Vintage medicine cabinets that boost a bathroom’s storage and look


Medicine cabinets have taken a familiar form since the 1920s, and with a slim, ergonomic profile and integrated mirror-faced doors they are a crucial inclusion in most bathrooms and ensuites. Hung high enough only for a standing adult to manage, and suspended over the obstacle of a sink, there’s less likelihood that your little Tenzing Norgay will make an ascent for your Korean facemasks, or the candy colored cough drops. Still, never take anything from granted. If in doubt lock them up.

We have come a long way from the typical Edwardian wood or steel cabinet, some emblazoned with a red cross, and often closed with a key (most were loaded with an Agatha Christie arsenal of lethal goodies). Up into the 1950s, cosmetics were ranged around a dressing table, but we don’t have time for all that polite division of labor today.

Modern cabinets might look familiar. There have been very few stylistic changes from the mirrored slab or the slightly woody paneled cabinet with a ceramic knob.

Still, with integrated lighting and wifi connectivity, new smarts and detailing can raise the cabinet to the status of mirror majories, delivering flattering reflections for preening, and a lively app-enabled entertainment center to sing and sway while brushing your teeth.

Marie, a tall and slim vintage-inspired wall cabinet with an antiqued gold finish and three removeable glass shelves, €250, grahamandgreen.co.uk
Marie, a tall and slim vintage-inspired wall cabinet with an antiqued gold finish and three removeable glass shelves, €250, grahamandgreen.co.uk

The framing materials and panels can float off as a plate mirror, closely follow the other colors and styling of the bathroom or create an unexpected decorative feature. Starting with materials, plastics might be reviled everywhere else in the house, but they really come into their own in the bathroom for a cabinet carcass and with bump operation, won’t react to slaps of bleachy sprays, humidity swings and changes in temperature as wood will.

If you’re up-cycling or choosing softwoods they must be carefully sealed and lacquered. Otherwise look into aluminum, sealed MDF and steel, or a combination of highly durable, rust-resistant elements. Bathroom cabinets, get roughed around multiple times daily. Include adjustable hinges to put door elements straight, or that cock-eyed leer with drive you insane as you sit on the throne thumbing through Readers Digest.

With the growing battery of cosmetics that sit on the edge of prescribed medicine — these storage servants can too easily go the way of ‘the man drawer’ (with the gutted checkbooks, dead AA batteries and softened half bags of peanuts).

Together with regular clearouts, sizing and composition of the interior are crucial.

A standard frameless or framed commercial cabinet can sit out on the wall or be set back into a niche that’s part of the architecture of the bathroom. Recessing, you don’t have to stay flush with the hole, the cabinets can sit slightly proud. The entire niche doesn’t have to be filled, it’s up to you, just avoid any dirt-trapping lips at the top edge. Look around Instagram for ideas of pushing the cabinet or just a mirror, back into the wall or framing it out, and then communicate your ideas fully to your contractor, as there will be structural, plumbing and electrical consequences to consider. Lighting can be from the inside surface of the top rail, and bounced off white ware or licked around the mirror in an integrated LED.

Using niches or wall-mounted units, spots can be set into the top edge, and combined with more diffused side lighting for a soft, but practical wash.

Sizing choices for wall-hung storage cabinetry wall-hung, will be mostly width choices, as reaching up, more than 1.6m will become a scramble on your bare toes, and bathroom cabinets are rarely more than 10cm to 15cm deep. Hung directly over the basin, widths should not exceed the size of the basin below, it really diminishes their presence and looks awkward.

ENHET Mirror cabinet, anthracite, €75, ikea.ie
ENHET Mirror cabinet, anthracite, €75, ikea.ie

Going a little more slender in a single upright rectangle, or deliberately vertical, even in a double door — not a problem. Have a clearout? Consider what you need for cubic space, and then add around 15% to that guesstimate. Could you move some of your non-toxic beauty items from the wall mount, to the drawers and presses of a floor-mounted vanity supporting the sink? Boxes and drawer dividers could eliminate that 7am chaos, flailing overhead for your mascara or tooth floss. Wall-mounted tall-boys demand a tiny footprint for a huge ballast right by the vanity or basin.

Measuring up, the first thing to do, is to stand in front of your sink (actually or mock it up with tape and newspaper in a renovation). With our hips against the sink edge, reach for what could be your top shelf of a prospective cabinet on flat feet, without straining. Note the measurements from the floor or from the top of an existing basin.

Everything above this reach is ‘dead’ without a low step. Next, it’s a case of how low can we go? We need comfortable clearance over the sink, to deliver a useful reflection, and to include a swan neck or wall-mounted tap, and decorative/ protective tiling. Taking the mirror behind the tap — you’ll have to lose that storage or tailor up a slender slider store.

Where you have plenty of room with possibly two basins, double vanities (two doors) or two separate vanities for you and your partner can keep your arsenal of bathing/beauty/medical dedicated and in the order you prefer. These could be banked on either side of a large mirror heated mist-free mirror plate. In standard cabinets, singles, doubles and triple cabinets offer massive mirrors, but mirrors with seams. Stand before your prospect on the showroom floor and ensure it suits you. Also take note if that double or triple is one open cabinet behind all the doors, or two or three boxes screwed together with upright dividers. These elements are useful for stabilizing tall bottles, and with a better bit of cabinet-making, the piece will structurally stronger. Framed cabinets with sliding doors? Ideal for tiny bathrooms and dainty ensuites to do away with a space-invading swing.

Traditional framed cabinets mean no marks to the glass.  This model, from an extensive range at Wayfair, is balanced beautifully to the basin with the addition of two art deco-style vertical lights;  from €50, wayfair.ie.
Traditional framed cabinets mean no marks to the glass. This model, from an extensive range at Wayfair, is balanced beautifully to the basin with the addition of two art deco-style vertical lights; from €50, wayfair.ie.

Frameless mirrored cabinets within niches or wall mounted, are classic that inflate space and light, and they are and so easy to live with. In a larger arrangement, they can swallow up all the detritus that can wreck the final finish of the best bathroom or ensuite. The only thing that’s changed since the Hercule Poirot days is the formerly clunky hinges have slipping onto the backs of the doors — sleek and contemporary. Stepping up the character, simply add some open storage with lighting, and some bevelled edges to the glass.

If the glass is edge to edge rather than framed in, your fingers will inevitably leave prints every time you use a pull or push action. Add internal mirrors to see yourself side on. Peek-a-boo cabinets hide shelves behind a mirror — no articulated doors need apply. Don’t fold to matching base and wall cabinets. It’s not a given. Arches are trending all over the house for 2023, so if you fancy a little art deco flash, try a vertical, frameless mirror with a sleek curvaceous top set over a rectangular storage cupboard. Arched recesses for your cabinetry and mirrors? The builder will see it as a pain or a challenge (probably a bit of both).

If you can do without the mirror or want a dedicated place for serious, pharmaceutical stuff, look into the latest craze for reeded glass — uniquely blinding while offering a robust glass door. Top choices — the haze wall cabinet for Ferm Living — elegant, grown-up class at €339 (also available as a leggy vitrine), finnishdesignshop.com, or the budget-friendly metal and glass cabinet by Sklum, just €109.95, sklum .com.

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