05/12/2014 11:56 EDT | Updated 07/12/2014 05:59 EDT

How We Discovered Bleak Chic

A bomb shelter as inspiration for our cottage shower room reno? Well, actually, yes; the curious notion was birthed having espied a tin sign perched high above the entrance to a now defunct air raid space in New York. Exploring the city on business, we froze like pillars of salt when confronted by the ancient sign.

Colin and Justin report that all it took to provide inspiration for their cottage bathroom makeover was an old tin sign in downtown New York...

A bomb shelter as inspiration for our cottage shower room reno? Well, actually, yes; the curious notion was birthed having espied a tin sign perched high above the entrance to a now defunct air raid space in New York. Exploring the city on business, we froze like pillars of salt when confronted by the ancient sign.

Yup, there was something about the plaque that caught our eye; enticingly bleak, yet somehow chic, we loved its simplicity. Hmm. Bleak chic. The word pairing shouldn't work, but for us it was the perfect marriage of vocabulary. And God knows we love a little juxtaposition.

Later that week, settled at our Toronto studio drawing board, we spooled (oh dear; 'spooled'? Is that really cool parlance in digital times?) through photos of New York, mesmerized, once more, by the verdant downtown parkland that jumped from our laptop screen. We swooned at the beautiful and varied architectural vernacular. Hey, every image was inspirational in its own right. But it wasn't until clicking on the ancient bomb shelter sign that the siren of inspirational really began to sound.

The subway tile (against which the triangular sign was attached) has long been a favourite in C&J client projects and indeed several of our own homes. Over time, it's been specified by us for application in kitchens, bathrooms and laundries, its simplicity, we suppose, being its primary appeal. The glossy white beveled edges scream 'utilitarian', a decorative mood that seldom wanes.

Most times we've grouted in white, but our Big Apple inspiration was grey or had simply dirtied (from white) over time. Either way, we loved it. Our decision was made. A 'bleak chic' ensuite we would have, in a space once occupied by a decidedly run of the mill basement bathroom.

Footprint wise, we did nothing to alter the project's proportion though, due to aesthetic streamlining, it may appear that we did. Keeping each plumbing fixture in the same location (shower, sink and loo) made sound sense; if it ain't broken don't fix it. This route, as well as meaning less work, also avoided the associated costs of rejigging services.

And so it came to pass we removed - and photographed - the sink, cabinet and mirror and sold them on Kijiji for a couple of hundred bucks. Every little helps, right? Next up, we dismantled the wedge shaped shower enclosure that desperately dated the space. The room stripped bare, however, we discovered a major problem: dank, cloying fungus and sinister black mould. Let's just say venting from the laundry next door had been incorrectly pumped into the ceiling void above the bathroom, rather than through an exterior wall. Jeesh.

Succinctly, it was a hellish scene. The drywall was blackened, and the smell of death noxious. Unbeknown to us, the void behind the drywall was little more than a mouse mausoleum, a rodent graveyard if you will. Aye, they ventured in but they couldn't escape through the quagmire of decayed insulating matter. Even our contractor winced as he pulled Mickey, then Minnie, fossilized, from the stinking scene.

Dan, our contractor, knows precisely how to deal with problems such as these and, as remedy, pulled away the rotten 2"x2" framework, bleached the space clean, replaced the supporting wooden framework, then covered it all in thick polythene like Dexter's kill room. Thermoseal insulation was pumped into the newly created wall voids and fresh drywall was attached. Within days, we're delighted to report, the sickly olfactory issue had completely vanished.

While we wish there was some salutary lesson to counsel, the simple fact of the matter is this; not everything shows up when a home inspection is conducted, especially in closed, 'hidden' areas. Our contingency fund (we normally factor around 12.5% of overall project cost) took care of the bill and with immediate effect we were able to move on to the next stage of our transformation.

Oh yes, the transformation. As far as design was concerned, it couldn't have been simpler. At our behest, Dan fashioned a two inch upstand to contain shower water, then clad side walls with white subway, found (heavily discounted) at Tile Shoppe - check these guys out; their 'stack it high' logic ensures inventory pricing remains low. Note the grey grouting which immediately references our bomb shelter kick off.

Tile Shoppe also came up trumps with the large concrete look slabs which we applied to the other two walls and floor, and the 2" square mosaic used on the base of the shower stall. Hey; our bleak chic aesthetic was slowly emerging...

Work enduring, we hooked up with Will from Dare To Be Different ( who hand cast our minimalist trough sink. A tricky procedure? Not for us; we simply supplied a sketch and dimensions and the talented artisan pulled it together without fuss. First he created a wood template (complete with drain area and connections for plumbing) and, this done, filled the blocky structure with poured concrete. Just a week later it was delivered and installed. To this day we look at that sink - and its matching lower shelf - and we swoon.

Project detailing? Taps and shower fixtures are from the DXV range at American Standard while the glazed panel was expertly installed by Access Glass -( Take a tip; there are areas, when renovating, where a competent DIY job will comfortably suffice (painting, for example, or perhaps tiling) but a professional installation for glazing is paramount; brackets and pins are crucial if you want a safe, watertight fit.

Final layering came courtesy of towels, a $30 mirror from Homesense and one of our favourite craft people - Liz Brownrigg , or Gypsy Potter ( as she's better known. We absolutely adore the beautiful vessels she so lovingly throws. Decorated with naturally shed horse hair (bedded into the surface before firing) each piece is unique and arrestingly gorgeous.

Thrilled with the project, we're already working on the refurbishment of several bathrooms in our rental portfolio using precisely the same plan. If a scheme works, as we see it, there's no good reason it shouldn't be played over, and over again.

All things considered, 'bleak chic' isn't even remotely stark, n'est pas? Sure, it's measured, but it's also warm and inviting into the decorative bargain. So all hail the fall out shelter aesthetic. See the full transformation (expired mice an' all) Tuesday evening, at 10pm, on Cottage Life. And hold tight for another of our literal transformations, in these virtual pages, next week. Until then? Decorative bombs away...

The Before:

The Inspiration:

The Finished Room: