Like most cultural and political debates in our country, that of choosing whether to have a medicine cabinet or not reigns both controversial and contentious amongst designers and homeowners alike. To actively choose NOT to have the most convenient storage for the daily annoyances of teeth brushing and face washing seems outright absurd, and yet I have never in my life opted for this convenience. The mountain house was my big opportunity. It was more modern (which I think works better for something streamlined and inset) so it could have handled it whereas our 100-year-old Tudor might have looked a bit, well, clunky in a design sense.
So today, I’m going to dive into the internal (and external) debate to have or not have the ultimate convenience of a medicine cabinet. If you just fell asleep, I suggest you stand up, walk to your medicine cabinet (or not), slap yourself in the face to stay awake. Perhaps drink a 5-Hour Energy because you don’t get to nap while the rest of us are trying to change the minds and world on this subject. You can’t pretend it’s not a problem. It is. It’s real. We need to know why someone like myself and even my friend Nate Berkus (and a few other designer friends like Amber Lewis) have historically hated the medicine cabinet.
Let’s start with some basic photos of inset medicine cabinets and why they get a bad rap. Here is why I’ve been historically anti:
I don’t like medicine cabinets for the following reasons:
- They can look generic and builder grade. They feel cold, contemporary and lacking real style.
- Their frames are often too big and chunky (see new good alternatives in our roundup below).
- To do inset/recessed, they have to be semi-permanent because it requires construction and that’s scary if you aren’t really into something in the first place.
- The good ones are really expensive (see some below) and typically even custom, so then you are spending a ton of money on something you don’t really love anyway, and it’s permanent. That’s a hard commitment to make especially if you are someone who likes to change things up.
- Wall-mounted medicine cabinets are great for the right small bathroom but it does project into the room and therefore eats up real estate (but I like a lot of them far more than the inset options).
But mostly I don’t use medicine cabinets because I love a BEAUTIFUL mirror. Mirrors are the artwork of the bathroom so, of course, I’m going to opt for that over something that provides boring “storage solutions.”
I know the idea of going with form over function is infuriating to most of you, but designing a beautiful space is important as, you know, a designer. Now before you all say “it’s also your job to design a functional space” there are other options (I’ll talk about more below). Typically, in a master bathroom, vanity space will have be sufficient that you don’t NEED the dinky shelves on a medicine cabinet, but I couldn’t help but think…Was I alone? Do other designers feel this way? I asked a few friend/experts in this field:
Nate Berkus: “I’ve always avoided them but now the trade-off for storage has me slowly converting…I wish someone would invent one that universally works with a vintage mirror.” Now, Nate just recently moved back to New York to an apartment that I’m sure is big and beautiful but with two kids in New York City living, I get why he might be converting.
Amber Lewis: “I am not a fan or a heavy user of the Medicine Cabinet.”
Orlando Soria: “I am fully on Team Medicine Cabinet. I know they can be a bummer for some designers who would rather have a pretty decorative mirror above a sink, but there’s just stuff you can store in one that doesn’t make sense anywhere else. And they provide storage at the most convenient height to access while you are standing getting ready in the morning. They also do something that I like in that they provide dual functions: they are storage AND a mirror. Ideally, you’d be insetting them, but even surface wall mounted can look great (I like to frame them out in wood trim to make them look more integrated if they can’t be fully sunken into the wall)…like this:
“I like replacing crappy mirrors that are just glued to the wall with medicine cabinets. Having everything in drawers is annoying. In an ideal world, you’d build the medicine cabinet flush with the wall and put a decorative mirror on top.”
Sherry Petersik of Young House Love: “Personally, we’ve never added a medicine cabinet during a bathroom reno, and always find the storage in the vanity to be just fine, and then we can use a pretty mirror over the sink. I especially love a round one to break up the squareness of most vanities (which isn’t exactly readily available in medicine-cabinet-form). So yeah, I don’t hate them or anything, I just don’t generally find myself adding them ever…and I’m still alive without one.”
Maxwell Ryan of Apartment Therapy: (Had a long convo with him on the phone but here’s a summary of what he said): He didn’t even think of them for his Scandinavian style country house because he didn’t want anything that they could put any clutter in and stylistically they would have been wrong. And yet he and his daughter recently moved into a new apartment in New York which had them already installed and well, it’s his daughter’s favorite thing in the home. He wouldn’t have chosen them but he’s pretty psyched he has them now. His general thought is this: it’s found space, previously unused, and you should use it if you need it, but stylistically he understands why designers, stylists and editors don’t opt for them. He, like me, loves what a special mirror does to a room and typically they just aren’t that special.
