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Colorful Tile Was a Must in This L.A. Home's Bathroom Renos

May 22, 2023May 22, 2023

Meanwhile, the kids’ space is a lesson in tile combinations.

Published May 26, 2023 1:10 AM

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Designer and architect Susan Nwankpa Gillespie's latest clients, a young family who recently moved to Glendale, California, from New York City's Lower East Side, were used to tiny bathrooms. So when they gave Gillespie a tour of their new house, they were adamant that they didn't need much more space. "I was like, come on, guys, this is terrible," says Gillespie with a laugh. Having been friends with the couple for nearly 20 years, the founder of Nwankpa Design was comfortable being frank. She guessed the home's two bathrooms probably hadn't been renovated since the 1990s, and with two fast-growing boys to consider, she knew the kids’ area wouldn't be functional in the long run.

Luckily for the designer, the homeowners were as open as anyone could be: They like minimalism and maximalism. Gillespie put both to the test. She turned their primary bathroom into a zen retreat with plaster-coated walls, and brought an explosion of color and tile to the boys’ shower. The former turned into a personal endeavor for Gillespie: She drew on her Nigerian American upbringing and the West African concept of wearing clashing patterns. "The woman wears the outfit rather than the outfit wearing the woman—that was the goal with this bathroom," she explains. Ahead, Gillespie takes us behind the scenes of the two transformations and reminds us why a little extra room is never a bad thing.

By removing a wall in the 40-square-foot primary bathroom that hid a nonfunctional alcove, the designer more than doubled the space to 90 square feet. This move also allowed her to integrate a built-in oak-wood closet, complete with two cupboards for the couple's long hanging items and plenty of drawers.

Adding a frosted window to the shower brought more natural light into the room, but the real game changer was incorporating a sliding door leading to the lush backyard. As if mimicking the plant life outside, the designer created a custom mirror with a zellige tile border that amplifies the golden California light with its glistening surface. "You’ll be washing your hands or face, looking into this mirror where the greenery is reflected behind you, and you just feel transported," she shares.

Gillespie's contractor flew in a seasoned plaster worker to coat the entire space. After waterproofing the room using a method called hot mopping, which involves heating asphalt in a kettle and applying it between layers of felt using a large mop, he began work on the textured treatment. While you can't tell at first glance, the space actually features two finishes: a robust version on the floor and a softer veneer on the walls.

Like layering a colorful outfit, Gillespie knew that not every detail in the boys’ bathroom could be the star. "There is a graphic element in pretty much every surface, but it's about finding that mixture where you’re still able to see certain focal points," she says. Gillespie honed in on the shower. The interior walls are covered in a triangular pattern (a combination of two Zia Tile hues: Rouge and Casablanca), while solid amber zellige tiles encompass the facade. "You have to figure out which materials are going to help it shine but also have their own points of interest," she adds.

Setting the stage underfoot is a custom pattern of dusty pink concrete tile that runs from the floor to the wall behind the sink. The designer opted for a mix of sizes, but it was really a delivery mistake that determined how it was laid out. The company didn't send them all the sizes she originally ordered, so Gillespie redesigned the pattern with what they were given, resulting in a cadence of one, two, and three 2-by-8 tiles separated by 8-by-8 squares.

The floating vanity cabinets are crafted out of white oak, just like Mom and Dad's, and finished in a semitransparent gray stain to accentuate the grain of the wood and the oversize terrazzo knobs. The initial plan for the sink was to go with a quiet limestone, but when Gillespie spotted this red and green marble slab peeking out behind another at the stone yard, she turned to her clients and asked: Is this too much? "They were like, not at all!" says the designer. It was just enough.