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Remodeling Your Home Bathroom? Tips for Creating Functional, Beautiful Design

Julie Schuster Design Studio is a New York-based interior design firm which focuses on creating spaces that are not only beautiful, but which also nurture and support those that live in them, as well as being safe and accessible for everyone, regardless of age or ability. As a certified interior designer who combines the disciplines of feng shui, interior design, and living-in-place design, Julie is the perfect person for MrSteam to turn to in order to learn how to remodel or build new a bathroom that is not only stylish, but also extremely functional.

First, we were curious about the term “living-in-place design” and asked Julie to define it. She told us that it originated as the concept of universal design in the 1980s, devoted to commercial venues that were governed by the rules and regulations of designing spaces for individuals with physical limitations. This then expanded to a residential practice. While there are no legal regulations surrounding living-in-place design, it is a methodology that helps people with limitations – both permanent and even those that are temporary, such as the restrictions resulting from an accident – to live confidently and safely in their own homes. “My training in living-in-place design allows me to look at design with a special set of glasses,” Julie says, “and incorporate these ideas into my designs, whether a client needs them or not.”

When asked what functionality should be incorporated into every bathroom, Julie’s special set of glasses is clearly evident. She cites the following either as “no-brainers” or as innovative new features:

  • Grab bars
  • Using contrasting colors
  • Zero-threshold showers
  • Adequate storage
  • Hardware that doesn’t catch on clothing
  • Adjustable lighting
  • Personal hygiene toilets

Grab bars – a tough sell

Julie agrees that grab bars can be a tough sell. “Lots of people push back on this, because they don’t see themselves as growing older,” she says. To convince them that grab bars are smart additions no matter what the client’s age might be, Julie generally asks her clients to consider who might be visiting the bathroom. Then, when it turns out that the guest list might include children, elderly relatives, or grandchildren, the need for the safety that grab bars provide becomes clearer.

“The interior design industry is working hard to make these things more attractive,” Julie adds. Combining function and design, for example, towel racks can be reinforced to allow for a person’s weight, so they can safely grab on if they happen to slip getting in or out of a bath. And they certainly don’t share the stigma of grab bars.

Contrasting color in bath design – and zero-threshold shower stalls

Contrasting color is another aspect of living-in-place and is a fairly common design feature. For instance, adding a row of tile in a contrasting color at eye level provides a horizon line, which can be important when an individual has balance issues. “It’s a sneaky way to provide this safety feature,” Julie says.

Adding a contrasting color at the entrance to a zero-threshold shower accomplishes two goals – one being that zero-threshold shower itself. A curb at the entrance of any shower creates one of the most dangerous steps in the home – and, of course, makes it extremely difficult for individuals with mobility problems. Zero-threshold showers even allow an individual in a wheelchair to enter the shower. Then, by adding a contrasting color at the floor entry point, a bather is given the cue to enter the stall.

But a contrasting color does not necessarily have to mean deviating from a unified color scheme. As a New York based designer, Julie remodels many prewar bathrooms, which can be tiny. To create a sense of spaciousness, Julie uses “consistency of color story throughout, using accent only when needed to highlight.”

Adequate storage

Clutter can make a bathroom feel cramped and untidy – and can even contribute to accidents. So providing adequate storage is necessary when remodeling, helping to create a functional bath that is also stylish. This includes maximizing limited shower space as well as general storage. Julie’s designs add shelves or baskets higher up to keep product and equipment out of the way, as well as carving a niche in a shower by going deeper into the wall, if there is available depth.

One of the aspects of storage that Julie feels is important is making sure that the knobs and handles on vanities and cabinets can’t catch on clothing, especially in those small, 5x7 pre-war bathrooms. Instead of knobs, which can snag on clothes and other items such as towels, Julie recommends C- or D-shaped hardware.

Adjustable lighting

As people age, Julie tells us, they need more light to do the same tasks. In fact, 60-year-old eyes need 2.5 times as much light as younger ones (which comes as no surprise to those of us with older eyes). This is one reason why the contrasting tile at the entrance of the shower can be helpful, especially in dim bathrooms. It is also why installing task lighting under medicine cabinets or mirrors can be critical. That strip of LED lighting is an easy addition to any bath and can help orient the user and let them easily perform common bath functions.

Personal hygiene toilets

The new line of personal hygiene toilets – with the top of the line being Toto toilets – improves upon the European bidet by being integrated into the toilet itself. “Once you’ve used one,” Julie says, “you tend to get hooked.” When an individual has mobility or accessibility issues, Julie explains that one of the consequences can be a lack of confidence in their ability to cleanse themselves. This feature helps dispel that concern. In addition, it is helpful for caregivers with young children, who have not yet learned to clean themselves adequately.

“But you don’t need to buy the $10,000 product,” Julie adds. “You can retrofit an existing toilet at a fifth of the price.”

Consulting with medical practitioners

Julie will often consult with medical practitioners who are involved in the care of her clients, to help understand their needs and better design for them. “It’s simply a wise idea to reach out to professionals who can explain what their patients might need – whether that be grab bars, a zero-threshold shower, or assistance in cleaning themselves,” she says. “And frankly, it’s just a hallmark of good design to consult with the experts.” She explains that she wouldn’t consider where to place a cabinet without checking with the builder, for instance, to make sure the position will work for him. “Consulting with medical professionals is just an extension of what I’d do in any case.”

Designs that promote health and nurture well-being

Julie is also a practitioner of and certified in feng shui – and this discipline makes her critically aware of improving the energy of the room through the way furniture and fixtures are arranged, making the space not only more accessible but also nurturing. “I believe that wellness design is the new luxury,” she says. “So incorporating elements of both feng shui and living-in-place design can bring it full circle.” She does so by integrating the elements of nature as well as each family’s primary elements – based on the five universal elements of feng shui – to consider the room’s color story in order to create a more supportive energy.

Finally, Julie addressed the question of how steam showers bring both functionality and design into her clients’ bathrooms. “If we understand that wellness design is the new gold standard, then steam showers tick off a very important box,” she says. She cites that steam promotes well-being through helping bathers destress, sleep more soundly, detoxify and reduce inflammation, especially of nasal passages, and clean out skin pores – among many other benefits.

Julie is a fine example of bringing form and function together into stylish, livable, and safe design. Her holistic approach toward interior design, particularly when it comes to bathrooms, not only means that her clients can enjoy the aesthetic aspects of their new or remodeled bath, but also be secure in the knowledge that Julie has fully considered how to keep their family protected from accidents and address any physical limitations they might have – now or in the future.

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Topics: Interviews, Aging in Place / Accessibility, Insider