All is Vanity
The furniture look reaches new heights while medicine
cabinets take on stylish new looks and features.
By Daina Manning
Big, boxy vanity with tons of storage. Plain mirrored wall, or
generic beveled glass medicine cabinet. That configuration has been
installed in millions of homes during the past decade. However,
these days, the most stylish bath vanities have a different look,
according to the manufacturers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath
Furniture Look leads
A few years back, consumers who wanted a furniture look for their
vanity went with actual furniture, notes Ed Felten, director of
sales and marketing for Owen Woods, in Owen, WI. “[The trend]
evolved from designers taking [clients] to antique dealers and
buying an old antique piece and dropping a sink and faucets [into
it],” he explains.
But Karen Merz, president of Vintage Vanities Ltd., in
Tavernier, FL, points out the disadvantages to this approach. “We
started out with that,” she notes about her company’s custom
pieces, “but we found that, by the time you cut into it, it’s
worthless. If you make a mistake in the conversion process, you’re
starting from scratch. There’s [also] a lot of old glue and
adhesive in old furniture [and these] really don’t hold up well to
the conversion process. So we thought, we’re going to make [new
vanities] and make them look as old as possible but with new
construction, so they’ll withstand the test of time.”
The furniture look is not limited to antique looks,
Jeff Ptacek, product manager for StarMark Inc., in Sioux Falls,
SD, cites a growing interest in table-like vanities “with just a
few valances and legs” that adopt a plain, streamlined Arts and
Crafts or Shaker style.
Mark Conde, product manager for Yorktowne, Inc., in Red Lion,
PA, also cites a table with no storage and perhaps a clean-lined
Asian influence as an up-and-coming trend, often paired with a
“The Arts and Crafts movement has stayed very strong,” agrees
Felten. He adds that frequently, consumers who utilized an Arts and
Crafts or Shaker look for the master bedroom will want to continue
those design elements in the bathroom, including Mission-style
vanities with matching wood-framed mirror. He also mentions other
20th century vintage styles, such as Art Deco and Mid-Century
Modern, as adventure picks on the high end.
Similarly, Charles Bearman, program coordinator for Sokee Corp.,
in Monroe, WA, says his contemporary design-oriented company does
“a lot of radius fronts, a lot of pastel and light colors, painted
or white veneers, plumbing out of the wall.” Another contemporary
style removes the toe kick and attaches it to the wall, and then
adds under- cabinet lighting for a dramatic effect.
Many consumers, of course, still want the additional storage
provided by a traditional, large vanity, notes Conde. Additionally,
on-the-floor styles are available in a variety of price points for
every family’s need. But even with a traditional approach, the
furniture look comes into play with additions such as onlays and
korbels. An in-between choice is also available via vanities that
are off the ground on legs or decorative posts, providing storage
with a lighter, airier feel, says Conde.
“Everybody likes a more unfitted look. They want a lot more
detailing and ornate focal points,” agrees Sandra Luttchens,
director of design and training for Omega Cabinetry, in Waterloo,
The furniture approach also takes a cue from kitchen cabinetry
in applying more complex, multi-step finishes, glazes and physical
distressing such as rub-throughs, those surveyed agree. Darker
woods and finishes are indicated for many furniture looks, though
the perennially popular Shaker styles mandate a lighter
The new trends in faucetry more matte, brushed finishes, the
advent of stainless steel and oil-rubbed bronze have also
contributed to the tones consumers pick for their vanity. “We’re
coordinating glazes to work with those finishes,” says
Ptacek mentions a taupe glaze that’s a good match with steel,
pewter and nickel faucetry.
The choice in wood species is also taking a cue from the
kitchen. “Maples are still really strong [for vanities],” notes
Ptacek, who adds that sales of cherry have also increased greatly.
“Standard oak is relatively dead,” he adds. However, more
specialized high-end oaks are used in Shaker styles, he notes.
In high-end applications, Merz also cites mahogany and European
pines, as well as vanities that combine wood species, such as
walnut and oak. Bearman says the exotic Japanese veneers that are
popular for Sokee’s kitchen cabinetry are also hot for
The advent of the furniture look has one other disadvantage,
even with large sizes (34″ – 36″ high) there’s less vanity storage,
which leads designers to explore other options. Ptacek believes
consumers are installing a linen cabinet in a different room or
hallway as one possible storage option.
The lack of vanity storage has contributed to the resurgence of the
medicine cabinet or, “mirrored bath cabinetry,” says Eric Phelps,
marketing manager for Robern, in Bristol, PA, a subsidiary of the
Kohler Co. “At Robern, we don’t sell medicine cabinets,” he quips.
“A medicine cabinet is what your grandma used to have, with a razor
slot [and] rust.”
