Bathroom Flooring Ideas And Design: The Basics

by Jim Bessey

If you dream of designing a new bathroom, then you’ve seen the shows on HGTV. Professional designers take on a project for a star-struck homeowner–a complete bathroom makeover. The star may be an eloquent and lovely female, or a rugged yet charming guy. Their helpers whip out sledgehammers and pry bars and fancy tools, and–viola!–a gorgeous new bathroom emerges an hour later!

They make it look easy.

montage of bath tile flooring
Four views of bathroom tile flooring

Their shows have catchy titles and great sponsors. Hardly anyone talks about money or time, budgets or inconvenience. So, before you get too deep into some exotic design ideas, let’s talk a bit about the basics of bathroom design, starting with your bathroom floor.

Why start with the floor?

Once you choose a material for your new bathroom floor, you’re going to be stuck with it for quite some time. You can change the vanity later on, or switch to a different toilet. But the floor? It’s not going anywhere! If it’s a good flooring choice, your new floor might last for 40, even 50 years.

Your floor’s material, color, texture and style set the tone for the rest of your bathroom.

How do you begin? Start with a concept, a theme. Muted elegance, or ultra-modern, or informal and earthy are just three possible approaches. If you choose a black and white checkerboard tile, then your fixtures will likely be white and chrome. If you pick a deep and leathery tan variegated tile, you might prefer biscuit (similar to bone) and brushed nickel fixtures. If you start with a flooring style you like, then all of your later choices follow that theme.

Consider the size and brightness of your room.

Many traditional bathrooms are small, even tiny. The old standard builder-bathroom was just 5 by 7 feet (35 square feet), and your powder room may be even smaller. Less than half of the bathrooms we’ve seen include any kind of window. Bathroom lighting, too, is typically harsh or too focused.

What to do about that? First, be careful about adding too much color to a small room. Second, be careful about busy patterns, which can make the space appear even tinier. That luscious chocolate-swirl 13″-square tile which looks fantastic in a showroom might spell visual disaster for your bathroom.

So what about all those pretty patterns?

Many flooring choices are best installed without patterns–laminate floors, for instance, are best in a unified design. If you’re looking at ceramic or porcelain tile floors in showrooms, however, you’ll often see beautiful patterns displayed. Professional designers want to showcase their best (most expensive) offerings. It’s true, though, that tile inherently lends itself to blending lines and colors and textures for maximum ‘wow’ effect.

If your bathroom is big enough and includes plenty of diffuse lighting, you can incorporate interesting patterns in your design. This often works best if your space is more than a simple rectangle dominated by a tub or shower. Take advantage of showroom or online software to try some of these patterns using your bathroom’s actual dimensions:

  • Perimeter accent ribbons: A traditional, pleasing form that simply creates a frame-style border, usually inset from the walls just a bit. This does, however, tend to make a room look slightly smaller than it actually is.
  • Center focal inserts: A fine choice for featuring a smaller quantity of some type of fancy material–stone, glass, even metal tile. Creates the appearance of a placed throw-rug to provide an artistic focus. Handle with care.
  • “Brick”-style: Similar to the ‘subway’ tile effect seen on many walls, this method offsets tiles or similar materials by half-length, avoiding the usual graph-paper pattern. It’s a look that can actually stretch a room to look a bit larger.
  • Checkerboard effects: The popularity of the oft-seen black and white checkerboard floor waxes and wanes. You can improvise on this effect using different color choices, or even shades of a given color. You can also use a swirled or textured tile that has a prominent “grain” and alternate the grain for a more subtle pattern.
  • Mosaics: There was a time when all the cool bathrooms used all kinds of wild mosaics–tiny tiles of assorted colors formed into regular or random patterns. You’ll still find these floors in stately city homes. Some people love them; mosaics could even be the next Big Thing–like the return of bell-bottoms! Oddly enough, there are more choices in sheet-based tile and glass today than ever before.
  • On the diagonal: Sometimes the look of tile or strip flooring laid diagonally sets just the right mood for a room. This is an individual preference, and it doesn’t work for everyone. Some say it looks overly traditional (think French Provincial). Others feel it makes a room look too busy; but for your project, a diagonal pattern may be just right.
  • Natural textured flow: Some porcelain or marble tiles have enormous differences of color and shading from tile to tile. You can use these to your advantage by carefully aligning and positioning these various visual differences to emphasize them.

Bathrooms are tricky, no doubt about it. Commissioned designers love to put all kinds of fancy ideas into these small spaces. Because homeowners rarely remodel their bathrooms more than once, be careful with yours.

Start at the bottom–the floor–and then work your way up with decisions for walls and fixtures. Consider subtle before bold. Consider, too, that your bathroom floor is often the last thing you see before bed and the first thing you see in the morning. Decisions about floor materials and color choices for your bath should not be made lightly.

We’ll talk more about bathroom flooring design, from simple to spectacular, over the coming months. We’ll look at materials old and not-yet-available, and we’ll provide tips for installation and maintenance. Stay tuned.