At some point in my childhood, the coloured bathrooms I’d known growing up simply disappeared. No more avocado suites, no basins that matched the pink and shrinking bar of soap. Baths were bleached of their blues or yellows and, one day, all the sinks were white.
White meant modern, hinting at a clinical level of cleanliness. Rather than a cheery room in which to brush your teeth, in its whiteness, a bathroom became a gallery, or a garage. It contained a single pot plant, a sculptural Aesop hand wash beneath a mirrored medicine cabinet, white metro tiles suggesting an industrial space where bodies are scrubbed like cars.
It became a place of purification, of ritual. Minimalist aesthetics allowed bathrooms to present either as surgical or as spa-like – meditative and gleaming, the tinkle of one’s urine resonating in the pan like yoga chimes. Hotel-like and low-lit, today a domestic bathroom is as much about mindfulness and pleasure as it is about hygiene. Bathroom owners saw white and never looked back.
Four years ago, I moved into a new house with big plans. Grand plans, exciting plans. My boyfriend and I would reshape the interior confidently and brilliantly, with wit and bold style, creating not just an enviable, unusual space but also (and here I modestly dip my chin) a home. Didn’t bother. Nope, four years, two children and one cat later, we pick across the moth-eaten carpet – our pictures still leaning precariously against the skirting, hoping one day they’ll be hung – and everything that was wrong when we arrived remains wrong today.
But here’s what a year stuck at home does to a person: like a flashing strobe of scraped walls, wobbly handles and areas that are underused and poorly lit, it stuns you daily with a responsibility to improve it. Rooms slap you across the face with their need and dust.
There is a bathroom at the top of the stairs alongside a separate toilet, and what my young family tends to do is: first, a wee and, second, rather than nip to the bathroom next door to wash their hands, they make the journey along the landing to my bedroom, where they use my basin. What was, pre-pandemic, a fleeting irritation has today become its own roiling boil of fury.
So I have returned to my big plans with a new urgency, having realised it will be necessary to trick and manipulate my simple housemates into using the bathroom intended for them. And as I plan, I realise: I’m done with white.
On hot summer nights when I have trouble sleeping, I scroll through pictures of bathrooms from the 1930s in pistachio and black; bathrooms from the 1950s, their tubs in peach or baby blue and inevitably filled with bubbles; and bathrooms from the 1960s, their lemon suites glossy and lolly-like. I email questions about secondhand toilets to the owner of ‘discontinued and coloured bathroom supplier’ Brokenbog.com, and click past endless pink basins on eBay.
In ancient adverts and film stills, I enjoy shag-pile carpets and sunken baths, waterproof wallpaper and somewhere dry to keep your magazines.
After the two wars, my scattershot research reveals, the new middle class started treating bathrooms as a place of luxury, of escapism – rather than simply somewhere to wash. The change in attitude is most evident in the colours, and in the new addition of such jazzy indulgences as a Jacuzzi. Here was the place where femininity was performed and formed, in aspirational rituals involving creams and powder. Mirrors, lights, the seductive meeting point of voyeurism and extreme privacy… I want this.
I want, I realise, a bathroom that is also a ballroom; that is also a celebration. Forget the clinical signifiers of cleanliness, I want colour and drama, and the sense we’re walking into a Technicolour Munchkinland as soon as we open the door.
I want drag-levels of femininity, with the side-eyed darkness that comes with knowing it’s all an act, that an identity can be washed off at the end of the night. A charcoal-black wall, a flamingo-pink loo, a bright blue bath and jolly yellow basin – I want it to feel like you’ve eaten too many Skittles as you wash the day from your hands. I want somewhere my daughter will just properly brush her teeth without being nagged, for God’s sake, and also a level of glamour that makes one feel instantly, pleasantly stoned.
Is that too much to ask? I think not.