Hotel bathrooms inspire travel writer’s remodel

Home Improvement Style Boston South Boston
The author picked penny round tiles for the walls after seeing them in the bathroom of a restaurant in Melbourne. Barry Chin/Globe staff

When it came time to remodel the two bathrooms in my South Boston condo, my anxiety level was akin to a pimply 12-year-old arriving for his first day of junior high in a strange new town. Dropped off by his mother. In front of the school.

I was in a creative panic.

The condo was last renovated in 2004, and the bathrooms looked as if a contractor had dug up a real bargain on a stack of Cream of Wheat-colored tiles he found buried under discarded lumber at the back of a big-box home improvement store.

Interior designer Jon Andersen gave the small guest bathroom a floating bamboo vanity (custom built by Mark Brunke) to make the space feel lighter. His design included lighting that added texture to the raised hexagonal tiles behind the sink and at the back of the shower. Innovative lighting is often used by hotels to make bathrooms look more luxurious. —Barry Chin/Globe staff

I was excited to see the anemic old tiles gone, along with the textured plastic shower doors, but I had no vision for what should replace them. Remodeling a bathroom, let alone two, is not inexpensive, and I have a knack for making questionable design decisions. Perhaps I should mention here that my art collection consists of “Brady Bunch,” “Charlie’s Angels,” and “Partridge Family” lunchboxes from the 1970s. Like fine art, I assumed these pop culture relics would appreciate in value. Wrong. Can I interest anyone in a “Bionic Woman” lunchbox?

I knew what I didn’t want: subway tile. I felt certain that the omnipresent subway tile trend would someday be as dated as sunken living rooms, goldenrod yellow refrigerators, and “Bionic Woman” lunchboxes. But what did I want? The answer appeared before me in a hotel room. Actually many hotel rooms.

I write about travel, so I spend a healthy amount of time bed hopping. I knew good bathroom design. I’d seen it in rooms in Hong Kong, Lima, London, and Montreal. I finally realized what I wanted for my home was a pair of hotel bathrooms.

The teak cabinets in the master bath add a bit of warmth and mid-century flair. —Barry Chin/Globe staff

I’d like to say my idea was original, but according to a slew of local designers I chatted up, the demand for hotel-like bathrooms at home is fairly common.

“My firm is currently in the midst of a master bathroom-renovation project in Weston that was born of an experience years ago on a Roman holiday,” West Newton-based Jill Litner Kaplan told me. “I can honestly say that many of our clients get inspired by hotel bathrooms and want the same amenities they experience away to be installed and available at home.”

Boston-based designer Jill Najnigier estimated about 1 in 4 of her clients references hotel bathroom design when they approach her. Like her clients, she said, she is also keen on these often cleverly designed spaces.

“I’m absolutely inspired by my travels,” Najnigier said. “Inspiration is both in form and function, layout, fixtures, finishes, materials, color, lighting, location of outlets, and storage.”

Many modern boutique hotels have dispensed with a combination tub and shower in favor of a large standalone shower. —Barry Chin/Globe staff

I had a basic hotel aesthetic in mind, and that was about it. I turned to my husband for his thoughts one evening, and, barely looking up from his laptop, he said, “I don’t care, as long as it’s practical and looks good.” It was about as helpful as asking our cat. We found a contractor and set a date for work to begin on the guest bathroom, but many decisions had yet to be made.

We hired a designer who had great ideas about spatial arrangement and lighting. This was key because the bathrooms are small and the layouts were uninspired. We were gutting these rooms and starting over. But I remained stymied on tile and color. Both husband and cat remained occupied with other activities and stayed silent on the topic.

A Saturday afternoon trip to LaFauci Tile and Marble in Watertown snapped me out of my creative rut. My unpaid endorsement is that LaFauci is a life saver. I found a white hexagonal diamond tile that reminded me of one I had seen in a boutique hotel in Nantucket. It had the mid-century vibe I craved and came in both raised and flat varieties. Feature walls, strategically lighted, would take the raised diamond hexes. The other walls would be tiled flat.

If this were a true hotel bathroom, the vanity would probably also be white, or maybe a contrasting dark gray. Our designer suggested bamboo. Not my first choice, but he was the expert and I was happy to have someone else make a decision. I loved it. Four months later, our guest bathroom looked as if it had been plucked out of a boutique hotel. We celebrated by splurging on towels so fancy that I still can’t bring myself to use them.

The idea for wide-plank gray tiles that cover the floor and continue up the back wall into the shower of the master bath were inspired by the bathroom design of a boutique hotel in Bonn, Germany. —Barry Chin/Globe staff

Bathroom number one was finished. The master bath awaited, and I felt my creative brain freeze return. At the same time we were making design decisions for the master bathroom, I was writing about Boston hotels, and I found plenty of inspiration. I love wide plank-like monochromatic tiles and married that look with the industrial gray color of the rooms at The Boxer Boston, a hotel near North Station. Shortly after, I was in Melbourne having lunch at a restaurant called Naked for Satan. I promise it was a restaurant and not a bordello. The bathrooms in Naked for Satan were completely tiled in penny rounds. It was bold, different, and not subway tile. When I later saw walls covered in white penny round tiles in an Air Canada lounge in Toronto, I knew we had our look.

Hotels use dramatic lighting to make bathrooms feel more elegant. —Barry Chin/Globe staff

I suggested a teak vanity and cabinets to warm up all of the white and gray in the room. I liked the masculine combination of teak and gray. These are colors that said: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. There is no ‘Bionic Woman’ lunchbox in this condo. You must be confusing me with someone else.”

Six long months later, we had another boutique bath. I was happy because my year of thinking about colors and tiles was over. My husband was happy because the bathrooms are functional and look good. And the cat was happy because we installed heated floors in the master bath.

Looking back, however, there were a couple of important hotel bathroom features I forgot to include. The first was hiring someone to bring fresh towels every day. The second was finding a service that would drop off small bottles of soaps, conditioners, and shampoos, and then arrange them delicately on rosette-shaped face cloths. Unless I can train the cat to accomplish these tasks, I’ll need to adjust to living with hotel bathrooms that have all of the style, but none of the maid service.

Christopher Muther can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and on Instagram @Chris_Muther. Subscribe to our free newsletter on real estate, home repair, and design at