See How I Transformed My Tiny ’90s Bathroom to Feel Way Bigger

published Apr 4, 2024
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About this before & after
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The older bathrooms in my historic Washington, DC, neighborhood are not known for their square footage. People 100 years ago knew how to use space efficiently, and, despite my best efforts, there was no footprint workaround or miracle floor plan that was going to add more square footage to my primary bathroom (short of stealing space from another room and signing up for a major and costly renovation, which I wasn’t interested in).

However, there was a way to make this space feel light and bright while infusing it with some classic style that could overcome its now-dated late-’90s renovation and its non-functional state. (The cold water on the sink was the only thing that worked in the bathroom when we bought it!) 

With some style changes and fixture swaps, I was able to transform this tiny bathroom into a space where I’m excited to get up and get ready every day. Here’s how I did it.

Credit: Heather Bien
Credit: Heather Bien

I chose a spacious shower over a closed-in tub.

Walking into the original bathroom felt like the walls were closing in on you. Measuring about 5 feet across and 8 feet long, the room’s narrow width felt even tighter with the standard-size tub that was enclosed by a wall on one side.

I decided to take out the tub and replace it with a glass shower. My contractor confirmed that we could swap the shower head from the weird middle-of-the-room wall to one of the perimeter walls, which gave us the flexibility to open up the layout. I wanted to go full glass with the shower, but my contractor convinced me to leave a half wall to block the toilet. Definitely the right move!

The glass totally opens up the space — no more feeling like you’re in a cave. Plus, I get the most delightful morning view of a church steeple while I’m getting ready for the day.

Credit: Heather Bien

I picked a budget-friendly tile for both the wall and floors.

Bistro tile and subway tile are my bathroom renovation MVPs. These are two of the least expensive porcelain tile options on the market, and they’re so classic. You can find bathrooms in this exact tile combination from half a century ago and older. It never goes out of style. 

I love a timeless black and white, but I wanted this bathroom to feel a little bit brighter, so I went with the bistro tile in gray and paired it with a 3-inch by 6-inch white subway tile. One of my hot takes when it comes to bathrooms is that white grout is never the move, so I chose a warm gray that perfectly complements the tile.

Credit: Heather Bien
Credit: Heather Bien

I installed a cheerful and light floral wallpaper.

When the wallpaper for this bathroom went in, I immediately texted my sister telling her I’d perfectly channeled her 1980s floral bathroom that has been on her “to renovate” list since she moved into her house nearly 10 years ago. 

But this Rifle Paper Co. floral wallpaper feels cheerful and light. I love how the blooms feel delicate and cool, and they work beautifully as a backdrop. The wallpaper feels like it’s part of the overall look rather than dominating the space, and it doesn’t compete with the tile or the beadboard that runs halfway up the wall.

Credit: Heather Bien
Credit: Heather Bien

I found the smallest vanity possible — with a cost-saving hack.

I fell in love with a periwinkle vanity from one of my favorite furniture retailers, but, whew, what a price tag — $800! After looking at it on my Pinterest board one too many times, I decided to plug the image into Google Lens.

I found the exact same vanity from the same manufacturer at Walmart for over $300 less. I’ve never ordered something so quickly. And, while tiny, this vanity gives us a space to put toilet paper and a cleaning product or two, which is truly a game-changer in a small bathroom.

Credit: Heather Bien

I opted for chrome hardware to reflect light.

While I love a brass finish, I wanted this bathroom to feel crisp, cool, and light. That meant abandoning my previously anti-silver sentiments and going all in on polished chrome. I was actually inspired by a single Delta Silverton hook I plucked from a free box on the street. I loved the classic style, and that inspired me to order two more hooks, a faucet, and a toilet paper holder all from that collection. 

Now, from the Signature Hardware shower system and vanity light to the $2 chrome knobs that I found on Amazon for the vanity, everything in here reflects light with its shiny finish.

Credit: Heather Bien

I used a half-curtain to let natural light in.

I debated how to tackle window treatments in this room. Because the room is small and narrow, it needs all the light it can get. But it’s a bathroom, so it needs privacy. Luckily, we have the advantage of being one of the taller houses in our neighborhood, and most of the houses behind us are a story shorter. This bathroom is on the third floor, so I did a quick experiment and realized that a half-curtain would block us from everything except the church steeple — and, to my knowledge, there’s no one hanging out up there. 

I reached out to a seller on Etsy to see if they could make their full-length drapery in a single-panel, cafe curtain size. A $40 cotton curtain and one $5 tension rod later, and I had a solution to let light in and provide privacy.

Credit: Heather Bien

I incorporated small storage moments.

Storage is not where this space shines, but we’re lucky to have a linen closet in the hallway right outside the bathroom. Still, there were a few places I incorporated storage that we’d need on a more accessible basis. The first was installing an inset medicine cabinet. I would have loved to install a bold mirror, but I also need somewhere to put my face wash, floss, and other necessities. 

I also installed a small glass shelf next to the vanity. It’s not easy finding a tiny glass shelf — it seems most retailers consider 15 inches to be small, and I needed 8 inches — but this one fits the bill. It’s just big enough to hold hand soap and a toothbrush cup.

Lastly, I found a $5 chrome hook on Amazon that fits snugly over our glass shower door and gives me somewhere to hang my towel while I shower because, despite how small the bathroom is, I still couldn’t reach my towel without stepping out of the shower. It’s those little details that make the small space work.