The design of a bathroom doesn’t normally steer a larger renovation. For many clients, it’s often an afterthought. But when architecture firm 4|Mativ began a partial overhaul of a Brooklyn townhouse, the bold and playful concept for a small new bathroom on the basement level came first and inspired the plans for the larger second-story master bath and set the tone for the entire project.
Jump to credits & specifications
In fact, the firm’s principals, architect Priya Patel and interior designer Esther Beke, believe that kitchens and bathrooms should take priority most of the time, given the benefits they can bring. “A bathroom’s design, in particular, adds enormous value,” says Patel. “Beyond the function, it adds quality to the client’s life.”
In this case, designing an inviting bathroom was the logical first step in meeting the clients’ goal of converting an 800-square-foot basement from an unfinished storage area into a lively space for their growing family, with the wife expecting a second child. The couple’s overall wish list for their house—a home office, a family room, a fifth bedroom for visiting grandparents, and a cozier master bath—would all take cues from the new 38-square-foot bath below grade.
There were practical reasons for letting the bathroom take the lead. A guest bedroom on the lowest level needed an adjoining bath. And to avoid the cost and time associated with new plumbing, the designers needed to find the easiest way to connect the fixtures to any existing pipes and the water main. They determined that the new bath should sit near the center of the floor, beside a concrete interior wall that was already lined with pipes extending into the basement from a second-floor powder room and first-floor kitchen. A utility sink and a floor drain were next to the wall, indicators that the team could plumb the toilet and a shower there without digging a new trench to extend the drainpipes. “Staying close to the original drain helped, because we were able to use the existing infrastructure,” says Patel.
But that decision also meant placing the bath far from the basement level’s windows and giving up access to natural light. Patel and Beke were ready to accept that tradeoff and rely on design to solve the problem. Intending to recall the idea of being outdoors instead of trying to simulate daylight, they used outdoor wall sconces next to the mirror, recessed dimmable LEDs above the shower, and as much light-reflecting bright, white tile as possible. “We love working on material details,” Patel says.
The owners had asked the firm to take inspiration from the idyllic look of a cabin in the woods. Beke picked wallpaper with patterns that reference Pendleton blankets, and took an ironic approach to a cabin’s rustic features, exaggerating the utility of the little room to steer attention from its low 7-foot ceiling and windowless new walls. Exposed copper pipes, garden faucet knobs, an enameled cast iron sink, wainscot wood paneling, and a black-and-white hex-pattern ceramic tile floor are all reminiscent of “a retreat upstate, where you might not hide the plumbing,” Beke says.
Exposing the copper pipes required significant time. The team, who value clean lines, first installed plasterboard over the concrete foundation wall and the ceiling, to cover up a network of exposed floor joists and wiring. In the shower, where the low ceiling limited the height of the showerhead, the firm tucked plumbing up into the rafters to position the fixture just high enough to let its supply pipe protrude from the wall. “It would’ve been easier to recess the showerhead in the ceiling, but that wouldn’t have been as much fun,” Patel says.
With the bathroom neatly resolved, Patel and Beke created the home office, family room, and extra bedroom along the basement’s exterior walls. The cabin theme and color scheme translated easily to other rooms, unifying the new spaces—the bathroom’s wallpaper, for instance, was repeated in the adjoining bedroom. Upstairs, in the updated 50-square-foot master bath, the Pendleton-blanket pattern is abstracted in a black-and-white cement-tile floor; the cross shapes of hot- and cold-water knobs wink at the shape of real outdoor faucet knobs used in the downstairs bathroom.
To increase the master bath’s comfort level, 4|Mativ added radiant heating under the floor tiles and built wall-mounted cubbies for toiletries on either side of a new stained-walnut double vanity. True to the firm’s philosophy, both bathrooms now contribute a little drama to the family’s daily routine.
California Faucets, Home Depot
Somer Tile, Cement Tile