When Cinderella slaved over her stepsisters' laundry, her surroundings were anything but luxurious. For real-life women, the situation hasn't been much better. Even when scrubber and clothesline turned into automatic washer and dryer, the equipment in years past was an afterthought, placed in a dingy area of the basement or garage where it competed for space with a greasy lawn mower. And when the laundry room moved to a more convenient location, often on the first floor near the kitchen, it remained strictly utilitarian.
Now, after years of being the stepchild of the house, the laundry room is starting to shine. Taking its cue from today's luxury homes, it's becoming more spacious, stylish and efficient. It's about time. Most studies show that the average household toils over seven to eight loads of laundry per week; and in a consumer preference survey by the National Association of Home Builders, 95 percent of homebuyers rated a separate laundry room as desirable or essential.
Women, who tend to have greater interest in laundry than men, also have the greater influence in choosing home décor, so it's surprising this room didn't receive attention sooner.
Nancy Ebel-Collum of Nancy Ebel Interior Design thinks so highly of the laundry room that when offered the opportunity to design a room in the 2004 Florida West Coast Symphony Showhouse-a light-filled Siesta Key Gulf-front condominium-it's the space she chose. She was entranced by the interesting architectural detail of the three-foot-wide round window, and planned a cheerful blue color theme around the waterfront locale. "Cabinetry is a focal point of a room, so the faux painter hand-painted a gingham check on the walls and continued it on the cabinetry. It just made the room," she says. A blue-bordered sisal rug softened the room and gave a finished look, in contrast to the sterility often associated with laundry facilities.
"Laundry rooms are often so neglected," Ebel-Collum says. "It's considered just a storage room, but we all spend a lot of time in there." She points out that the laundry room is often a home's second entrance. "I call it the 'back foyer' because just as many people come in the back as the front," she says.
In new laundry rooms, the finishing touches reach a level of sophistication comparable to the rest of the home, including crown molding, solid-surface counters, fine wood cabinetry and hardwood or tiled floors. David Wentzel of Village Woodworking says his clients are also demanding more innovative equipment and more space for additional activities. "They want to make it a nice and airy room, because they spend so much time there," he says. How airy? "One of our clients just requested an eight-by-22-foot room."
Spacious laundry rooms can work harder by incorporating craft space, a potting area, pet-cleaning spot, gift wrap center, home office or sewing station. For people who love to entertain, the laundry room doubles as a butler's pantry and provides a staging area for special events. The sink is already there, and lengthy counter space provides ample room. One Harbor Acres homeowner, whose large, well-equipped laundry area was originally intended to be an extra bedroom/bath suite, raves about its advantages. "The caterers love it when we have a party," she says. "If we were doing it over, I might even have put another refrigerator in there."
Tricia Coates of Kitchens by Design designed the roomy Harbor Acres laundry room, which is radiant with light from four windows. Faux painting on the walls shows off the owner's love of the Napa grape through stone imagery reminiscent of a grapevine-clad wine cave. Handsome Saturnia stone tile covers the floor. A front-loading washer/dryer permits the unimpeded flow of counter space, which seems to stretch forever.
Coates has designed several large laundry areas, and she agrees that they must perform double or even triple duty. "Laundry rooms are bigger than they used to be, so we try to make them multifunctional. I like to design an area for a sewing machine and turn it into a self-service bar for guests."
Some homes now offer a traditional first-floor laundry plus a second-floor laundry, often a space-saving stacked unit behind doors near the bedrooms, where clothes and linens are most likely to accumulate. Some install a smaller laundry in separate guest areas; guests appreciate the convenience, and homeowners find it easier to manage their bed linens and bath towels.
Village Woodworking's David Wentzel recently completed a 23,000-square-foot Casey Key home with not just one, but three laundry rooms. John Collins of John Collins Interiors tops that; he's doing a new home with four laundry areas: for pool, master, guest suite and garage areas. "It's such a luxury to have a laundry room right in the specific area where it's needed," he says. "But to properly plan the space, it's important that the laundries be kept in mind when the home is being designed."
Wringing out laundry day drudgery
No matter how improved the laundry room, it has the same basic function: to clean and dry clothes. Front-loading washers are today's most popular way to take the drudgery out of laundry day. The front-loading washer makes for easy access to the clothes; no more leaning over and into the machine. Most major appliance manufacturers also offer pedestals that raise the height of the washing machine in order to reduce the bending to retrieve clothes. Another benefit: controls on the front of the unit, where they're more accessible for short people, even to someone in a wheelchair.
Blankets and rugs fit more easily in most front loaders and use up to 75 percent less electricity. Front-loaders use less water, and their higher spin speeds extract up to 35 percent more water. They're gentler on clothing, cleaner, and typically have a longer life expectancy than top loaders.
That said, GE's new Profile Harmony washer and dryer with electronic controls has a swooping contemporary curve that matches the washer to the dryer. In the Todd Johnson Manchester model in Lakewood Ranch, the modern washer/dryer fits beautifully into the elegant color scheme in a deep charcoal gray shade. This points out the more sophisticated color palette for laundry equipment, in which biscuit, black, pewter or charcoal gray and stainless steel models compete with the traditional white.
Space for everything, and everything in its place.
Whatever the size room, to avoid the clutter of dirty socks and plastic laundry bottles, storage is essential. Bill Tidmore of Tidmore-Henry & Associates likes to incorporate sorting bins, hampers and wastebasket space into the laundry rooms he designs. "Everything is going under-counter to create more folding and work space," he notes. "That's why front-load machines are used, especially in smaller rooms."
David Wentzel is also a fan of organized storage. He's done several laundry rooms that incorporate work baskets for each child and lockers next to the pool. The result is "definitely killer looking."
The ironing board is frequently hidden behind a door, folding down into position for use. Supplies must be easy to reach, making an array of different types of cabinets de rigueur. They hold detergents and bleach while taller units hide vacuums and brooms. Even better, the room itself can be closed off when necessary. Even though her laundry is elegantly appointed, one owner also uses hers as a craft room, so "it's nice because you can close it off if you have a project going."
Take these new laundry tools out for a spin
The combination machine that both washes and dries your laundry. Just put the dirty clothes in and take them out clean and dry; there's no need to move wet clothes from the washer to dryer. Several manufacturers make them.
The jetted spa sink. It handles hand washables and other small cleaning jobs by swirling water under and around delicate washables. The action adjusts from gentle for lightweight items to vigorous action for heavier ones.
The new low, shallow curb with drain. "They're great areas to wash boots or the dog," says designer Bill Tidmore.
The drying center. Maytag's Neptune Drying Center tops a traditional tumble dryer with a drying cabinet, which uses warm circulating air to eliminate shrinkage and damage and hides drying clothes. Whirlpool's DryAire Cabinet circulates air in a range of cycles to quickly dry everything from sweaters to shoes. Fold-down shelves permit flat drying or hanging, while door racks hold gloves, socks and scarves.
The deep mister. The Whirlpool Personal Valet is a chemical-free system housed in an armoire-style cabinet that steams and freshens most fabrics, including machine washable and dry clean-only items. The deep-misting process smoothes wrinkles and cleans odor from clothes. It fits in a room or in a closet.