Finding the perfect bathroom vanity

Rita and I are very good at starting projects. Finishing is another story.

tub walls with hardibacker panels up on two walls

Nope, the bathroom doesn't look too much different now than it did back in January. But that doesn't mean we haven't been working on it.

We both like the fun and anticipation of the early stages of a project. The part where you ponder all the possibilities and research different options. You might think we’d be better served by enjoying the fun of dreaming and paying someone else to do the doing, but we don’t think so.

Cane under the tub

If we'd paid someone else to install the tub, we would have missed out on this!

Although we like the fun, beginning stage a lot (not so different from romance), with this project we’re discovering some deeper pleasures that come from digging into the work and committing for the long haul (again, not so different from romance).

We’re discovering it’s the journey that’s important to us. In fact, even if we had the money to pay someone to do all the work for us, we’d not be that interested in doing it that way.

Our bathroom renovation journey has been filled with neighborhood walks, coffee shops, food cart lunches,salvage stores, glasses of wine, and late night philosophical conversations.

rita buying lunch at a taco truck

After a few hours of hunting for tile treasure last weekend, we stopped for lunch at a food cart village. The sun was out, so it had to be a cart.

It hasn’t been a chore as much as a collaborative installation that has evolved over time. Lots of time, actually. The visible things have moved along at such a slow pace that it might seem like we’ve made no progress at all, but as we’ve looked and talked and tried and imagined our ideas have evolved slowly, but surely.

So that this weekend, when we finally saw the right opportunity for the bathroom vanity, we were sure it was the right one and were able to act on it without doubt or hesitation.

What to do about the vanity?

bathroom vanity

This--our current vanity--is not the right one. It's a huge ugly white blob of poorly functioning junk. The drawers on the left hit the wall when you open them. The ones on the right hit the door. I have a hate on for the brass knobs and faucet. Not a big fan of the plastic finish on the doors and drawer fronts either.

While we’ve been slowly moving toward the day we’ll be installing the bathtub tile, that’s not the only part of the project we’ve been working on. We’ve also been scouting for the vanity and sink, going round and round in our thinking about what we want to do with them.

How about a pedestal sink?

We thought a lot about pedestal sinks. We installed one in Rita’s old house that we found at the Rebuilding Center and she really liked it a lot.

bathroom with pedestal sink

We liked the big, deep bowl and the contemporary lines of this pedestal.

The pedestal replaced a boxy oak builder’s cabinet that went right up to the toilet. The whole room felt so much larger (and better) after we tore out the cabinet.

We’ve got a similar situation in the master bath now. It’s crammed so full of cabinet that it feels tiny. We thought that a pedestal sink would make the space feel larger, and there are generally lots we can choose from at a good price.

pedestal sink bases at The ReBuilding Center

A bevy of bases lined up and waiting to go at The ReBuilding Center.

We never quite settled on the pedestal idea though. While we want more space, we know we also need storage. We thought about going up on the walls for that, but we couldn’t quite figure out exactly what to do.

Maybe the dresser as vanity?

We looked at the usual places (orange and blue) for traditional vanities, but we just didn’t like them. They all looked the same to us, and we just hated the idea of spending what they cost for something we wouldn’t be at all excited about.

We started playing with the idea of finding a vintage dresser to repurpose as a vanity. We know it’s been done before, but I really liked this idea because I thought it’d look cool to find one from the same vintage as our house, and I’d get to do another project.

We looked around a lot. We regularly stopped by our local Value Village, Salvation Army, and Goodwill thrift stores. We scoured Craigslist. We went to the cool retro furniture shops over in the Hawthorne district in Portland, The ReBuilding Center, and Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore. It was a lot of fun actually. I enjoyed looking at all the furniture and imagining how it might work in our bathroom.

But none of them were ever quite right.

dresser to use as vanity, option 1

We liked the look of this one, which we thought would tie in nicely with the dresser we have in our bedroom, but the top wasn't deep enough to fit a sink. We also didn't want to deal with these drawers, which would have been a little tricky to fit a sink into.

dresser as vanity option 2

These drawers would work better, but the more we looked the more I realized I want a vanity with legs. Another no-go.

We knew we were in trouble with this idea when we stopped in this funky auction place out in the middle of nowhere (just a few miles from our house, actually) to see what they had. There was nothing of course, even though the place is stuffed with furniture of all kinds.

The lady who worked there told us that furniture as vanity was pretty hot and she was on the look out for something like that herself. As soon as she said that I pictured all the hipsters in Portland cutting holes in the top of their dressers and plopping sinks in there. Didn’t make it a total turn off, but it did make me pause a bit.

(Nothing against the hipsters. It just made me pause.)