Now, I want to add a caveat that they can ABSOLUTELY work, and if you truly need storage solutions then it can be done. This is a good example of an inset medicine cabinet in a modern space that works.
It’s sleek, goes wall-to-wall (and floor-to-ceiling) so it’s relatively seamless, plus that vanity is epic so it’s not the focus. But for the record, that one is custom (I think you push the glass to pop it out) and was likely thousands of dollars.
Same. Everything here (including their choice of medicine cabinet) is so pretty so that bathroom is still stunning even though the mirror itself isn’t a “work of art.”
But it’s rarely done right and honestly I don’t think inset should be done in a vintage style home (again, I think the wall-mounted ones can work well in older homes). My pickiness is just so specific and it’s hard to explain. All the circumstances have to be there to pull it off and that’s just hard. And yet it can be permanent which is terrifying.
So what do I prefer? Why do I consider mirrors the art of the bathroom? Exhibit A (and beyond):
Why must something tear apart my insides as the medicine cabinet has?? They are the recliners of the bathroom. The microwave of the kitchen. I long to reach out my arm and easily pull a hidden toothbrush out of a medicine cabinet, and yet I have never opted for this joy.
I thought that surely there could be an in-between, a happy medium: storage without the contemporary facade. We tried for the mountain house but first went through some storage alternatives:
SO WHAT ARE THEY? Let’s explore.
THE SINGLE SHELF:
Well okay. This is certainly a cute opportunity for, say, displaying your most beautiful product and as a stylist I know I can make this look pretty, but is this an actual storage solution? It’s a stretch. While it does provide more surface area, you can’t really display your necessities unless you are president of the lifestyle mafia and have like $250 face cream decanted into blown glass vessels. And let’s face it, we aren’t.
While certainly cute, where on earth do these people store ANYTHING but their toothbrush?
There’s also the “shelf ON the mirror” situation, but it’s the same issue in terms of where to put the ugly necessary stuff? The vanity surely, but I guess pretty glass lidded jars for cotton balls and whatnot would go here…
THE BUILT-IN SIDE SHELF OR CABINET:
Next up is one that I felt could be an option: you get the massive pretty mirror that you want and then on the sides of the vanity, you add easily accessible storage. And yes, you could even put a door on this and make it a cabinet.
I think this is a good solution, but unless there is a door it’s not hidden and your gross vitamins and crest strips will junk it up pretty fast. But if you want a massive mirror (that likely can’t never be hinged) then I think this is a good alternative. I love digging into any walls for extra storage throughout the entire house.
It can look pretty but it can also look busier and junkier. But if you need to display your Aunt Jonie’s studio pottery from the ’90s like those people did, then stop reading right here!
Let’s be clear that no one actually lives in the above bathroom (right?). It’s a hotel without any almost-empty bottles of mouthwash or toothpaste overflowing because someone doesn’t like to put lids on things (me, it’s a thing/problem).
The side cubbies could work to provide more storage, but it’s not the kind of everyday stuff that your medicine cabinet should hold. No one wants to have to dig through a huge bin to find the eye cream you promised yourself you would start using every night.
SLIDING DOORS (AKA BARN DOORS):
For the master bathroom of the mountain house, we wanted a huge mirror to reflect light/trees (or at least no frames between mirrors) and for a hot (and possibly feverish) second, I thought that maybe something like this could work. Now, I know that people have beef with barn doors, I do too, but I do think that if done right in the right house (modern farm/industrial) this could be a solution. Be careful, don’t let it be too chunky (which they tend to be) and make sure it’s the right style. Ours was not, but I wouldn’t have done this anyway. It would have been something custom and worked well with our style.
Okay. So while I do think some of those are solid options that can look pretty, they aren’t the best alternative. What is? HERE YOU GO:
THE BEST STORAGE ALTERNATIVE TO THE MEDICINE CABINET:
The custom or readymade mirror over hidden shelving on hinges. Sounds complicated. Keep reading.
YES. It’s hard not to get behind this but it’s clearly custom and likely more expensive (I’d bet around $1,200, not including construction). But BOY am I glad there is a solution out there.
So did we do that in the mountain house?
Well, I’ll be honest and say that we don’t need the storage at the mountain house like we do in LA because we have so much less stuff, PLUS our vanities have GREAT storage. In the master, we wanted a huge mirror to reflect light and trees from the opposite windows. In the powder, we didn’t see the need for more storage since it’s a powder room. And the guest bathrooms, well, they are just for temporary guests and they have tons of vanity storage so we opted out. If you don’t need storage (ha, who are you?), then don’t suffer through the pain of figuring out how to integrate it in a stylish way. Full stop.
