Tapping into a growing market

Tapping into a growing market

As the old saying goes, ‘even the Queen goes to the loo’. But this sentiment is all part of the working day for Charlotte Conway – who designs luxury bathrooms for the rich and famous.

Just imagine how awkward I was feeling: showers, steam, mirrors and loo seats. Taps, towels, flushes and toilet roll holders.

This whole bathroom thing – our personal ablutions for goodness’ sake – is a secret subject that most of us don’t easily discuss with anyone.

But here I was, about to interview a young woman I’d never met before about... posh bathrooms. I mean, it’s just not the topic of conversation I’d choose.

And so I threw myself in at the deep end, so to speak, and came out with a question I hoped wouldn’t create too much of a splash. As a bathroom designer, what’s important about the, er, toilet, and just where do you put it? Without blinking, 28-year-old Charlotte Conway answers, and her self-assurance immediately eases the atmosphere.

“I like loos wall hung,” she says. “It’s best to keep it simple that way, as you don’t want to draw too much attention to them. It’s best if they’re not opposite the door, for instance. I often try to place them neatly away in the corner, or behind a piece of furniture.”

I’m getting the mental image, and can almost sense privacy again, so I feel less intrusive with my next question: what about the toilet roll holder? Because I’m always noticing how they never seem to stay fixed to the wall...

“I know,” she agrees, “people must play with them, because they’re often broken! For that reason, it’s important to go for quality. I’m talking about quality fixings, matched to the type of wall it’s going into. The fitting teams I work with know the standards I expect – all the way down to the toilet roll holder. It’s all about having the right lengths of screws. But again, you want them to be as simple as possible, using colour to blend them into the overall design.”

It’s this attention to detail that Charlotte’s clients like, as she senses the need that successful people have to create luxury bathrooms that feel part of their home. “You don’t want to walk in and think ‘this is a cold bathroom’,” she says.

“You want it to be comfortable. You want the same feeling you’d get if you were walking into a lounge – tranquility. “It’s a place where you start and finish your day, so it should be somewhere you feel you’re most relaxed and at peace.

“It’s a quiet, calm place to help you shut down before bed, but that also helps you to be ready to start the day.”

This is not just a theme for Charlotte; it’s almost her philosophy: “They say the kitchen is the heart of the home. Well, the bathroom is the soul. And why wouldn’t you want to spend money like you would on a lounge and kitchen? It’s the only place in the house where you can be on your own if you want. The bathroom is a place to relax and reflect. It should be an area where you spend money to have exactly as you want.”

Charlotte’s business – Charlotte Conway Design – only had 33 ‘jobs’ in 2012, but these were all high-value projects, ranging from posh cloakrooms to plush master bathrooms. And it’s the personal attention to detail that makes the difference. “Each bathroom is individual to the client,” Charlotte says.

“I don’t have a showroom because I don’t want to take a display and repeat it in lots of people’s homes.

“The bathrooms I create are exclusive to each client, with bespoke elements from their lifestyle and personality.

“It starts during the initial consultation – when I just listen to what a client says about themselves and their lives. I might ask a couple of questions about what they like, what they do, about their family and children; what they wear, their style, their jewellery, and so on.

“I then visit their home to build up the picture. When I’m in their home I can see how they’ve decorated, what possessions they have, and visualise things that might work well, for example, a free-standing bath.

“After this, I hand-draw the draft design, a professional touch and one that is easily altered. Once they like it, I produce a fully-scaled floor plan, with itemised specification. They can look at this on my iPad, feel its value and look through and select different textures and shapes.

“I’m looking for a ‘wow factor’. I try to use bespoke stone, cut in certain sizes and shapes. Or taps coming out of the mirror, so when their guests see the bathroom they think ‘that’s amazing’ and ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before’.

“For one client I created a feature wall using the pattern wallpaper they had in the bedroom. A glazier scanned this pattern and then sandblasted it onto their mirror, connecting the two rooms. For another, in an old barn, I wanted to keep the character and so I used old beams that weren’t required to create shelves to sit on.”

Charlotte has a way with her words, easily describing how she can help clients working on restoration projects: “I’m always seeking to use old material as furnishings in a contemporary way. So I’m always looking for different pieces hidden in a corner that can be used for a basin or something.

“For one client, I found an old Belfast sink half-buried in the garden. I used this as part of the design, with a mirrored shelf. Another was restoring a gothic Victorian property, reviving it back to its original form. I created a troughstyle basin, one that would originally have been filled with water jugs.

“There was a porcelain bowl within this trough, with holes drilled in for taps. Then I looked at the original light fittings and door handles, and made sure that the taps were made to match the brass of the time, back in their original finish.”

People are prepared to pay for this kind of detail, Charlotte’s clients spending anything from £10,000 on a cloakroom and up to £70,000 on the design and material alone for main bathrooms. With trade and fitting costs of up to £15,000, it means a total spend of up to £85,000 for domestic jobs – with larger, commercial projects costing more.

A famous Premier League customer is West Bromwich Albion captain Chris Brunt and his wife Cathy, who had five bathrooms designed by her at their home in Four Oaks, Sutton Coldfield. This led to recommendations, and Charlotte’s now designing the bathrooms for West Brom’s James Morrison and his partner Kayleigh Denham.

“Most of my clients come through recommendations,” says Charlotte. “As well as football stars, many are top professionals with second and third properties. Once you do one bathroom that’s liked you’re soon lined up to do other properties in their investments, then recommended to their friends.

“One of my best customers is an investment banker with UFC Fund Management. I started off doing some accessories in his home in Staffordshire which were liked, and then was commissioned to work on his properties in London.

“Other customers include well-known directors of Deloitte and KPMG, and various top surgeons. The main customers often tend to be women. They have people round for coffee or dinner parties, and show people round their houses who like what they see, and this leads to new jobs.”

Charlotte shows me a recently published list of the ‘top ten roads to live on in the West Midlands’, and proudly tells me that she has clients in seven of them: Bracebridge Road, Ladywood Road, Hartopp Road and Luttrell Road in Four Oaks; Roman Grange, Roman Road and Endwood Drive, in Little Aston. Some jobs involve whole houses, where clients not only want bathrooms designed but also want smart cloakrooms, swimming pool and gymnasium areas, and private spa facilities.

As well as domestic clients, Charlotte works on commercial projects like schools and boutique hotels.

These have included guest bathrooms at Alrewas Hayes, Staffordshire, and ensuites and a bridal suite at Moxhull Hall, Sutton Coldfield – both exclusive wedding venues.

And her most unusual job? “A dog shower!” Yes, although Charlotte can’t reveal the name, there’s a very lucky labrador living in Sutton Coldfield with its very own bathroom.

“The client spent around £10,000 on this, with a ramp for the dog to walk up so the owner or groomer doesn’t have to bend down, and can just stand there and wash the dog. There’s even a dog-sized dryer!”

By now, I’m laughing, and I realise I’m no longer embarrassed about talking bathrooms. In fact, while I can’t stretch to a full ensuite job, I’ve got this little privy downstairs that needs a makeover...