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Secrets to Bathroom Shelving

Open shelving may be just the stylish organizer your bathroom needs — if you follow these expert tips from interior designers.

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"Soothing and simple" are the watchwords as spa- and Asian-influenced bathroom decor becomes ever more popular. In this design climate, open shelves are a natural choice for both "have to have" storage and "nice to have" decorative displays.

"Open shelving is now being integrated into bathroom designs as another architectural element, particularly in line with today's modern decorating style," says Deborah Burnett, residential design spokesperson for the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).

Within the contemporary look, open-shelving options leave a lot of room for individual style, from free-standing floor-to-ceiling units to a cultured marble shelf running along top of a 4-inch splash next to the tub.

"One thing we're doing more and more is adding open shelving to the space on the walls on either end of big tubs or whirlpools," says Leslie L. Christoffel, a designer with Nova Kitchen & Bath in Arden, N.C. Bathers use those shelves for massage oils and candles and, of course, towels. This is where you tend to find the materials that tie in with the whirlpool: shelves made of cultured marble, tile or granite.

"Another popular option is a cubby style shelf, where you can roll up towels and store them inside like a mail slot, and have room on top for display," she says. "People are also using shelves that look like a large wine cradle to store rolled towels."

Christoffel has also been known to use the space on the counter between the sink bowls in a large master bath for shelves, an ideal spot for stylish shelves like the 16" x 5" x 21.5" high Stinson Recessed Wall Shelf by Pottery Barn. In tight-on-space baths, corner shelves like Lacava's wall-mounted corner structure with three clear glass shelves are a boon; and small chrome pieces like its wall-mounted polished chrome towel shelf are just made to make the most of the idle space above the toilet tank.

Another option is a decorative shelf with hooks below it, like the Pottery Barn's Five-Hook Wave Wall-Mounted Towel Rack. And shelves with towel racks below abound, many of them part of a larger accessory "suite," like Moen's Bamboo Signature Accessory curved towel bar with shelf.

Just make sure you measure before you buy one of these combos. "You have to hang high enough so the things you hang don't drag, but you don't want the shelf to be so high you can't reach it," says Christoffel.

Burnett, also an interior designer and licensed building contractor in Nashville, Tenn., recommends including some open shelving into freestanding storage pieces, particularly in a smaller bathroom that needs all the storage space you can muster. "Alternate a row of towels with a shelf of cool baskets filled with grooming products, or place some baskets on the top shelf of a taller unit and pop in your hair dryer or other electric appliances," she says.

Baskets are just the start of decorative containers that look great and can still hold necessities like cotton balls or bath oil beads. Consider antique Ball jars, cut-glass decanters, ceramic ginger jars, even the Italian glass bottles with stoppers sold to hold olive oil or vintage kitchen cookie jars.

Lots of manufacturers are rising to meet the need for containers that look spiffy on an open bathroom shelf, too, like Kohler with its Russian Teacup countertop accessories, inspired by the lavish Russian Imperial style in cobalt blue and gold blended with jade accents on a white background.

You can also use a small shelf to make a design statement of its own — every bathroom accessory designer worth its salt seems to be designing an arty version. Lacava, for example, offers up a wall mounted corner glass shelf with polished chrome bracket that's dipped and graceful, 9 1/4" x 6 1/2" of loveliness that can also display a candle, some soap, you name it. Kohler's Portrait Lavatory Shelf is white, long and lean, 21-5/8'' x 4-3/4'' x 3-3/4'' with a metropolitan feel. It looks great over a sink or on a small stretch of bathroom wall, whether it's full of shaving soap and razors or decorative bottles of scent and little ceramic figurines.

But in most cases, shelves should match your decor, says Christoffel. "Unless it's just a single decorative shelf, usually the material for open shelves should be painted or stained the same as what you use for the rest of the cabinets for a unified look."

And no matter how gorgeous the shelf or how representative of your personal style, keep in mind that it is, first and foremost, out in the open. "Whether you're displaying decorative or utilitarian items, you have to be able to keep them neat on open shelving," says Christoffel.

If you and your bathroom-mates can't handle the tidy factor, opt for shelves behind closed doors.

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