I did, however, want to show you guys a genius storage solution for editorial reasons so we came up with this plan for the kids bathroom. I figured of all bathrooms, the kids could use somewhere to put their disgusting toothbrushes that they chew on like Jolly Ranchers daily.
So during construction phase, our plan was to dig into the wall and build shallow shelves between the studs in the wall above the vanity and then place two pretty hinged mirrors overtop. YAY. A SOLUTION.
Now, our plan wasn’t communicated well enough to our contractor (we were moving fast and two hours away so not on site as often as we wanted) and then all of a sudden the whole wall was tiled with no shelves (isn’t it funny how some things take forever and you are like “what’s the holdup?” and other things happen faster than they were supposed to before you could give proper direction? so hilarious). Having them rip out the tile and find the space between the studs to build shallow shelves seemed totally unnecessary so we didn’t, but that was our plan.
I didn’t have any reference photos at the time, but I just found this and it’s PERFECT.
GENIUS. Dabito from Old Brand New took a pretty readymade mirror and dug out shelves behind it and put it on piano hinges.
DO THIS. IT’S THE PERFECT SOLUTION TO YOUR MEDICINE CABINET WOES.
While it does require some research and I’m sure there are some restrictions (frame size and width)—and yes, it also requires skills by you or your contractor—it is the best solution in my eyes if you need the storage space, want a pretty mirror AND don’t want to spend thousands on a custom-built solution.
HOW DO I FEEL ABOUT WALL MOUNTED MEDICINE CABINETS?
Well, they’re hit or miss. There are some pretty beautiful ones out there, for example…
My medicine cabinet fantasy (which is also shared by Nate Berkus and is a million-dollar idea): We need to have a universal hinge system that works with most new or vintage mirrors. It could come in different sizes to ensure that it can be hidden, but then you or your contractor hook it up to a beautiful vintage mirror that you can yes, open and close where it previously didn’t. Kind of the idea of what Dabito did that I showed you above, but like…mass-produced for everyone.
Okay, but does that mean that there aren’t good ones on the market? Of course not. There are some and I want to stress this again: IF YOU LIVE IN A RENTAL OR HAVE A SMALL BATHROOM IN NEED OF STORAGE AND YOU DON’T WANT TO DO ANYTHING EXPENSIVE OR TOO CUSTOM, WALL MOUNTED MEDICINE CABINETS ARE GREAT, AND CAN BE ATTRACTIVE AND STYLISH.
To prove it, we rounded up some that we really like and many that I considered during the “medicine cabinet journey of 2018.”
1. Seamless Medicine Cabinet | 2. Elanora Mirror Cabinet | 3. Cubiko Storage Mirror | 4. Robern Single Door Medicine Cabinet with Rosemont Frame | 5. Benchwright Wall-mount Medicine Cabinet | 6. Jacuzzi Single Door Medicine Cabinet | 7. Infinity Brass Medicine Cabinet | 8. Nel Black Medicine Cabinet | 9. Godmorgon Mirror Cabinet with 2 Doors | 10. Vintage Medicine Cabinet Polished Nickel | 11. Bayview Mirror Cabinet | 12. Pharmacy Wall-Mount Medicine Cabinet | 13. Lillangen Mirror Cabinet | 14. Ketcham Cabinets Front Keyed Lock Surface Mount Medicine Cabinet | 15. Signature Hardware Bastian Teak Medicine Cabinet | 16. Signature Hardware Teak Framed Double Door Medicine Cabinet | 17. Vintage Recessed Medicine Cabinet | 18. Weathered Oak Inset Medicine Cabinet | 19. Medicine Cabinet | 20. Plymouth Sliding Storage Mirror | 21. 23.63″ Wooden Round Mirror Cabinet | 22. Arch Top Medicine Cabinet | 23. Grayson Wall Storage Mirror Cabinet | 24. 48″ Kyra Medicine Cabinet
#2, #16 and #24 were all top contenders for the master bathroom before I strayed, and #1, #15, #17 and #21 I don’t think we’re on the market when I was shopping but I think they are stylistically GREAT.
So there you go. It’s complicated. And I really need you all to be reasonable about this. If you need the storage badly, choose the function of the medicine cabinet. My journey was more about grappling with the convenience of one, while ultimately valuing style over storage. There I said it. Yes, sometimes I value style over storage and that’s okay. I’m a stylist, not a professional organizer.
WHAT SAY YOU???? Have you any medicine cabinet woes? Do you regret not putting one in or do you wish you had this custom hinged solution earlier like I do??