Around the House, The Powder Room

Is your powder room ready for the Holidays? If you are planning to have guests over or throw big parties — don’t forget the powder room! Your female friends especially really appreciate a well-appointed powder room.

How many times have I been in a restaurant with my women friends and they’ll insist on a trip to the powder room just to see the fabulous décor. Or, in some sad cases, they will warn you to avoid the powder room unless absolutely necessary. Certainly, you don’t want your powder room to fall into the latter category, so choose a style that suits your imagination and take it from there.

Formal Elegance

So, make your powder room memorable — after all it’s a small room, just the size to give your imagination free rein. I recently finished a house that had two powder rooms on the first floor; a fancy one and a family one. The fancy one turned out to be a real hit with the woman of the house — her favorite room. She loved beautiful fabrics and unique antiques and would have preferred a more formal treatment for the entire house than what was practical for her active family. But the powder room was one place where she could indulge her taste for the opulent. We started with beautiful limestone walls and floors and added an elegant glazed black and bronze tile border motif; next we found a decoratively painted wooden vanity and chose a black polished marble for the top. Then we chose a large bronze vessel sink and special-ordered a carved trumeau style mirror with a black cameo detail. Sparkle was provided by a small scale crystal chandelier and sconces which brought out the shimmer in the beautiful embroidered silk that we gathered in an asymmetrical festoon over the window. I loved it when my client asked me if it was okay to leave the door to the powder room open because she enjoyed looking at it so much! (Hey, why not?)

Cottage Elegance

I would describe my own current house as "elegant cottage" and the powder room is

decorated along those lines. Herringbone-design tumbled marble makes a statement on the floor while the walls are beadboard wainscotting surmounted by a muted floral wallpaper. The window was simply treated by installing a long panel of sheer linen pulled to one side over a decorative glass holdback. A narrow cabinet holds a collection of colorful ceramic pitchers and an antique candlestand has baskets of soap and a vase of flowers. For a whimsical touch — a Teddy bear dressed in a velvet evening gown complete with rhinestone tiara reclines on a doll-size chaise. I get a lot of comments on her! (My cats used to jump on the chaise with her but lately they have lost interest).


A powder room that is too large can be intimidating — one wants a sense of privacy which is difficult to achieve in a room the size of a small skating rink. Recently, I attended a day-long retreat at a monastery up north on the Hudson; the monks had renovated a large pantry off the dining room to be the ladies room, and every lady without exception remarked on how exposed they felt using it! If the room is too big, install a wall or half-wall to partition the toilet. Or find creative ways to use up space. In one too-large powder room, I built out two substantial columns, installed a vanity between them and replaced the sheet mirror with a smaller framed mirror to diminish the size of the room. If possible the door should swing open to shield the toilet (not to feature it ).

At the other extreme, a small powder room can be treated dramatically with a mirrored wall. A pedestal sink or a vessel sink-on-stand is very chic and saves space.


I favor low lighting for a powder room. It is not intended to be the place where one requires full spectrum light to apply an intricate color-sensitive palette of makeup; it’s only necessary to fluff the hairdo and renew the lipstick, so ditch the interrogation lighting and go for atmosphere. A chandelier may provide enough light; if the ceiling is too low for that, go for a pair of interesting sconces. Dimmers are always a good idea. Also, did you know that keeping the life of your standard incandescent bulb is substantially extended by keeping it dimmed only slightly?


Many powder rooms are located off the foyer in the front of the house. From the interior vantage point this is a good location but if the powder room has a window, well, it can be embarrassing for both parties if the UPS delivery arrives at the front door while you are seated on the "throne." Best to block that window — shutters or blinds that can be adjusted to let in light but totally obscure the view are a good option. One of my clients was so concerned about this that she walled up the window in her powder room — a draconian measure for modesty in my view; I’d rather have the window.

Quick fixes

Wallpaper is probably the simplest way to make a dramatic change in your powder room; the right paper alone can transform a room. Paint is another good option — if your walls are properly prepared, using a glossy paint can mimic a lacquered finish!

If you are having a party, fresh flowers are a wonderful addition — get a sizable bouquet and don’t forget that the scent should be appealing too. Beautiful new guest towels and a selection of pretty soaps are standard holiday upgrades in the powder room. I always have my "show towels" prominently displayed while my towels for actual use are handy to the sink. (Alas, once in a while I get a guest who doesn’t get it and uses the "show" towels.)

Do you have any artwork that is looking for wall space? Or perhaps you have a collection of vintage hats or beaded bags. Would they make an effective display in the powder room? Maybe a stack of brightly wrapped gifts would be fun for the Holidays. You don’t have to be too serious about it and you can always change it. During a slow period on my summer job as a teen, I enlisted one of my co-workers to make a huge and humorous collage in the ladies room — we got lots of belly-laughs and smiles for weeks from the permanent staff — it added levity to our routine day.

Go ahead, have fun and Happy Thanksgiving.

Barbara Sternau is an Interior Designer with offices at 37 Main St., Tarrytown, NY

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About the Author: Barbara Sternau