Queen of the Bath
Photo by James Ray Spahn
Even if you don’t know Barbara Sallick by name, chances are you’ve set foot on her tile or lounged in one of her bathtubs. In 1978, the Connecticut native founded Waterworks with her husband, Robert, and in turn played a major role in transforming the once-overlooked bathroom into a stylish, integral part of the home. A believer in European design and the color white, Sallick now oversees the company’s creative direction as senior vice president of design—her son Peter became CEO in 1993—and recently released her third design book, The Perfect Bath.
Photo by Paul Costello
This French-country-style bath is included in The Perfect Bath’s first chapter, titled “Planning Is Everything.”
How did the idea for Waterworks come about?
There was an opportunity to rethink the way the American bathroom was considered in the home. For some reason or another, my husband and I thought that we could do that. It certainly wasn’t a cakewalk. We were able to find that balance of the things that would really inspire people to want to redo their bathrooms, to think about their private spaces in new and different ways, because they were never thought of as these places of relaxation and privacy.
Featured in The Perfect Bath, this bright white bathroom designed by Gil Schafer is anchored by an elaborate gilt mirror to create depth.
Why do you think bathrooms changed from utilitarian spaces to spa-like oases?
Trust me, when I was growing up, there were no spas. As people began to think more about themselves and fitness, we became a culture of perhaps not total wellness but at least taking better care of ourselves. That’s when we began to realize that the bathroom could be a really special place.
How has Waterworks’ style changed over time?
In the early days, European style and color was all the rage. We had a lot of color—we brought it in by container and it arrived by boat. But the truth of the matter is that it’s very, very hard to keep an inventory straight and I was really bad at it. One day my husband was sick of my whining about not having the right inventory, and he said, “I’m done.” We decided to sell only white.
That was a pivotal moment because [we were] able to make a statement about the white bathroom. That statement was about cleanliness, timelessness, purity and all the things associated with the color white. It resonated and that was the moment when we could see a complete shift in our business. We were getting orders from California and Texas and we realized, “Wow, that was a great move.”
Barbara Sallick’s own bathroom in her Connecticut home appears on the cover of her third bathroom design book, The Perfect Bath (Rizzoli, 2016)
Describe the style of the bathrooms in your home.
My overall look is always classic and timeless. I like a kind of simplicity; I don’t like too many materials, too much layering. I found a really beautiful 1928 American Standard pedestal sink. When I started out, I wanted to have bands of decorative tiles, and the more I did, the more I peeled back the design. The simpler it got, the more I liked it. That’s kind of me. That’s the way I dress, that’s the way my house was designed, and so I am actually true to myself.
When selecting fixtures and materials for the bathroom, where should you save and where should you splurge?
Spend money on all of the fixtures. They get used every single day. They need to feel good in your hands, and they have to be the best quality you can possibly buy for yourself. Because in truth, they should last 20-plus years. You can compromise on a kind of tile or maybe not use the most expensive marble. Because then you can accessorize it—you can put in fabulous waste cans or colored towels or trays or a beautiful rug; take your pick.
What advice do you have for those who are remodeling or building their bathroom?
Stay out of the showroom until you’ve done your homework. Look at lots of different styles and ideas—and that doesn’t just mean for a bathroom. You can look at living rooms; you can look at art. You have to find your style and decide the experience you wish to create, and very slowly and methodically find the products that will get you there. Is the tub comfortable? How does the faucet feel in your hand? Is the lighting perfect? Did you heat the floors? All of that comprises the perfect bath.
Also, hire contractors you know and whose work you have seen. Because once the sink is installed, remember, it is installed forever. You don’t just move it like a throw pillow.