Using Vintage Furniture in the Bathroom

Whether reproduction or the real thing, antique vanities and cabinets give your bathroom a truly unique look.

By Katie Allison Granju

When considering redecorating a bathroom, most people think in terms of a new tile, shower enclosure or toilet. But a growing number of designers and homeowners are finding that bringing actual vintage furniture into the bathroom offers decorating possibilities beyond the expected.

Rachel Horn, a residential interior designer who works in both Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. says that in recent years, there's been a change in the way people view bathroom design.

"Now, bathrooms are much more than just a small room in which to bathe," says Horn. "The bathroom has become a sanctuary for some and has come to reflect the owner's taste in more than just tile."

Horn is seeing more of her clients using traditional furniture pieces in non-traditional ways in their bathrooms. She says there are two basic ways furniture can be used in bath spaces: plumbed and freestanding. With plumbed pieces, furniture is converted for use as part of the bathroom's water system. For example, antique bureaus and desks can be reworked to serve as the bathroom vanity, providing a uniquely stylish sink stand.

"I've used many different types of objects as a vanity or sink, from an old, rustic wood cabinet to a stone baptismal font to a horse trough. I found them in the countryside, flea markets or vintage furniture stores," says Horn. "Just about anything can be used, but the easiest pieces to convert for bathroom use are cabinets and chests."

Horn stresses that not all antique and vintage furniture is suitable for conversion to plumbing.

"The most important things to consider are strength and durability," she says. "With an old or vintage cabinet, for example, you have to be sure it's sturdy enough to hold the sink and faucets and that it will hold up in terms of water and also, that it can house the plumbing comfortably."

With the growing interest in converting vintage pieces for bathroom use, some furniture manufacturers are offering reproduction pieces that come ready to hook into a house's existing pipes. Julie Anderson, who recently completed building and decorating a new home near Nashville, Tenn. loves the look of antiques in the bathroom, but decided to go with the ease reproductions offered.

"In one bathroom, we went with a cherry vanity with a black granite top that we bought pre-plumbed, with faucets and everything," says Anderson. "We also bought some pre-plumbed, vintage look pieces on eBay."

For homeowners who want the look of vintage furniture in their baths without the commitment of reworking any plumbing, freestanding pieces offer endless design variety. Elegant armoires can be used for towel storage, while painted, "shabby chic" bookshelves offer a great option for stashing toiletries and bathtub reading material.

Julie Anderson encourages other homeowners to think creatively when considering how to bring vintage pieces into a bathroom.

"We took two mirrored doors off of an antique wardrobe that was otherwise destroyed in a fire and mounted them side by side on the powder room walls," says Anderson. "It really opens up the space and makes it more interesting. It helps expand the room, which doesn't have windows."

Rachel Horn says that with both freestanding and plumbed vintage pieces, homeowners should take some precautions to insure that wood finishes aren't damaged by the damp environment in bathrooms.

"I use deck sealer on bathroom furniture, so my clients then don't really have to worry about moisture, although I do recommend resealing the top every few years, just to be sure," says Horn.

Another option is to replace older wood tops on dressers and cabinets with granite or other natural stone slabs.

As for finding unique, older furniture for the bath, Rachel Horn says she's had great luck finding unexpected pieces in traditional antique stores, as well as salvage and junk stores. And flea markets and estate sales offer a veritable smorgasbord of possibilities.

But Horn says that before designers or homeowners spend a penny, they should first take a look around their own homes.

"I've found some really fabulous things in clients' basements. So before shooting off to buy something, it's always good to look in Grandma's attic."