Let's dive into the what, why, and how of a Kathryn Murphy Interiors design from the clients' perspective. Brett and Julie Burwell came to us last year (that's spring of 2021) to design their exceptionally petite first-floor bath. In many areas, this 6' square space would be a powder room, but those with Chicago bungalows know that this is a common main family bath size for that style of home. Luckily for the Burwells, this was not their only bath and they wanted to use the small size to their advantage to really step out of their comfort zone and create a unique space. Huge thank you to Julie for her time answering these questions and unveiling the behind-the-scenes of the design process.
KMI - Why did you choose this space? JB - We’ve lived in our Oak Park bungalow since 2010. When we moved in, the kitchen was falling down (quite literally) so we prioritized that and reimagined the back half of the house. We always liked the traditional dining room/living room of the front half. Then we had a kid and spent the next few years evolving her room from a nursery to a big kid to a tween room. Our priorities were always on making the home feel right for us but where those priorities landed was not on the 6x6 traditional bungalow bathroom (clawfoot tub, toilet, vanity with medicine cabinet, hex tile, you know the drill) on the first floor.
The downstairs bathroom felt like the full 100-year history of the house was sitting on it, but it wasn’t broken enough to warrant being the next priority for a long time, maybe because it was fine. Just fine. I remember the bathroom wasn’t even featured in the listing photos when we bought the house. It was an invisible if functional, space.
It always, though, felt like the room I wanted to explain away. We had a shower curtain up because the rods were up when we moved in, but the bathroom is rarely used for showers. The curtain closed the room off and made it feel like a tunnel. The original tile had been replaced and repaired, and not always well, one or ten too many times. The faucet's fake metal was chipped and the wall color an unknown bluey-gray except where it was peeling. I can’t even with the light fixture. We put random brown towels in there because we had them, and there they stayed. For ten years!
KMI - What plans did you have in mind for your bathroom before the design process?
JB - Even though we both have pretty defined senses of design and aesthetics, we’ve always been hesitant to put forth color or pattern in a bold way in the rest of the house. Lots of gray and midnight blue dominated our house. The bathroom became a place we’d toy with doing something more interesting both because it was small enough it wouldn’t feel overwhelming and because it wasn’t a main living space we felt we’d need to negotiate over. It also felt like a space where a healthy but not billionaire budget could lead to awesome end results.
Our design decisions heretofore had been very much an extended process where meeting in the middle was often hard and the overlap in our two styles is a really, really narrow one. I lean global maximal, my husband leans Danish modern or anywhere minimal. We had a lot of ideas, none of them cohesive and none of them complete.
KMI - How did/did not the design process change those ideas? JB - I would say more than changing our daydreams or initial ideas, the process of working with Kathryn helped bring the ideas together and into focus. It clarified the ideas and gave us a common language we are using now to talk about the next steps in the house.
We wound up with some modern touches and some things that had a lovely patina, and more color and pattern than I think we could’ve ever hoped…but not so much that it felt like someone else’s tastes had been layered on top of ours or a fun house room that doesn’t match who we are and how we live.
In our early conversations, my husband brought up the riads we had stayed at on our honeymoon in Morocco. The star and geometric tile patterns felt a bit busy for the space but it was something we both loved. Kathryn brought in hand-cut Clé hexagonal tiles from Morocco in a solid color and suggested a textured clay wall treatment. It gave that riad feel we both loved. Having it come down one wall and onto the floor was that boost of elegance and also handmade that we wanted.
Kathryn also imagined a wallpaper from House of Hackney I’d mentioned liking in a black colorway (what? Black in a tiny bathroom?) for the ceiling. The wallpaper had felt overwhelming on the walls but suddenly seemed like an obvious choice. With the big hammered lotus light, it felt somehow 1920s and 1290s all at once.
One thing that came forward during the design process was how hosting, even if it was a simple dinner or impromptu gathering, was important to us and how we wanted guests to feel like they looked great in the bathroom. I realize that may sound silly but there’s that moment alone when you’re washing your hands where you assess yourself, and I wanted that to be as positive as possible – like when you’re in a great restaurant or hotel bathroom. I don’t think we’d ever have landed on the rosy/terracotta wall color by ourselves but that with the soft white light and the gold light from the overhead playing off the walls really makes everyone glow. The blue tile behind you when you look in the mirror is a really nice moment.
KMI - What surprised you about the design process?
