Bring Home the Spa

Three inspired projects elevate the bathroom into a sensual retreat


An award-winning bath by Rebecca Swanston re-creates a rain-forest
grotto with a waterfall shower and a walk-in terrarium.
Photo by Alan Gilbert

AU NATUREL
An award-winning bath re-creates a rain-forest grotto with a waterfall shower and a walk-in terrarium

Robert and Jan Levine travel for a living, searching the globe for gemstones, fossils, art glass and carvings to bring home to Fire & Ice, their store with 11 locations from Philadelphia to Northern Virginia. Not only has an itinerant lifestyle enabled them to amass their own collection of these treasures, but it has also introduced them to some of the world’s most innovative inns and hotels. So when it came time for them to design their master bath—the last leg in the renovation of their Baltimore home—their inspiration came from many sources, with Mother Nature leading the way.

The Levines had worked for years with architect Rebecca Swanston on their home’s renovation. When they began discussing their new master bathroom with her, it became immediately clear that this was not going to be a typical cosmetic makeover. They told her about the steam shower they enjoyed in a hotel in Petra, Jordan, and their room at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, California, designed to look like a subterranean cave complete with a waterfall shower.

Architecture & Interiors: Rebecca Swanston, AIA, Swanston & Associates, Baltimore, Maryland; General Contractor: Roy Cox, Roy Cox Remodeling, Parkville, Maryland; Photography: Alan Gilbert, Baltimore, Maryland

“The idea of making the space into a rather Zen atmosphere and architectural theme was consistent with things we had been seeing on recent trips to Southeast Asia,” says Levine. “We were also looking for a place to heal ourselves from the many hours it takes to run a business.”

So a dialogue ensued among Swanston, her clients, contractor Roy Cox, a team of tradespeople—and even a reptile curator from the Baltimore Zoo—all dedicated to translating the homeowners’ visions into reality.

To best execute their plans, Swanston recommended that they create a new pavilion off of the couple’s master bedroom to house the bathroom, where it would enjoy both natural light and privacy in the rear of the house. One of Swanston’s goals was to blur the barriers between the bathroom and the garden beyond, which she accomplished with the generous use of clerestory windows and natural materials throughout the structure. The pavilion is constructed of Douglas fir, with an array of exotic stone and wood materials embellishing the interior. Stained-glass doors and a glass floor mark the transition from the main house into the pavilion. Panels of green onyx from Pakistan clad the tub and the vanities, which are lit from within, creating an ethereal glow that shows off the stone’s natural striations. The sinks are made from Japanese eroko; the cabinetry, Indonesian teak.

“Our clients like to collect fossils. What became very obvious was to use a lot of natural materials, but we like to make interesting twists on these,” says Swanston.

When the slate floors from India came in, the Levines discovered that they contained actual fossils. “The floor contained pristine fern fossils—millions of years old—some of the tiles are each worth more than the whole price of the floor, and we see them every day,” says Levine, who decided to weave other ancient objects into their custom stone shower.

“We asked our mason to embed 21 fossils into the waterfall—a gastropod from Western Maryland, a fish from Wyoming and ammonites from Russia and Germany,” says Levine. Accomplishing this and integrating a plumbing system into the stone wall to include a waterfall “thunder” showerhead, four discreetly hidden shower jets and a steam shower—all encased in glass—posed no small challenge to the design team. The shower is also wired into the home’s sound system

The Levines’ request for a terrarium for sheltering their outdoor plants in the winter also evolved into something a bit beyond the ordinary. Avid reptile enthusiasts, they set their sights on creating a walk-in space with a habitat suitable for live species. Consultations with Baltimore Zoo reptile curator Anthony Wisniewski enabled them to simulate the desert habitat of Australian bearded lizards; they have spoken to a breeder and plan to acquire these pets when their busy travel schedule subsides.

Despite the challenges, the project was a true collaborative effort. “Everybody wanted to do their best,” recalls Levine. “It wasn’t a matter of getting through it, but making the artwork come out right.” All of the hard work and creativity that went into the bath has not gone unnoticed; it has won national design awards.

As for Robert Levine, he reflects, “Not a day goes by without our satisfaction that one of the great pleasures in life is building one’s nest.”

Design and Build: Jonas Carnemark, CR, CKD, Carnemark systems + design, inc., Bethesda, Maryland Photography: Maxwell MacKenzie, Washington, DC

Calm and cool
This soothing space combines asian inspiration with clean, modern lines

If a bathroom is supposed to feel like a Zen retreat, this recent renovation by Jonas Carnemark hits the spot like a good Shitsu massage. The project evolved as part of a kitchen addition executed on the first floor that bumped out the rear of the house. By making use of this new four-by-13-foot space on the second floor and raising the roofline into a tower, Carnemark created a master bath that provides his clients with the clean, open space that they wanted but also integrates plenty of storage.


