Ask the designer – Balineum founder Sarah Watson

Balineum’s founder and creative director Sarah Watson once told a magazine that she has “a vintage brass towel rail that I love more than my husband.” The tastemaker’s tongue was obviously in her cheek, but her comment tells you all you need to know about her passion for design, and in particular bathrooms.  Sarah named her company after the Latin word for bathouse and plugged a gap in the market for exquisite ‘non-bathroom-style’ bathroom items including lights that would work in any luxury living room, high quality towels, washstands, shower seats, interesting mirrors and really nice shower curtains. The company also sells the nuts and bolts hardware details, such as hinges and handles – supremely tasteful ones of course. Balineum has just launched its first collection of Terra Firma glazed brick tiles in mouthwatering muted shades. Below Sarah tells us about her edit of colours, her attitude to design generally and why she’d like to tile an entire room.

Can you tell us a tiny bit about your background before Balineum?

“My first jobs out of university were related to the internet and website design – 20 years ago when it was new, and Yahoo was still a cool thing. I was a project manager for website design and build at an advertising agency. Then my boyfriend got a transfer to New York and I worked there as photography production assistant, planning and organising shoots. I’ve always worked in creative industries but in organising and project management type roles.

When I moved to London (in 2006) I knew I wanted to do something more creative and to start my company. I knew no one would hire me for creative role so I didn’t have much choice but to do it myself. There have been painful (and expensive) lessons to learn, but the longer I do this, the better my eye is and the more confidence I have trying new things. A lot of the early stuff I created with Balineum makes me cringe. But the joy of creating something beautiful – either on my own or with clients – gives me pretty incomparable joy.”

Why are bathrooms a passion?

“Bathrooms are not a sexy room, but the more I work in this space the more I love it. The more knowledge I gather about the components – taps, ceramics, lighting – it just gets more interesting for me. I really believe that bathrooms should be seamlessly decorated like the rest of your home. I think they should be soft, warm and cosy. Not harsh and cool. I find most bathroom products sold by major retailers to be soulless. We are really trying to keep real, normal design elements in the bathroom space so it is not just “Jetson” inspired sinks and floating toilets available for people to buy. It is rare for modern design in bathroom space to be done well.”

Following you on Instagram we’ve had a lovely insight into some of the buildings that inspired the tile collection, can you tell us more?

“The original and starting reference is the Schaffer House by John Lautner in LA. But also, a Peter Zumthor kitchen in Geneva, and lots of work by Jorn Utzon. Also, many of the brutalist buildings around London, which whilst usually in concrete, have shapes and integrations with wood that I find interesting. There is something about combining bricks and wood that I find inherently appealing. The Barbican of course, is a major source of inspiration too.

We knew we had corner pieces coming as part of this collection, and so interesting ways of handling and creating corners has been on my radar for a long time. The corners can also be used to create a stepped detail – so stepped doorways, arches and fireplaces have been catching my eye for the past few years. It is not uncommon to have a stepped archway, it’s a fairly commonly architectural element but Maria Botta using the graphic mix of two colours adds another level of complexity to it.”

Was considering details like curves and corners quite crucial to build the perfect tile collection?

“You always need some kind of trim or way of handling external corners. All the big tile brands sell field tiles in all price points (because these are easy to produce), but what really elevates a collection is having an elegant way to handle external corners or exposed tile edges. It means they can be used for more elaboration installations than a splashback.

It is really important to us when we launch any new tile collection to have a way of dealing with external corners. Because of the material of the bricks – they are not as flexible or pliable as traditional earthenware ceramic tiles – we were limited in what shapes and trims we could achieve. But a brick corner piece is a traditional format in which bricks are used so we knew we had to have the same piece in a glazed brick collection.”

How did you fix on your colour edit?

“I always knew I wanted earthy, organic colours for this collection. The colours of my childhood in late 70s and early 80s. And colours that would sit well with wood and outdoors. It’s a palette that lends itself well to the texture of the bricks. I feel it’s better to use a smooth ceramic tile to really make a bright glaze colour sing.

Often when bricks are used they have been chosen for their base clay colour so I felt strongly that the palette needed to be more aligned with the natural world and reference the clay of its origin. The brown and red colours of the brick base really change the glaze appearance – so some of the colour palette is just luck. We thought certain colours would work and didn’t. Some colours were just happy accidents along the way. We probably trialled more than 50 glaze colours in multiple shades and applications before editing down to final 11.”

You have a great eye for colour, can you tell us more about which tones or combinations you are drawn to or even any you hate?

“I like colours that are a bit murky. Mustard, olive green, burnt orange, grey-blues, deep dark navy, caramel. I wear those colours and have decorated my own home in these colours. I am not naturally drawn to pastels – soft pinks, lilacs, and lime greens – although I have seen them done well (Kenwood House library for example). I am always drawn to colours more likely to appear in the natural world (autumnal leaves, shades of green, rust, moss). We’ve travelled quite a bit in Stockholm and Sweden over the last few years and their interior colours are pretty much perfect to me. Museum rooms are increasingly amazing too – the current Royal Academy Oceania exhibition, The National Gallery and Portrait Gallery (in London) and Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen. The wall colours at these museums were all as interesting to me as the exhibitions themselves.”

Do you keep mood boards or scrap books to gather inspiration or do you use conventional online platforms?

“I have so many photos on my phone and my computer, and I have folders for references for new product designs we are working on. I like to think I vaguely have a system for images, but really it’s quite shambolic. A lot of the references are just deep within my brain. Instagram is a great source and I did get into Pinterest a few years back – but this has fallen by the wayside.”

What did you feel was missing from the market that you wanted to fill with the collection?

“I think there are lots of great tiles out there, and there are even companies already selling glazed bricks, but it was the finish and colour palette that we really wanted to get right, and that we thought we could do better. Which I think we have done. We’ll see if our customers (primarily decorators and architects) also agree.

Other glazed bricks can be quite textured, and we didn’t want anything that rustic, because over an expanse it can look cheap and I think will date. Other glaze bricks are often quite bright and I really believe more earthy tones suit this format. I wanted tones that people can live with for 100 or more years. Not a style or colour palette that people will be ripping off their wall in 10 years.”

Which designers do you find inspiring right now, whom you’d love to use your tiles?

“We are pretty lucky in that we already work with a lot of my really favourite designers – Maddux creative, Beata Heuman, Adam Bray. Todhunter Earle, who I think most people think of as creating living room spaces, actually design incredible bathrooms – using fantastic tile colours and patterns.

On my hit list? We’ve not worked with Pierre Yonanvitch, and I think he’s incredible. Also, William Smalley here in London. Both do the very best modern architecture and interiors. In New York, ASH NYC, Billy Cotton and Remy Renzullo are very much on my radar. We’ve done a few small bits with Waldo Works in the UK, but I’d really love to a bigger installation with them.”

What would be the dream scenario for your tiles and why?

“Tiling an entire room is always the goal. For bricks, I’d love to see someone install them indoors and outdoors with a fireplace and seamlessly moving through glass walls. Tiling an entire room is my favourite way to use tile. Historically, you’ll see this done in older bathrooms, kitchens and dairies across the UK and Europe, and in the present designer Steven Gambrel regularly tiles all the walls of his kitchen designs. Tiling a wall from floor to ceiling is much more dramatic than a smaller area I think.”

You can follow Sarah on Instagram here

Jill Macnair


Jill Macnair has worked as an interiors journalist for 13 years, contributing to titles including Elle Decoration, The Sunday Times and The Guardian. She set up cult interiors blog My Friend’s House in 2009 with Ros Anderson and continues to run the forum daily.

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