Raising the bathoom vanity to a higher level

June 8, 2012

A bathroom vanity can be 100 percent utilitarian — a simple box supporting a sink and enclosing space below that can be used for storage.

Or, it can be something else entirely.

Here are two quite different but equally engaging approaches that raise the humble bathroom vanity to a higher level. The work of Naomi Neilson Howard marries modern convenience to craft traditions that are hundreds of years old while showcasing a creative reuse of materials. By contrast, George Moussa’s work reflects his unusual background — he’s a lifelong resident of Dallas who grew up immersed in European culture.

Howard founded Native Trails in 1997, but her focus on sustaining native crafts began when she was studying abroad in the early 1990s and learned that the Moroccan artisans who made her favorite jewelry used techniques that were handed down through generations. Even more compelling, their jewelry making was a way of life that was rapidly disappearing because the artisans lacked marketing know-how.

Returning to the United States with a cause, Howard met another group of artisans who faced a similar problem — Central Mexican coppersmiths who made hand-tempered water pots using methods that predate Spanish colonization. She worked with them to adapt their craft to products that Americans would buy and then she began to market them in this country.

Howard’s first venture was rounded and oval-shaped vanity sinks, an easy segue from the copper water pots. Since then, she has worked with these same artisans to move beyond their traditional shapes and produce sinks with squared corners and folded edges.

Seeking inventive ways to market the sinks, Howard began making vanity bases, tapping into another long-standing, artisanal tradition — wine making. On the central coast of California where her company is located, vintners add flavor to their wines by submerging oak planks or “staves” in the huge stainless steel tanks that hold the fermenting liquid. After nine months, the wine is ready for bottling and the oak staves, which are covered with crystallized sugars, are routinely incinerated.

Where others saw trash, Howard saw interesting possibilities. She cleaned and dried the staves, an arduous task that most people thought not worth the effort, and then used them to make vanities. Her “Cabernet” model has a red tint; the “Chardonnay” is gray. The obvious next step was salvaging the oak barrels that are also used in wine making, which are usually pitched after five years. Although the “Bordeaux Wall Mount” looks like a cask that was simply sawn in half, Howard said the barrel is disassembled and the boards are cleaned and dried before they are made into a vanity.

Howard’s latest foray in vanity design has been the use of renewable materials and bamboo. Collaborating with Chinese artisans, she has created a product that is as much art as it is functional. The pieces have sustainability cred — they combine newly harvested bamboo, a renewable plant material that reaches maturity in about seven years — with recycled stranded bamboo made from bamboo milling wastes. But their most striking characteristic is their sculptural shape — the curved “Amelie” resembles a gymnast making a back bend, and the polyurethane finish feels like silk to the touch.

Moussa, who founded Ambella Home Collection in 1995, brings a unique perspective to his business. He’s a native Texan whose wide-ranging aesthetic sensibility and cultural understanding were shaped by his Egyptian father, a chemical engineer turned importer, who exposed his children to the wider world through furniture, food and travel. Describing his childhood home that was filled with furniture from all over Europe, Moussa said, “From the chandeliers to the wall sconces, rugs, our dining table from Spain and even the magazine stand, it didn’t look like most other houses in Dallas in the 1960s.”

His father’s European furniture suppliers were frequent houseguests and they always cooked their native dishes for the Moussa family. Later, he studied and traveled in Europe, visiting the workshops of furniture makers and learning their traditions firsthand.

When Moussa began to design his own “European-inspired” line for Ambella Home, the pieces had a distinct authenticity. He knew the difference between French Cabriolet and Spanish Valencia table legs and countless other details from a hundred different regions of Europe. He also understood how the styles could be combined in an artistically pleasing way and how they should be modified to be functional in a 21st-century context. “If you just take a French Baroque-styled dresser and put a sink on top, it will look like a mismatch and be awkward to use,” he said.

Moussa’s first foray into vanities, or “sink chests” as he refers to them, was an effort to bypass the “boxy cabinet vanities” found in most new homes and provide something deeper with a marble top. The resulting “Private Retreat,” a simple French Country piece “with some Italian flourishes,” was an immediate hit, he said. Since then, he has added 150 more vanities to his collection in styles that range from “West Texas Rustic” to 1930s Art Deco.

In recent years, Moussa has begun to incorporate furniture-making traditions from Indonesia and the Philippines, where his furniture is now made, combining them with the European styling and details in a way that is best described as intriguingly evocative.

For example, his Andalusian sink chest is based on furniture styles from Southern Spain, but the capiz shell inlays on the doors come from the area of the Philippines where this piece is fabricated. The color of the vanity, a tropical, South Seas green, and the lightly distressed finish give it the weathered look of a family treasure brought back from the Philippines a century ago by a seafaring great-great-grandfather.

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, contact her at salanthousewatch@gmail.com or www.katherinesalant.com.

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