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Radically re-envisioning the master bathroom

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When you think about remodeling your master bathroom, what’s on your list of must-haves?

It probably reads something like this: dual sinks, a generously sized shower, a tub, ample storage, good lighting for applying makeup, plenty of plugs for all the stuff we use in there and nice-looking tile for the floor. You might even add a powerful ventilation fan that’s not too noisy.

“A playful ambience” would probably not be on your list, but if you hired Jeff Jenkins that would be part of the deal. Not only would he create a bathroom that you have never seen before or even imagined, but it also would bring a smile to your face every time you use it.

At least that’s how I would react if I were the owner of the house in Fairfax where Jenkins recently showed me some of his work.

This Alexandria-based designer’s makeover of the master bath was a radical transformation. The 10-by-12-foot bathroom in this 32-year-old tract home was standard 1980s issue with a large, built-in whirlpool bath that Jenkins said his clients hated and never used, a tiled shower stall, a separate toilet compartment, a two-sink vanity, terrible lighting and everything was “basic beige that’s great for resale.” Beyond the worn-out visuals and dysfunction, another major complaint was that the space felt “claustrophobic and chopped up.”

The first thing you notice in the new bathroom is the most unexpected — a large, 20-by-72-inch high abstract painting in the shower that is suggestively festive and beachlike in its shapes and bright colors.

A collaboration between Jenkins and Alexandria artist Eli McMullen, the painting was Jenkins’s novel solution to adding some color to the space. When he proposed this to the owners, he recalled: “They thought the idea of a painting in a shower was crazy and it’s a foreign idea to most people. They were less skeptical when I showed them sketches, and once it was up there they totally loved it.”

To ensure that the art was not damaged by water, McMullen used weather-resistant exterior enamel house paint, and he painted directly onto the same white marble tile that Jenkins used for the shower. The painting was also framed with the marble tile so that installed it appears to be part of the wall.

After that showstopper, your attention moves to a large, sleek, freestanding sculpture which, on further inspection, turns out to be an off-white, egg-shaped Water Works bathtub. It’s made of an acrylic composite material that is similar in look and feel to solid surfacing materials like Corian that are used to make kitchen and bathroom countertops.

Once you’ve absorbed these highlights, you begin to notice how economically Jenkins has arranged the other functions in the room. Rather than an enclosed shower stall, the shower spray is contained behind a simple five-foot-wide sheet of floor-to-ceiling plate glass.

A single three-foot, floor-to-ceiling wall separates the toilet from an adjacent dual-sink vanity that floats about 15 inches above the floor across a span of six feet. To ensure that the vanity did not sag over this distance, Jenkins fabricated it out of alder, an unusually lightweight wood.

The mileage that Jenkins achieved with a limited number of materials is impressive. He uses the same white Carrera marble for the floors and two-thirds of the walls, but the size of the tiles differs, adding a visual texture to the space. Twelve-inch polished marble tiles cover most of the floor and one wall. One-half-by-11 / 2 -inch mini-brick matte-finished marble tiles cover a second wall and part of a third; they also provide a non-slip floor area for the shower. The remaining wall surfaces are standard drywall painted blue-gray.

The first thing that Jenkins considered when designing the space, but the last thing a visitor notices is the lighting. Although there are no windows or skylights, you feel like you’re surrounded by natural light, a carefully calibrated effect that Jenkins achieved by combining the light produced by the fixtures he installed with the soft light reflected from the light-colored marble, the white tub and the white ceiling.

Most of the light fixtures, by intent, pass unnoticed, but you will definitely spot the “Sky Garden” half globe that hangs over the tub. Designed by Marcel Wanders for Flos, it has a smooth exterior surface that mimics the tub below. But get close enough to peer underneath and you discover that the inner surface is a cast polymer floral design reminiscent of the hand-made, cast plaster ceiling medallions common in the Victorian era. Jenkins selected the Sky Garden for both its look and the quality of light it provides. The diffused down light subtly adds to your perception of the tub as a piece of sculpture and not merely an unusually shaped bathtub.

The other bathrooms in the Rust Hill House also showcase Jenkins’s penchant for design moves that invite an observer, in small ways, to look at the world differently.

The hall bathroom has a distinctly 1930s European cast. Unlike the multicolored master bath, this one is nearly monochromatic. The most unusual detail is Jenkins’s treatment of the floor and walls. Both surfaces are covered with hundreds of rows of small blue-white “penny-round” ceramic tiles.

The powder room is a study in contrasts. There are two mirrors, one large and round that “floats” on the wall above the sink, the other a small and round porthole that’s recessed into the wall. There are two flooring materials; wide plank maple is on the floor and dark slate covers one wall. Two walls are white painted drywall; the surprise is the other wall. It can only be seen when you’re inside the room and it’s finished with bright red Venetian plaster.

How much did it cost? Jenkins said that the master bath, including all the demolition work required, was about $51,000. He estimated that a new master bath with conventional fixtures would have been about $40,000. The big-ticket items were the unusual tub and the dome lamp above it, the plumbing fixtures (faucets and shower head), the tile and the painting.

The hall bath remodel cost about $12,000; a conventional one would have been about $5,500 to $7,000. The big-ticket items here were the penny-round tile on the walls and floor and the glass doors for the tub/shower.

The powder room, which was completed several years ago, would be about $10,000 if done today. Almost everything in it was custom; Jenkins estimated that a conventional treatment would run about $2,500 to $4,500.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at salanthousewatch@gmail.com or www.katherinesalant.com.

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