Design + Architecture

Quick ways to spruce up the bathroom in your NYC apartment

By Austin Havens-Bowen  |
December 18, 2020 - 3:00PM

If your bathroom needs some work, painting, upgrading your linens, or adding a plant can really make a big difference.


When my boyfriend and I decided to stay in our apartment for another year, we asked our landlord to make some improvements before renewing our lease. We’re good tenants, and with so many vacancies on the market, we knew our landlord would prefer to make some upgrades rather than risk us leaving. Our focus? The bathroom.

It wasn’t terrible, but it needed a fresh coat of paint, and some other fixes like getting rid of mildew in the tub. Our landlord agreed to most of our requests (we didn’t get a new medicine cabinet), and we replaced our toilet seat, shower curtain, liner, and hand towels. Now our bathroom looks and feels much better.

It turns out that it doesn’t take much effort to make your NYC bathroom feel new, especially if you’re a renter or an owner who doesn’t have the time or budget for a bigger renovation. Even replacing small things like your toilet paper holder can actually make a big difference. Many improvements don't require your landlord, or professionals, and can be done yourself.

Brick spoke to a couple of interior designers for easy ways you can make your bathroom feel like new. If your bathroom could also use a little sprucing up, read on.

A fresh coat of paint 

Painting is the easiest and most affordable way to update your bathroom. There are paints that are formulated specifically for bathrooms that are antibacterial and also prevent mold and mildew, like this Valspar paint, which has a mildew resistant finish. It’s especially important to use the right paint for bathrooms if you don’t have an exhaust fan or you take steamy showers, says Jennifer Morris, interior designer and founder of JMorris Design.

Light, neutral colors are typical in NYC bathrooms, but if you want to add some personality, you can use painter’s tape to make stripes, which Morris has done in bathroom projects, or use stencils to create designs. “Just make sure you have a steady hand,” she says.

Jason Agee, founder of Jason Agee Design, suggests matching your paint choice with a color that is already in your bathroom, even if you don't love it. You'd be surprised what adding a more coordinated look can do.

For example, if you have tiles in your bathroom that you don’t like, because they’re all mauve or another outdated color, you should paint with a variation of that color to pull it all together. “The tiles aren’t going anywhere and using a color that matches will make it seem like it was done on purpose,” Agee says. 

(Another option is to reglaze your tiles. It’s affordable, and will make your tiles look like new, but there are toxic fumes involved, which is why you should hire professionals.) 

If you don’t want to paint, Morris also recommends peel-and-stick wallpaper. She has used this in a few bathroom projects. But, you must use a vinyl wallpaper, so that the walls can breath. “Paper peel-and-stick will get mucky with steam,” Morris says.

Another option if you really don’t like your tiles is to paint them. Agee says some of his clients have done this and it works well, although it’s not an end-all solution. And, if you’re a renter, you need your landlord’s approval first.

Improve the lighting 

The lighting in most NYC bathrooms is subpar, and most don’t even have a ceiling light, but a light over the vanity instead. Ideally, sconces on the sides of the mirror is the best lighting for a bathroom, rather than having direct light coming from above your mirror, which creates a shadow effect. But, that requires hardwiring and is usually done in a gut renovation, Agee says.

An easier way to improve lighting is to use LED light strips or rope lights, which you can put under your vanity. Morris also recommends using a tap light, which you can put under your vanity so it’s out of sight. She says she usually puts some sort of night light, like these solutions, in bathrooms.

Jamie Alexander, an architect and the founder of interior design firm Design-Bite, previously told Brick that one way you can give your apartment the appearance of being brighter is to use reflective surfaces. In a bathroom, you can use metallic accessories, like soap and lotion dispensers. And hanging a large mirror will also reflect any light coming in from a window, and will also make your bathroom seem larger.

Swap out hardware and accessories

Another easy way to spruce up your bathroom is to swap out all of the hardware like sink faucets, toilet paper holders, and towel racks, Morris says. Buying new accessories, like a hand soap dispenser and tissue holder, are also easy updates.

Brass and nickel finishes are common, and chrome is universal. “If you want something a bit more edgy, you can go with black matte,” Morris says. Some companies to check out for these items include Drummonds, where you can buy hardware like this towel bar, and Lacava

Swapping the faucets and hardware in your shower is much more complicated, Morris says. But, they don’t have to match other hardware in your bathroom, “unless you really care about everything matching.” 

Upgrading your medicine cabinet is also a good solution, Agee says. In a recent project in a Brooklyn apartment “in a bathroom that was even smaller than the typical NYC bathroom,” Agee placed medicine cabinets along the entire wall, including above the toilet. “It gives you much more storage space too, which is a common issue in NYC bathrooms,” he says.

If you need inspiration for your bathroom, Morris recommends Montana Furniture, which makes customizable systems including various mirrors, hardware, and cabinets to choose from. Agee recommends Restoration Hardware and ABC Home.

Shower curtains, linens, and plants

If you want quick fixes that will make your bathroom feel a bit better, replacing your shower curtain, liner, hooks, and even your towels will make a huge difference. 

“Splurge on a really good shower curtain and liner that will last,” Agee says.

For shower curtains, Morris recommends Stichroom, where you can create custom shower curtains. Shower liners also should be swapped (My boyfriend and I replace ours every few months), and you can buy eco-friendly ones that also prevent mildew like this Liba PEVA liner from Amazon. 

You should also buy all new towels, Agee says. It’s an easy way to upgrade your bathroom. Many of his clients like Abyss towels, which you can find at Bloomingdale’s. “They get even more fluffy and better after washing them,” he says.

Another fix: Put a houseplant in your bathroom. Morris says she designs with the biophilia principle in mind, which suggests that humans have an innate tendency to gravitate towards nature. “Putting a house plant in your apartment, including your bathroom, or even art depicting nature will help calm you,” she says.

Agee says he has luck with orchids in his bathroom, but if your bathroom doesn’t get a lot of natural light, or you just don’t have a green thumb, aloe vera plants, air plants, and any sedum plants will do because they don’t require too much attention.



Austin Havens-Bowen

Staff Writer

Staff writer Austin Havens-Bowen covers the rental market and answers renters' questions in a column called Realty Bites. He previously reported on local news for the Queens Ledger and The Hunts Point Express in the Bronx. He graduated from Hunter College with a BA in media studies. He rents a one-bedroom apartment in Astoria with his boyfriend and their two cats.

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