JB - How painless it was! I mean, supply chains and rising construction costs aside (which anyone undertaking a project right now is navigating) Kathryn made the process really easy. Clear next steps, an “if we do this, let’s think about that” logic. I assumed we’d have much more conflict over decision-making between my husband and me.
Several months out, I’m also surprised by just how much joy the space brings me. I figured I’d feel relief that the broken and neglected stuff was gone but I am genuinely overjoyed every time I walk in there…even to clean! I also really appreciate that while it’s gorgeous it doesn’t feel precious, it’s still very much a functional room on our main living area.
KMI - What is your favorite part of your new space? JB - Oh man. For a 6x6 space, how long do you have? Everything. I love the imperfections of the hand-cut tile against the smoothness of the refinished tub. I love the dramatic look-at-me light and peekaboo wallpaper. I love the charming mirror and the genie bottle faucet. I love that it’s cohesive but in no way cookie-cutter. I love how grownups like to peek in there, and how kids ask to go wash their hands.
I also love that Kathryn welcomed our influence in the final, last-minute decisions. The choices Kathryn guided us to also led to a beloved friend’s artwork hanging in the room, and my husband’s long-time favorite print of hers to boot.
KMI - What advice do you have for others on selecting a designer and/or contractor// What is your advice when hiring a designer?
JB - You want someone you can trust, and who you can trust will challenge you. Not to move in a direction wholly unlike yourselves, but to stretch what you think is possible. Find someone that asks as many questions as shares ideas, and who is happy you ask questions too.
It’s inevitable that there will be something you need to solve after the design has been approved. There may be a material delay or an unexpected surprise behind a wall. I appreciated that Kathryn held to the integrity of the design while also being creative and flexible when we hit those moments. Creative problem-solving and not getting too frazzled when you hit a speed bump are traits I both admire and we needed.
Look to Facebook for recommendations and photos of before/after. Don’t look at posts from 10 years ago and think budgets and timelines are relevant. Also be very honest about what your budget is, what flexibility you have and what your must-haves are. We debated rotating the toilet/sink but the cost ultimately wasn’t worth it and we instead replaced a ton of old plumbing. Not a lick of that was sexy but it was essential. I don’t even think about it now, but I know when we don’t have major plumbing issues in ten years I’ll be thrilled!
Remember, too, when you are hiring a contractor you are hiring their team. We valued the open communication and respect between Kathryn and our contractor. And we had a lot of tradespeople in our home for stretches at a time. Knowing our contractor had long relationships with each of them, trusted them implicitly and expected excellence boosted our confidence and comfort.
We are both in creative, self-employed spaces and know that excellent, careful, thoughtful work is worth the premium you pay. Hiring Kathryn Murphy Interiors, and engaging expert craftspeople (that tile was no joke to install, the contractor’s mom mixed stains and paints to create the clawfoot’s aged gold feet) is worth it for the process and for the end result.
KMI - How does this investment make you feel about your home?
JB - I haven’t apologized for the bathroom once, ha!
I feel invested in the home again, truly. I think we all felt trapped at times the last few years, wanting to be anywhere else. I was so happy to be able to open the house up again to friends and family, and feel good about the public spaces they’d experience.
I realize we went big on a small space. We had the privilege of not giving a hoot – besides keeping the tub – about what someone 5 or 10 or even 15 years from now would say if the place landed on Zillow. We love this house and intend to live here till we can’t. It gave us the advantage and privilege of being our own return on investment –enjoying this house for the next 20+ years is what we’re focused on. Someone who needs to consider selling in a few years may need to make decisions that support or reflect that reality. We figured whatever on-trend thing we embraced now would be way outdated when we got to sell in 2050 so we might as well do what we loved.
Having conversations like that about this small space helped us think about next priorities for how we want to live in the whole house.
KMI - How did this design influence other items in your home/life/celebrity status?
JB - Working with Kathryn helped us in a couple of ways beyond getting a gorgeous bathroom. First, she gave us a shared experience in finding the ways what we both love can work together. It’s a graphic, modern print on top of a textured wall that feels like it’s a millennia old. Compromise isn’t finding something you both like enough, it’s finding ways to put the things you both love together.
Second, she truly boosted our confidence. Since the very first meeting, we’ve been rethinking and refreshing parts of the first floor. How can we make it more us and more interesting? How can we trust ourselves? How can we make braver or bolder choices? How can we not rely on gray so much? How do we actually use a space? Who do we host most often and what do they need and want…and when should our family’s needs take precedence? In some ways, we feel like we stopped playing house and are now homeowners who can make this house what we need it to be and want it to be.