A note from our editors: 

It’s time for one of our favorite traditions! Each year, we spend the holidays reflecting on the stories and articles you loved most. It’s the “Best of Rue” and this is one of 2020’s top stories. Enjoy!

Previously published on May 6, 2020:

Interior designer Katie Hodges has noticed a common trend in her work: clients spend a large majority of their budget on the spaces guests will see first, and leave the most intimate area of the home — their own bedroom — to fend for itself. Decades-old furniture stays in place, even if the scale is off or their tastes have changed, and each day begins and ends in a room they don’t truly love. As a designer, Katie believes this is backwards. “It’s almost as though ‘just us’ isn’t enough,” she says. “Well, I believe it is! I am a huge proponent of adjusting budgets and job scopes to include this often sacrificed space. The master suite is usually the only space that’s reserved for the adults who work tirelessly and deserve a special space of their own.”

Today, Katie takes us inside a master suite she recently designed in Los Angeles. She’s sharing the nitty gritty, from design plans to tough contractors and lessons learned along the way. Read on to discover why the master bedroom should be the most sacred room in the house:

Why do you think master suites are an important space in the home?
As interior designers, we’re closely involved in clients’ domestic lives, and over the years, I’ve observed the following scenario play out several times during a project kickoff meeting: 

  • Client: “We would like the following rooms designed: entry, living room, family room, playroom, kitchen, kid rooms and bath, and… and the powder room. 
  • Designer: Great, what about your master bedroom? I seem to recall that your old furnishings aren’t the right size for the new space, and actually you can now upgrade to a king bed and fit in a seating area.”
  • Client: “Oh, we will manage with our old stuff. I know it won’t be nice in there, but it’s just us in that room” 

Higher traffic and common-use areas seem to be prioritized over areas with less traffic and family purpose. Makes perfect sense, right? Taking budget out of the question for just a moment, the above scenario reminds me of the line we all hear while taxi’ing on the plane… “Put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you.” 

What do you love about designing a master suite? 
Firstly, it’s so satisfying to design a space with only the actual client, and not their pets or kids, in mind. We consider little luxuries that they may have not otherwise considered for themselves. 

Design-wise, I love creating cozy, peaceful and soothing environments, and a master suite lends itself nicely to that design direction. Also, because the space has less demands on wear and tear, there tend to be far less restrictions on color palette, textiles and materials we can source for our design. 

What do you think every master suite needs?
We always try to create defined zones for reading, writing, etc, that are outside of the bed itself. It really gives the room multi-purpose and transforms the bedroom into more of a “retreat” than just a place or sleeping.

In bathrooms, a freestanding soaking tub is pretty much at the top of everyone’s wish list and that is indisputable… it’s an item that elicits so much excitement and emotion because its sole purpose is for pampering and relaxation (aside from the occasional kid and dog bath). The second crucial item is towel hooks vs. bars – we love the casual organic look of towels draped on a hook and it allows for multiple towels in a smaller area. 

Let’s talk about this space. What condition was the suite in at the start? What were the first things you knew had to go?
The master bedroom was in great shape with only a fresh coat of paint job necessary to freshen it up. The primary job scope in there was new furnishings and window treatments.

Now the bathroom was a completely different story. When I first saw the photos, the master bath appeared to be in somewhat cute with tons of Spanish charm and beautiful original wood windows. But once I walked the space in person, it was clear that not only were the materials perishing, but the layout left much to be desired. 

The terra-cotta tiles and faux-patina’ed cabinetry, while charming in the photos, felt too kitsch and reminiscent of what one would find in a Mexican restaurant. The small, cavernous shower with hardly any elbow room lacked function, and was the starting point for our complete bathroom reconfiguration.

As for the client’s vision for the space, what were their wants and needs? How did you translate that when creating your early designs?
The clients didn’t have a vision for the space and left that for us to conceive. The primary aesthetic request was to create a soothing and luxurious master suite experience to cap off their busy day. 

Early on in the process, we agreed on a design direction that felt neutral overall, but incorporating subtle color throughout. Because the home had a vintage Spanish feel, I wanted the furnishings and finishes it to feel a bit lived in, and not overly new or crisp. 

In terms of functional needs, ample storage, a makeup vanity area and large shower were the important items on the wish-list for the bathroom. In the bedroom the only request was to incorporate a small desk space that could serve as an additional reading area if someone was in the armchair. 

Let’s virtually “walk through” the space. We’d love to know about some of your design decisions.
In the overall design, every element regardless of size plays a role. To help clients envision how materials and selections coexist, we put all proposed materials in one “board” while developing the design scheme. This schematic increases our confidence in  the design, as well as client approvals and pulling triggers for next steps.

The the bedroom design was intended to be impactful, yet not overwhelming. Furnishings selections were all about duality – balancing the soft feminine elements (the bed and chair) with organic “harder” pieces such as the wood bench, black desk and oversized ceramic lamps. Natural woven shades and washed linen draperies were a much needed touch that toned down the overall look making it feel more relaxed and worn in. 

In the bathroom, the flooring was the design element we spent the most time figuring out. We opted for a handmade ceramic tile because of its inherent subtle irregularities and the way it catches light. Machine-made tile felt too flat for this soulful home, and Fireclaytile’s extensive library of glazes allowed us to choose the perfect color tone on-site. 

In terms of plumbing, we went with classic profiles that didn’t look too “on trend” or modern. We didn’t design the bathroom to make the plumbing stand out, so those elements were key accessory pieces in adorning the bathroom but didn’t need to steal the show. Polished nickel is often my finish of choice because it patina’s nicely over time and feels clean and classic. I preferred to create contrast with the antique brass hardware and lighting fixtures, and mixing antique brass with polished nickel is a favorite of mine. The dark element of the brass provides grounding and a touch of masculinity that I think the space needed. 

With all renovations, there are bound to be some hiccups. What were some of the challenges in this space?
Yep, there’s always something and its par for the course for us as designers! The biggest challenge we ran into was working with a contractor that wasn’t a team player, and it made our job challenging every step of the way. Thankfully our clients had us project managing, and we were able maintain our aesthetic while to keeping things on track. I’ve learned through dozens of remodels that the process itself is just as important as a good design scheme. What good is an amazing design if the execution isn’t done with the same amount of care?

The second hiccup was less major, and completely our own doing. We didn’t verify the client’s existing mattress size, and made an eastern king bed instead of a cal-king. Whoops… but we resolved the issue quickly and the clients were very gracious with the hiccup. Only thing we can do is do our best, learn and just make it right! 

We appreciate your candor! What would you tell someone who is about to embark on their own renovation?
I have 2 important tips: 

  1. Don’t hire the cheapest contractor. Hire the contractor with a proven track record of successful jobs at the quality and design level you are seeking. Not all bids are alike, and you may not have realized that the lowest bid excludes some crucial items that can really add up in change orders (i.e. custom cabinetry, plaster, hardware installation, mirror hanging, etc). Some contractors nickel and dime for that stuff, while others have a higher margin and execute little things with ease.
  1. Before any demo begins, make sure you have most items selected and ordered. If a tradesperson arrives and can’t do most of their job because something is missing, not only will their costs increase due to additional trips, but they could be unavailable when you need them back. Construction is much like a supply-chain line, if the last person didn’t do their job, then neither can the next. Delays become exponential and a loss of momentum is the main reason renovations become a nightmare. 

Tips to live by. Thank you, Katie! To see the space, including before photos and Katie’s inspiration boards, start the slideshow.