ReadyMade Magazine Oct/Nov 2010  

At Home: Hands On

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Artist/designer/maker/fixer/home-improvement expert Amy Devers (you may have seen her on A&E’s Fix This Yard, Ovation’s Designer People, or TLC, HGTV, or DIY…) thinks outside the box to solve a big problem in a small bathroom.


Written by Amy Devers

Illustration by Elisabeth Moch

“While my wife and I have mastered storage throughout the rest of our home, the bathroom is tiny—about 36 square feet. It comfortably houses a nice-size sink, shower, and toilet, but this doesn’t leave much room for anything else. We have some open wall space and 12-foot-tall ceilings. Any ideas on what to do with our bathroom essentials?”

—J. Foy, Portland, Oregon

Wow, 36 square feet is small for a room that is ultimately a really big deal. The bathroom has to function efficiently or the whole day gets off to a clumsy start. It also has to be visually appealing. Yet, in such a small space, its hard to address both without allowing one to compromise the other. Lets face it, we spend our time in there naked under bright lights, staring at our reflection in the mirror (sometimes even talking to it), and thinking deep thoughts. Doing all that in a place that looks cramped, sad, clinical, or juvenile can have an unsettling psychological impact, but doing that in an uplifting, soothing, and orderly environment can be empowering.

No wonder you’re stumped. The problem is that adding traditional storage units, such as vanities and linen cupboards, to your tiny floor plan will quickly eat up the visual and physical footprint. Adding cabinets and/or shelves to the walls doesnt really work either because those eye-level protrusions will put an artificially low cap on the loftiness afforded by the high ceilings.

TIP #1: Hook It Up

My first suggestion is that you make use of hooks for things like towels and bathrobes. Rather than the one lonely hook on the back of the door, which is never enough and can be reminiscent of a public stall, I advocate using a coat-rack style row of hooks on a wall. A row of five hooks takes up the same amount of physical space as one towel bar but can hold up to two towels, two bathrobes, and one change of clothes.

In order for this to work, you’ve got to have presentable linens ’n’ things. Promotional Corona beach towels and mangy old bathrobes are strictly prohibited. Ideally you have matching towels and color-coordinated robes that are either neutral or that tie in with the bathrooms color scheme. Darker colors will absorb light and add visual weight, so I would recommend lighter shades. Pretty patterns are A-OK too. And hooks really couldnt be easier to install.

Just screw-mount five to a board that is painted or stained as you fancy, and then screw-mount the board to the wall. Try to hit at least one stud if you can; use drywall anchors if you cant. Or, mount individual hooks like the 3M Command series that stick to the wall or door, hold up to 3 pounds of weight, and leave no evidence when they’re removed. Be sure to use a level and ruler during installation for even placement, and go for a height that is higher than eye level but still comfortably within reach.

Tip #2: Hang Your Hamper

Heres an idea to take care of your dirty clothes: a hamper that hangs flat against the wall. Its essentially a laundry bag on hooks, but a little more sophisticated. Its super easy and affordable and you can really dial in the looks and dimensions.

Make it!

Hanging Hamper

2 yards cotton fabric

Measuring tape


Sewing machine (or needle) and thread

3⁄8 – to 1⁄2 -inch-thick wooden dowels or aluminum rods the width of the bag (see Step 2)

2 wardrobe hooks or 1 double-pronged wardrobe hook (check to make sure that they will hold

the rod)

1. Choose a fabric that goes with your bathrooms decor. It can blend in (a good thing in a small area), or you can go with a pattern or texture for a little more dimension.

2. Cut two rectangular panels 18-22 inches wide by 24-30 inches long, including a -inch seam allowance all the way around. Make U-shape handle cutouts in the center of one of the shorter sides. Sew the panels together like a pillowcase, but leave several inches, like 3-4, toward the unseamed end (unsewn) so that it can open.

3. Hem all the edges. The bag cavity should be finished to the outside, and the handle flaps should be finished to the inside because thats what will show while its hanging.

4. Sew wooden dowels or aluminum rods into the top flaps with the handle cutouts to create the handles. Hang the bag on the wall by supporting one handle with two hooks and letting the other splay down flat. Then just hold the loose handle open to deposit dirty clothes.

5. At laundry time, lift the whole bag off the hooks and haul it to the washer.

TIP #3: Recess!

Next problem: toiletries. Since we’ve already determined that shelves and cabinets protruding from the walls are no bueno, we’ve got to go the opposite direction—into the walls.

Recessed niches are the best way to store toiletries without taking up physical space. This might be a tricky proposition for renters, but you can always check with your landlord. If you do the job nicely, you’ll be adding a lot of value. The best, most hassle-free approach is to plot the niches in the spaces between the wall studs.

Make it! Recessed Niche

Stud finder and/or finishing nail and hammer

Tape measure



Wallboard saw

Plywood for boxes (see step 5)

Wood paint, stain, or finish


Liquid Nails Interior Projects Adhesive (

Molding profiles

1. Locate the studs so that you can see what you’re working with. A stud finder will give you a good idea where they are, but then get really accurate by tapping a finishing nail into the drywall every ¼ inch until you find the edges of each stud. Most modern construction will have them spaced 16 inches on-center. Now you’ll have to give some thought as to where, how many, and what size of niches you want.

2. When you’ve got your game plan, lay it out on the wall in pencil using a level.

3. With a wallboard saw, cut a smallish hole in the drywall somewhere within the perimeter of each niche—dont worry, its easier than it sounds, really. Look inside and feel around for any hidden plumbing, electrical, or other surprises. If you find some, you’ve got two choices: Use the cutout from the hole to patch the wall and reposition the niche, or hire a professional to reroute wires, pipes, or whatever else is in the wall.

4. After you’ve done the recon on all your cavities, go ahead and cut and remove the drywall from each.

5. Build boxes out of plywood to fit each of the cavities (¾ inch thick for the sides, ¼ inch thick for the back). The finished depth of the boxes should be just a little shy of the depth of your cavities so that installation doesnt put unnecessary pressure on the drywall fastened to the other side of the stud. In most cases, the formula will go like this: 3½ inch (width of stud) + inch (thickness of drywall) = 4-inch cavity depth, so a 4-inch box would be perfect, giving you 3¾ inches of shelf depth. You can either build in fixed shelves or drill holes for shelf pins and adjustable shelves.

6. Paint, stain, or finish the boxes prior to installation. Fit the boxes into the cavities, and secure in place with a construction adhesive, such as Liquid Nails Interior Projects Adhesive, and nails. (You should be able to find all materials at The Home Depot, Lowes, Ace Hardware, or your local mom ’n’ pop.)

7. Trim out the niches with your choice of molding profiles (the decorative wood strips used for framing windows, doors, and pictures) from the lumber store, or add something a little more flavorful with molding from a picture framing shop.

8. Yay! Now stock it with your stuff and remember to transfer anything that comes in ugly packaging (or is otherwise embarrassing to put on display) into more handsome, discreet containers. Whether those come from the Container Store, the thrift store, the liquor store, or the recycling bin is totally up to you.

Have a home problem that needs to be solved? Email us at and we’ll get Amy Devers on the case.

Amy Devers advice column ReadyMade small bathroom