Traditional meets contemporary

Brooke Aitken Design is a contemporary architectural and interior design practice that focuses on creating beautiful spaces. In their recent Coogee Bay project, Brooke and her team were tasked with renovating an original birthing bathroom suite in an old maternity hospital. 

We spoke to Brooke Aitken about how she managed to successfully merge the traditional with the contemporary and how holding true to the buildings original details, paired with contemporary design choices, gave this bathroom space a new lease on life. 

What was your brief for this project?

To create a restful space with an injection of beautiful colour into a period home.

As this bathroom space was originally a birthing suite for an old maternity hospital, was it difficult reappropriating the space for a different intended use?

Well it depends on how you define difficult! It was a much larger bathroom but we were able to carve off space from it to give to a second bathroom adjacent for the master bedroom use. It involved knocking out brick walls and demolishing ancient ash concrete floors, but in relation to other more complex architectural works that we regularly do, it was not difficult at all.

When breathing new life into an older style building, how do you navigate what original details to keep and what to remove?

Good question. Clearly anything that is visibly beautiful and not rotten through is what we aim to start with at a minimum. We try to retain original windows, stained glass, cornices and skirtings as they tend to be both the most decorative items and the most expensive to replicate in today’s widening lack of hands-on master craftsmen. 

What was your design approach and how did it evolve throughout this project?

This bathroom was one in a set of three designed for the house at the same time. They were considered variations on a theme of designs that took cues from their period home within a contemporary design framework. We named them by their choice of colour - the black&white, the green and the blue bathroom (which this one is). The colour of the blue bathroom came from picking up the blue in the detailed stained glass on the bathroom cupboard doors and then we looked for the perfect soft blue tile that would appear handmade (again a nod to the period nature of the home) yet also contemporary in the way it was installed. The freestanding bath was also a nod to the original maternity bathroom which had a bath set in the centre of the space. The vanity was chosen as a piece of furniture, again something akin to a traditional bathroom element.

What were some of your main sources of inspiration?

We were looking at a fair amount of French design at the time, but I think the main inspiration for this bathroom was the desire for light, colour, heritage and a soft femininity.

You used our Craquel tile in Sky on this project, how did you go about choosing this particular tile?

We had been shown this tile a few months prior to designing this bathroom and had been hoping to use it as we were obsessed with its beauty. When we started on this project, it was immediately suggested as our top pick of options for the blue tiles and met all the criteria for our choice. What is important to us is that we have a wonderful relationship with our Earp Bros reps and our office is regularly updated with new samples that they think we might like. This is a relationship we treasure and it makes our work life so much easier. 

When renovating a bathroom, what is the most important factor to consider?

There are a number of very practical things that we always consider along with beauty in design. If they aren’t met, a beautiful looking bathroom is a folly.

  • Good lighting for mirrors
  • Slip resistance to floors
  • Good ventilation
  • Drainage and how the tiles can fall to a drain. It’s always a problem between a nice looking floor without obvious cut lines, and a workable drainage fall in a floor.
  • Warmth in winter
  • Maintenance on the materials specified for longevity. 

Any tips on mixing the traditional with the contemporary?

This is something we seem to do quite often as we have worked on a number of older houses that we like to see renovated and restored rather than razed to the ground. We are contemporary architects so we always come to a design with a modernist design outlook even if it is a period home. We call it ‘soft modernism’ and we try to retain design elements that may be decorative or of prior design era. We layer this with very strong clean lines or a contemporary take on a way a material is used, so the space is a mixture of new and old. For instance, using the Craquelle Sky tile, we could have used it in a traditional brick bond pattern, but by turning it vertically and stacking it we made a contemporary look out of a hand made looking tile. We never want to provide a client with a ‘period restoration’ of anything, especially bathrooms or kitchens. We do want our clients to feel joy in their spaces and will consider using more traditional looking elements, such as the taps in this bathroom, if they are beautifully designed and won’t lead the design into pastiche. It’s a fine line, but always a drop of something unexpected can change the mood from traditional to contemporary with classic roots.

Images by Ryan Linnegar

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