Back-lit panels of onyx provide a base for dual eroko wood sinks.
Photo by Alan Gilber

Carnemark ditched the original clunky tub, which cramped the bathroom, and the standard white cabinets with brass trim. He devised a simple layout comprising an oversized shower with glass wall and a custom-made double vanity. The new material palette took on a tropical rainforest theme, with pale bamboo floors, large-format flamed-impala granite wall and floor tiles and a teak vanity topped with a six-inch concrete countertop. Under the vanity, boxes made from renewable rain-forest wood stow away everyday essentials. Shoji-screen doors conceal the lavatory and a generous linen closet. The room is rimmed by clerestory windows that frame views of the treetops in Rock Creek Park. A light-switch remote powers open every other clerestory window to let in fresh air.

“You sort of feel like you’re in a forest with bright light streaming down,” says Carnemark.

Careful planning and an eye for detail contribute to a truly seamless design. The single wall of glass in the oversized shower makes it look transparent. An almost undetectable pitch in the shower floor angles water into a gutter drain, so that the tiles would not be interrupted. Carnemark even utilized special accessory edging so that the bamboo and granite flooring flush perfectly, with no need for grout.

Tiny recessed halogen lights in the ceiling can be raised to full brightness or dimmed to provide just enough light for a trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night. “It’s just like moonlight,” likens Carnemark.


Sleek European Style

A couple transforms their ordinary bathroom into a hip ode to modernism

Alex Stefan and Helena Pulyaeva, a husband-and-wife real estate agent team with RE/MAX, had a pretty clear vision of what their ideal bathroom would encompass. On the heels of a major renovation that transformed their mid-1980s Bethesda home into a clean, modern masterpiece, they wanted their master bath to reflect the contemporary look they’d achieved in the rest of the house.

“We also wanted to upgrade amenities by introducing modern high-end fixtures that are well-made, aesthetically pleasing and user-friendly with features that are important to us,” said Stefan. A search began for just the right fixtures and furnishings that would make a bold design statement and meet the couple’s specific needs.


The enclosed shower features a waterfall steam shower with hidden jets.
Embedded fossils highlight the walls.
Photo by Alan Gilbert.

“The idea was to make a bathroom for simultaneous use by two working people,” says Pulyaeva. Luckily, the original master bathroom was large enough accommodate their plans, once they disposed off the enormous beige whirlpool bath with gilded fittings that dominated the space. Rather than one large custom shower, the couple chose to install two freestanding showers by Porcelanosa—one of which is a steam bath and a sauna equipped with 25 jets that can be operated in a variety of combinations and spray patterns. In addition, they chose a corner whirlpool bath, also by Porcelanosa, that is big enough for two but makes optimum use of space in the new layout.

The couple honed in on a burgundy and white theme to tie in with design elements in the rest of their house (burgundy island in the kitchen, white furnishings in the living room). With the help of their kitchen designer Daniel Popsecu, they discovered the perfect combination: burgundy vanities and white sinks by Italian manufacturer Rifra. Tired of conventional sinks, Stefan and Pulyaeva fell in love with the round, tilted design of these vessels. They reinforced the spherical theme throughout the bath, with round oversized pendant lamps by Ferruccio Laviani, a bold red pouf for sitting in front of the mirror and a round wall clock made out of a computer board. White flooring and light faux-painted walls provide perfect contrast to the deep red elements.

Now the morning routine is a breeze for Stefan and Pulyaeva. “Having the two showers and two sinks on the opposite sides of the room, and a separate commode room really helps,” says Stefan. “The new bathroom makes our lives more enjoyable and less stressful.”

Porcelanosa designer David Carmona sums it up best: “If you have those kind of showers in a bath, you never want to leave.”

Design Consultants: Daniel Popescu, Daniel Popescu Interiors, Crystal City, Virginia, and David Carmona, Porcelanosa, Rockville, Maryland Photography: Bob Narod, Sterling, Virginia


A walk-in reptile habitat features a faux painted ceiling.
Photo by Alan Gilbert.


The bath extends off the rear of the house and incorporates skylights
for natural lighting.
Photo by Alan Gilbert.


Jonas Carnemark soothing space that combines Asian inspiration with
clean, modern lines.
Photo by Maxwell MacKenzie.


A custom teak vanity with a concrete top hold vessel basins. Shoji
screen doors lead to storage and the commode.
Photo by Maxwell MacKenzie.


The shower’s single glass wall is nearly invisible.
Photo by Maxwell MacKenzie.


A couple transforms their ordinary bathroom into a hip ode to
modernism with the help of Daniel Popescu Interiors and
Porcelanosa.
Photo by Bob Narod.


Red lacquer cabinets conceal clutter. Photo by Bob Narod.


The Porcelanosa shower has steam bath, sauna and 25 jet-sprays.
Photo by Bob Narod.