The Only Good Kind of Bathroom Is a Themed Bathroom. Here’s Why

published Nov 24, 2020
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Credit: From Left to Right: Linda Stolley, Kurt Bilis, Jackie Cain

When I’m washing my hands with a seasonally appropriate soap from Bath & Body Works in my mom’s downstairs bathroom, I have a lot to look at. There are boat-shaped picture frames, seashells suspended in shadow boxes, glass fish sculptures, and an old lamp with a sea captain for a base. Next to the sink, there’s even a shelf that looks like a rowboat—it was part of a clam chowder display from the grocery store my dad works at, so of course he brought it home when the display was taken down.

Immediately upon entering this half-bathroom in central Massachusetts, you’re hit over the head with its theme: nautical New England. While I spent my adolescent years thinking the space was a little too over the top (how can you blame me when my Instagram feed was teeming with minimalist imagery from this very website?), now I know better. A confined space like a bathroom needs an unsubtle theme, complete with all the art, baubles, accents, and bold color choices that come with it.

Credit: Kurt Bilis
My mom's downstairs bathroom

A bathroom’s size makes it the perfect canvas for establishing a theme.

Bathrooms, by design, are smaller than most other rooms in a home. Their size makes it easier to adhere to a theme and lends them some flexibility when it comes to decorating. A smaller canvas commands you to design a bathroom with intention, whether it’s by adding the perfect number of poodle accessories or seashell bric-a-brac. 

Take Nancy Harsh’s bathroom in her midcentury home in Dallas, Texas. Her pink, poodle-themed water closet is High Art, if you ask me. 

“In ’50s and ’60s houses, bathrooms are small, so it doesn’t take a big investment to have a theme and change it later if you want,” Harsh says.

Credit: Nancy Harsh

She says she turned her guest bath into a “pink poodle paradise” with original vintage poodle wallpaper, a vintage pink poodle shower curtain, a crocheted poodle toilet paper holder, and vintage pink poodle figurines, among other gems.

“I used to collect everything pink plastic and pink poodle,” Harsh explains. “I just love the kitschiness of ’50s pink poodles. If you look at pink poodle figurines, they always have a confident, sassy look on their faces.”

Credit: Nancy Harsh

Another reason bathrooms blossom with themes? “Your guests are a captive audience in there,” says Linda Stolley, a Texas resident who has been renovating the bathroom in her childhood home in Indiana with a flamingo theme. “While in there, it gives them something to look at and enjoy. If it’s a fun theme, it makes people happy and they will remember it.”

Interior designer Jane Lockhart explains part of the appeal of going big on a bathroom theme is the potential to veer from the norm.

“The thought process for a lot of clients is they like the opportunity to have a place that is immersive and allows them a break from everyday life,” Lockhart says.

The size of the room, she adds, seals the deal. “It really needs no furniture. It’s all decor and color. This makes it very accessible.”

Credit: Linda Stolley

Themed bathrooms are a tradition of sorts—just look to your older relatives.

Transport yourself to the family gatherings of yesteryear. There’s a good chance one of your grandparents or another older relative had a themed bathroom when you were growing up.

The nautical look is a prevalent one where I’m from in New England, and generally, “the beach” is a go-to bathroom theme across the board. (Some Twitter users hypothesize that the the presence of water makes bathrooms ideal for a beach theme. Brilliant!)

Just look at my friend Tyler’s grandmother’s bathroom in New Bedford, Mass. It exhibits an underwater theme perfectly. She moved into her current home only within the past couple of years, but she didn’t waste any time establishing her bathroom as a Seashell Room.

Credit: Jackie Cain

Stolley’s flamingo bathroom in Indiana hearkens to tradition, too. “The mirrored picture is from my great grandmother’s house. Since I have such a small bathroom, I narrowed it down to the most vintage-looking [accessories],” she says. “I grew up in this house and bought it from my parents four years ago, and have been making it mine.”

Credit: Linda Stolley

Putting the work in to create a themed bathroom can be a nod to history, your family, or both, if you want it to be.

Creating a themed bathroom is plain old fun, and that fun can be stretched out over a period of years (or decades).

My mom has been collecting nautical decor for the downstairs bathroom for as long as I can remember. Our summer vacations on Cape Cod were not complete without a trip to the Christmas Tree Shop, where she’d put some sort of beach-themed sign in her shopping cart.

The fun of scoping out themed decor for the bathroom seemingly never ends. Stolley points out she’s been collecting flamingos for about 35 years.

Credit: Linda Stolley

As for my mom, she says her nautical bathroom all started because of one framed picture.

“I just kind of worked it around one thing,” says my mother, Diane Bilis. “It was that big picture of the man in the whale’s stomach. I had one hanging picture that was nautical and I just kept collecting stuff from there.”

When I started living alone for the first time earlier this year, I wasn’t sure how I would spruce up the bland, sterile-looking bathroom in my studio apartment. Now it’s pretty clear what I need to do: establish a theme. After much consideration, I’ve decided to follow my mom’s strategy and base my bathroom around two needlepoint pieces I got at an antique store in Connecticut a few years ago. They’re Revolutionary War-era soldiers, and for reasons I can’t explain, I love them.

Credit: Madeline Bilis

So like a true themed bathroom evangelist, I am working on making my bathroom Revolutionary War-themed. I’m currently on the hunt for a painting of an old ship to hang in there, and I look forward to a lifetime of collecting on-theme treasures for it.