After living in her 1950s Woodland Hills, Calif., ranch home for 14 years, Cathy Nordlund set out to do something she had never attempted before –completely gut and redo one room to her heart’s desire.
But because of her pragmatic disposition — after all, she was trained as an engineer — Cathy was mindful not to undertake too big or too risky a job. Therefore, the powder room seemed like a good candidate.
It was not only small, it was ugly.
“Spray-painted yellow on fake marble” is how Nordlund described the counter, which sat upon bland white cabinets. The only remarkable thing about the room was that when the door was opened, it smashed into the toilet.
Cathy began by looking through “millions” of decorating magazines. She decided on a Victorian theme, even while acknowledging that nothing else in her house was even vaguely Victorian.
“I was going to do whatever I wanted,” she recalled. And, she thought, it would blend fine with the brick flooring that she and her husband Robert had added previously to the entryway, hall and this powder room.
But during her contemplation of fabulous Victorian bathrooms, it finally dawned on Cathy that they all shared a common virtue: “The wonderful light from their wonderful windows.”
Cathy’s powder room, however, was windowless, and would remain so — the room has no exterior walls. And she could not add a skylight because of the second story above.
At first, she thought of adding an old window frame to give the appearance of a real window, but after more magazine research she started to notice examples of trompe l’oeil, which is French for “fools the eye.” Finally, she had her solution. She would hire an artist to paint a faux window on the wall. She thought: “Wow, I’m onto something.”
That settled, Nordlund had other concerns, like finding an antique buffet, to replace the faded vanity, and a mirror for the wall above it. She would need to pick out the perfect sconces and decide upon a toilet and sink to match the era.
But most of all, Cathy was anxious about painting the walls to look old and mottled, which she planned to do herself. She found complete instructions to the three-step, three-color process in a book, but she fretted about the outcome.
“I did a lot of agonizing,” she said. “I thought it would come out blotchy and horrible and not serene.”
Still, she pressed forward, testing the process and her colors on paint chips.
For step one, she chose a latex enamel in a buttery cream color, which she painted onto the walls. Step two’s color was called “summerset yellow,” a paint she had previously used in her upstairs bathroom.
According to the instructions, she added to the paint a glazing compound from the hardware store, and then rolled the mixture onto a two-foot-square section. Before the paint dried, she blotted some off it up with cheesecloth. She added glazing compound to the third step’s color, “snapdragon yellow,” and then daubed it on the wall with cheesecloth.
She described the emotional process: “You do a 2-foot-by-2-foot section and you’re all paranoid and sweaty and then you start going and you don’t look back.” It turned out better than she could have imagined.
For the trompe l’oeil window, she felt much more certain of the outcome, especially because she made a detailed drawing of it for the artist, Doreen Behnke of Newbury Park.
The drawing shows a white casement window 46 inches wide, 40 inches high and 5 inches from the corner of the room. One side of the window is open to a bucolic backyard scene showing the family’s Rottweiler, Molly, and Nordlund’s two children, Bobby and Samantha. It was husband Robert’s idea to show a spare roll of toilet paper on the windowsill, and Cathy’s idea to show a plant with dropped leaves and a dead bug.
“That’s real life,” she decided.
The artist’s fee, at $200, was a bargain. After it was done, Nordlund installed two real knobs on both of the faux windows, choosing a smaller knob for the “open” window to create the sensation that it’s farther away. “I’m an engineer,” Cathy explained. “That’s how I think.”
The most expensive item in the remodel was the early 1900’s oak buffet, for which Nordlund paid $1,200 at Old Friends in Canoga Park. That included refinishing, replacing the backsplash and cutting a hole in the top, and in the top drawer, to accommodate the white porcelain sink.
To protect the wood from water damage, Cathy took two preventative measures. First, she had Old Friends cover the wood with three coats of varnish. Then, she chose a sink that had cut-outs for the faucet and handles, instead of having those set into the wood itself.
While the antique mahogany mirror was only $125, the two antique brass sconces framing it were $400, a price Nordlund struggled over. She had found a pair of less-desirable sconces for $200 and “went back and forth” about it until she finally declared of the more expensive pair: “I want these sconces.”
To further adorn the walls, she hung her collection of old wedding pictures from both her and Robert’s sides of the family. The oldest dates back to 1862.
To maintain the old-fashioned serenity she was after, she bought and installed an extra-quiet ceiling fan. The original item, which rattled so annoyingly no one could bear it, had been disconnected for years.
The door was reversed so it didn’t bang into the new, old-fashioned-looking toilet. And she spent $200 on accessories like a tissue holder, candles and a toilet paper holder, the latter from the Kohler Revival Series.
“Talk about expensive,” she said. “That toilet paper holder was $85.”
Still, with nearly two months of labor and $4,000 invested in her bathroom, Cathy doesn’t begrudge a day or a dime of it. Besides, she saves money on antique eyelet towels, which her friends and family have showered her with.
“I’m so happy I did it,” she said, gazing upon her creation. “It’s the only room in the house that’s exactly the way I want it.”
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Project: Totally gut and redo powder room in 1950s Woodland Hills home
Trompe L’oeil mural: Doreen Behnke, Artworks by Doreen, (805) 499-6433
Antique buffet: Old Friends Antiques & Restoration, Canoga Park, (818) 888-1254
Mirror: Ventura Avenue Used Furniture & Antiques, Ventura, (805) 653-7732
Sconces: Sherlocks Antique Lighting, Ventura, (805) 649-4683
Fixtures: Pacific Sales, Torrance, (310) 357-2100
Plumbing: Craig Stone, Stone Plumbing, Stevenson Ranch, (661) 284-7594
Duration: 2 months