thought planning was very nearly the polar opposite of art! Not just the art of planning, but the art of planning the decoration. How about the art of decoration; or perhaps planning the inside of a building etc. I’m not sure about this one. From personal experience, I can say there is definitely more to Interior Design than planning the decoration of a space.]

Collins Dictionary:
The art or profession of designing the decoration for the inside of a house. 

[Firstly, Interior Design does not solely concern itself with houses i.e. people’s homes. Far from it. The most important Interior Design interventions, in my opinion, involve much larger buildings – schools, hospitals, airports, you name it. Secondly, listen to this: designing the decoration. I thought you are either designing or decorating, or perhaps doing a bit of both, simultaneously. However designing the decoration is in my opinion strangely and confusingly worded. Well at least this definition goes beyond art, and also suggests there might be a profession in it. Phew, I didn’t retrain in vain.]

Merriam Webster Dictionary:
The art or practice of planning and supervising the design and execution of architectural interiors and their furnishings. 

[So we’re still stuck in this idea of art, referring to the creative aspects involved in Interior Design, but at least the word practice is introduced here. I like the use of the words planning and supervising, as they do give a little more weight to the role a designer plays. However it falls short, as the subject of the intervention is deemed to be architectural interiors (technically there is a separate profession of Architectural Designer, but let’s leave that out of this discussion) and their furnishings. Better, but we are only talking about the most obvious elements of Interior Design. How about space planning, ergonomics, building regulations etc…there is more to it.]

Other online dictionaries offer more definitions along the same lines. The bottom line for me is – these are all incomplete and somewhat confusing definitions. (No disrespect to whoever wrote them.) I found some better ones…

IIDA (International Interior Design Association) is more familiar with the matter, thankfully. Here is what they have to say:

The profession of Interior Design is relatively new, constantly evolving, and often confusing to the public. [My underlining.] NCIDQ, the board for Interior Design qualifications, defines the profession in the best way: The Professional Interior Designer is qualified by education, experience, and examination to enhance the function and quality of interior spaces. 

Not only are we now talking about a profession and qualifications (as opposed to the vague art of something), but we are also moving away from decorative elements and towards function and quality. I feel this is much closer to the day-to-day reality of an Interior Designer’s work. 

However here is my favourite one, by the people in the industry who I personally respect a great deal and can relate to the most: IFI (International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers). The BIID (British Institute of Interior Design) in the UK also adopts this definition as their own:

Qualified by education, experience and applied skills, the professional Interior designer accepts the following responsibilities:

  1. Identify, research and creatively solve problems pertaining to the function and quality of the interior environment;
  2. Perform services relating to interior spaces including programming, design analysis, space planning, aesthetics and inspection of work on site, using specialized knowledge of interior construction, building systems and components, building regulations, equipment, materials and furnishings;
  3. Prepare schematics, drawings and documents relating to the design of interior space, in order to enhance the quality of life and protect the health, safety, welfare and environment of the public

So, what’s it about? Enhacing the quality of life

Wow. Are we really talking about the same concept as the dictionaries are describing, as above? Research, problems, quality, programming, design analysis, specialised knowledge, building regulations, schematics and most importantly: enhance the quality of life. It’s to do this that I retrained. Not to practice some vague art of decorating (as much as I enjoy the decorative elements of a project). 

Come back soon to read part II of this discussion: where I think the real value of Interior Design lies.