The quickest way to elevate the look of a master bath is to stop thinking of the vanity as a built-in cabinet that does little more than support drawers and a pair of porcelain sinks.
Susan Howard, a design professional at Home on the Range, suggests instead that people remodeling a bathroom look at the vanity as a piece of furniture.
"Consider using a piece of freestanding furniture instead of built-ins," Howard suggested. "Very often, what we'll find is that it gives the bathroom the flavor of other rooms in the house."
Consumers have several options -- they can shop for ready-made bathroom vanities intended to give the look of a traditional furniture piece. Or, they can shop for a period side table or cabinet that could be cleverly re-purposed. A more direct but more costly option is to have a custom piece of furniture made.
"I've done bathrooms that use a piece of Victorian or Western furniture," Howard said. "Lots of the manufacturers of vanities aren't available in the rustic styles we see here. One possibility is a piece made in the mission style."
Of course, most couples have a need to store grooming products in their vanity. Howard said you can usually find a piece of free-standing furniture with at least some drawers in it. In most cases, homeowners want enough of a cabinet to hide the underside of the sink bowl. But increasingly, artistic sink bowls are meant to be in plain sight.
Lynne Bier, a colleague of Howard's, recently designed a bathroom vanity for a custom home in which a galvanized bucket served as the sink bowl. The custom-made faucet was built to resemble an old-fashioned pump.
"We found the bucket at Artisan's Market," in downtown Steamboat, Bier said.
Howard said she is remodeling a bathroom in a condominium at Bear Claw at the base of the ski area. The old vanity was swapped out for a distinctive piece of furniture. At the same time, a wall was being torn out to enlarge the bathroom into a space formerly occupied by the owner's lockable closet. Howard seized the opportunity to have a carpenter frame a niche into the new wall. It offers drawers to offset the lost storage in the new vanity, as well as shelves that meet the management company's requirement that folded towels be in plain sight for nightly rental guests.
Another trend among designers working on bathroom remodels now is installing a hardwood vanity and giving it a new look by antiquing the wood surface and adding a light sheen of color -- often green or blue.
Bob Garber, owner of Fish Creek Woodworks, said designers ask him to distress knotty alder cabinetry by "beating it up," and then giving it a glazed look known as pickling. Through the application of multiple finish coats that are quickly wiped off, the bathroom vanities are given just a hint of color that allows the natural wood grain to shine through. It's costly because it is labor intensive, Garber said, but it's a sought-after look.
Homeowners undertaking a bathroom remodel with eventual resale in mind should consider that savvy homebuyers in the Steamboat market are looking for signs of quality custom cabinetry, Garber said.
"People will actually pull out drawers and look for dovetail drawers (a style of corner joinery). There are so many people who consider it a prestige look," Garber said.
Astute homebuyers understand that if a cabinetmaker has the skills and tools necessary to build with dovetail joints, it's an indication that the rest of the box will be of quality construction.
Garber has two additional suggestions. Any time you remove sections of bathroom wall for replacement, he recommends insulating the interior walls for soundproofing.
"Without insulation, you can hear someone flush the toilet. Spend a little money and throw a few rolls of insulation at it. You'll be amazed at the difference it makes."