In the past, “people had a frameless beveled cabinet,” says
Raymond Lombardo, president of Afina Corp., in Paterson, NJ. Now,
they want something different and unique and bigger. Lombardo cites
47″x36″ triple-door cabinets “with integral lighting built along
the top, with a frame surrounding the whole thing” as something
that the company has done very well with.
“Mirrored cabinets have always been design neutral,” agrees
Phelps. “As a result, sometimes that became an afterthought there
wasn’t much excitement.” Now, all that’s changed with very stylish
and unique choices.
Framing is central to the new-and-improved bathroom cabinet,
manufacturers agree. “In the past, you basically just had a box on
the wall,” says Phelps. Now, with a surround frame, “[the cabinet]
looks like it belongs.”
“Our specialty is 60 different frame styles,” notes Lombardo,
who adds that very Baroque, ornate wood frames in antique gold or
silver finishes similar to a museum-style picture frame are big
sellers. “People want to bring a sense of fashion and warmth in
their bathroom environment,” he explains.
Phelps cites plated aluminum finishes that tap into Kohler’s PVD
technology as a new way to bring highly durable faucetry finishes
to the medicine cabinet. The new finish is available in chrome,
brushed nickel and Monaco gold, a muted gold shade. “It allows us
to tie the mirrored cabinet into the accessories of the bathroom,”
Phelps adds that Robern’s new
cabinetry has a modern look, but its clean, crisp lines also work
in a transitional or even traditional setting. “If you’re doing it
in chrome and you’re doing a traditional [bathroom], the chrome is
For another contemporary look, Lombardo cites Afina’s Tribeca
cabinet which features a very clean, sleek stainless steel frame as
a popular pick.
For a vintage 20th century option, Phelps mentions Robern’s
Fairhaven cabinet, which has an old time New England look with
crown moulding and inset door with a knob. The cabinet is available
in a painted aluminum that Phelps insists is indistinguishable in
look from wood, but far more durable in a moist bathroom
In addition to increased style, the new medicine cabinet also
has increased function and size via extra depth. “One thing we
continually hear from consumers in a powder room application is,
‘I’ve taken out my vanity and replaced it with a pedestal lav,'”
says Phelps. Except now, the medicine cabinet has to be deep enough
to hold that extra roll of toilet paper. A new 8″-deep cabinet is
now available in a half-recessed, half-surface application,
providing a lot of storage without a bulky kitchen cabinet
Internal options like defoggers and outlets to keep an
electrical razor or toothbrush charged and concealed also adds to a
cabinet’s function, concludes Phelps, putting the new cabinets more
in the category of a bathroom appliance.
Topping it off
Marble and granite were most often mentioned as vanity top choices
for the high end, while solid surface with an undermount sink still
commands a significant portion of market share because of its
practicality and easy cleaning. “You don’t have to clean around the
rim,” notes Luttchens. Laminates are popular in low- to mid-range
Several manufacturers mentioned Zodiaq and other engineered stone
products as up-and-comers because they combine a realistic stone
look with easy care. Conde adds that consumers often pick a more
upscale top for the bathroom than for the kitchen, where more
square footage of a material is required. “The bath becomes a
showplace that’s about ‘look what I have,'” he explains.
For a unique upscale look, Merz cites her company’s fossil stone
tops, quarried in the Philippines.
Of course, wood is the most furniture-like top. Felten insists
Owen Woods’ technology which combines a sealer with a vinyl
additive as a base coat, followed by a catalyzed varnish makes his
company’s wood tops highly durable in any application, and insists
that 50% of his vanity customers choose a wood top. “[The tops are]
impervious to water,” he says.
“A thick finish does the trick,” echoes Bearman, who says his
company’s wood tops work just fine in all applications.
But Merz cautions about her company’s antique furniture looks with
wood tops. “Our pieces are powder room pieces. Common sense applies
you don’t leave water and toothpaste standing on [a wood top] for
weeks.” For vanities in a high traffic area, Merz recommends a
stone top. Felten notes that a dark colored marble or granite is
Owen Woods customers’ most popular stone pick to accompany dark
The vessel bowl is also a high-end powder room pick. But
manufacturers caution that this look is not appropriate for heavy
Some manufacturers insist the vessels are a very high-end, media
supported trend rather than a consumer driven one, but Bearman
insists, “The people who are doing our cabinetry are very high end,
so we’re seeing a lot of vessels.”
Conde adds that the vessel is a hot pick for empty nesters, baby
boomers with a lot of disposable income and no kids around to abuse
the furniture. “It’s a show piece,” he says.
For consumers looking for an upscale look in a traditional bowl,
Luttchens notes that, “We’re seeing a lot of decorative undermount
bowls,” for instance, one with a mosaic look.
Whatever look they choose, style wins over price point,
concludes Felten. “When someone has a certain look in their master
bedroom that they’re trying to match in their master bath, probably
the fifth question is, ‘how much’?” he says. “Price is still part
of the thought process, but it isn’t the first thing they ask.”