So much for that idea…

The straw that broke the camel’s back of that idea was a trip to Ikea. We were going back to look at a solution we saw there in an earlier trip. It was a simple wooden frame with open stick-style shelving. We liked how light and airy it looked. We weren’t quite sold on it though (as with the pedestal option, we kept coming back to the need for some closed storage) and wanted to take another look to see if it could be a solution for us.

ikea sink stand

The shelves underneath are a separate piece. We liked the openness of this, but worried about where we'd put the ugly things we know we want to store in the bathroom.

Well, that one wasn’t there anymore. All the shelving is, but no sink stand.

We decided to look at some kitchen and bedroom furniture thinking we might be able to convert something. Not as great as a retro dresser, but maybe nice in its own right.

We considered these in particular:

Ikea dresser. While it would be way cooler (to us) to find a great vintage dresser, we liked the simple lines and the price of this. (And it has legs!) Unfortunately, it was just a little too tall.

From the Ikea kitchen collection. We liked this one. We thought about putting a wooden top on it and dropping in a bathroom sink. It was way cheaper than the bathroom vanities, and we like a bit of an industrial look. But, it was a bit deep, and we do have the problem of our door opening into the vanity area.

We were pondering those options when we went back to the bathroom area and saw this:

Ikea dresse-style vanity. Comes with everything (except back legs--what's up with that?). Just connect the plumbing and then screw the unit to the wall.

As soon as I saw it I knew the dresser idea was done. We weren’t going to do it. Even though it would still be fun to do the project, I worried that if the idea is being done by Ikea, it’s gone too mainstream. Trendy things tend to look dated really quickly, and putting in something that’s clearly a trend from this decade will do exactly what we’ve said we don’t want to do in our 70’s house–even if the dresser/cabinet is from an earlier time.

How about rehabbing an old cabinet?

We made another trip to the Rebuilding Center. We thought we’d look at pedestal sinks and recycled cabinets. We thought we could find something interesting that we could rehab. This was a cool idea because we like the idea of recycling. No need to buy new stuff when there is an abundance of old cabinets and sinks out there waiting to be rehabbed.

Here’s a selection of what we found.

We really liked the one below. It looks rough but we could imagine fixing it up. We loved the shelves built  into the side. We imagined this painted and fixed with either a cast concrete top or a tile top to match the tub surround. Unfortunately it was 3 inches too long for our 60″ space. We plotted out several different solutions to make it fit, including removing a half wall.

Then we realized how nutty that would be, just to fit in an old cabinet. In the end it just wasn’t going to be worth it.

And then, finally, The One

We headed down to the river to the Habitat for Humanity Restore. We needed more tile, and Rita had seen some sinks there back in January that she liked. Now that we were pretty sure about finding an existing cabinet to rehab, she hoped one might still be there.

70s sink

Rita took this picture back in January. There were two of these, for $20 each. Even though they've got the 70s vibe (in a good way) that we're trying to put back into our house, we passed on them because we didn't know what we wanted to do back then.

Lo and behold, one sink was still there! (Maybe because we are the only people in the universe who would think it’s cool?) Even better:  Because it had been there so long, it was 50% off.  A $10 sink. Well, we had to get it. And then, way at the back of the store, we also found a cabinet that we think may work, and the sink fits it. Meant to be?

Here's our haul. Cabinet, sink, faucet, light fixture (the elusive last light fixture!--subject of yet another post soon to come), drawer pulls. All for under 70 bucks. It might not look like much now, but we've got big plans.

70s sink detail

A kinda blurry detail shot of the sink. Are we crazy to think this is cool?

So there we are. After all that looking we end up with a totally simple cabinet. Planning some side shelves (like the too-long vanity pictured above) and maybe a cast-concrete top. Stay tuned to see how I turn it into a retro-cool furniture-looking vanity. Already picked up some furniture legs from Ace hardware.

Woohoo! Retro furniture legs at Ace Hardware.

We know this choice wouldn’t be for everyone, but we’re sure it’s the right one for us. We’re finding that remodeling is more than just fixing up a house and making it look good. It’s a journey of self-discovery and creative expression. The fact that we get to do that together is what makes it special. The house becomes a visual representation and reminder of the care, love, and creativity of the people in it. You can’t buy that at Pottery Barn or hire it out to contractors.

Even if the cabinet–the whole bathroom, for that matter–doesn’t look as great as it might, in the end it will be a one of a kind piece that we’ll really like. We’ll like it because we made it and because of the long and wandering journey that led to its purchase. There’s a lot of story there you know?

portland chicken

There's even chickens in this story. We saw this guy on a walk around the Belmont neighborhood after our food cart lunch.

So, what d’ya think?

Are we crazy? Are we the only ones who tackle a whole-room project this way? How have you made such decisions?

(And has Rita mentioned that she just loves to get comments? She really does. Otherwise she starts to feel like we’re talking to ourselves.)

Although we’re pretty sure of our course, the great thing is that it’s not too late to change it and go another way. We’re only 70 bucks into the vanity. That’s a mistake we can afford to eat if something better comes along.

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