How The Humble Bath Mat Became The Star Of The Bathroom

An expert sounds off on the unexpected product’s rise.

statement bath mat

There was a point in time where the bath mat was almost strictly utilitarian — an afterthought that usually involved a thin, white, towel-like piece with zero frills. In recent years, though, its place in the bathroom has taken new precedence. Chances are, you noticed this — likely because, at a certain point, every stylish influencer you follow suddenly has an artsy, abstract rug sitting in front of their shower. It’s a welcome change, to be sure: Playful, stylish bath mats add unexpected flair (especially with today’s funky styles) that’s hard to recreate with anything else. The question is, though, how did these statement bath mats start trending, and how did they end up as the star of the bathroom themselves?

There’s perhaps no better person to answer that question than Phoebe Sung, who co-founded the cult-favorite textile brand Cold Picnic with Peter Buer in 2010. The label is behind more than a few now-famous bath mat designs — you know, that boob bath mat that’s everywhere — and arguably kickstarted the statement trend itself. Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t a purposeful decision. In fact, the creatives stumbled into the bath mat category completely by accident.

“We used to make hand-knotted textile wall hangings, but they took ages,” Sung tells TZR in an email. “Eventually we thought, wouldn’t it be a dream if someone else could make these for us, big enough to be rugs?! Through trial and error and a lot of dead ends we found a factory.”

Then, fate intervened. “When we were releasing rugs for the first time, someone mistook the smallest size for a bath mat, and for a split second we were offended,” Sung continued. “Then we said, no, but bath mats are in the works, and scrambled to find a factory to produce them.”

Sung tells me that was seven years ago, and that while the reception for the bath mats did seem big to them at the time, their growth in popularity has definitely been a slow burn over that period.

At a certain point, though, it’s undeniable that statement bath mats — and Cold Picnic’s, in particular — became practically ubiquitous. As Sung recalls, that didn’t go unnoticed. “We see a lot of it on Instagram, and of course it’s so flattering. For a while we were the only ones I can think of making statement bathmats, so we definitely got a head start there. We just stumbled into this neglected little corner of people’s homes.”

That head start plays a part in explaining why stylish bath mats started to catch on when they did — Cold Picnic’s unique designs felt novel, especially since they were made for a spot so often overlooked. But Sung guesses it goes beyond that. “The bathroom can be the most difficult room in the house to make feel like home, but it’s also one of the most important rooms,” Sung continues. “And in many bathrooms you can’t paint the walls or move furniture around; you can’t fill it with neat furniture or artwork or plants. Bathroom accessories are mostly built in, so there are only a small handful of things in a small handful of spaces to work with.”

That was coupled with the fact that they came about just before the entire world started looking for a way to add comfort to their homes. “Even before the pandemic, people were getting more involved in decorating their homes; quarantine certainly made it into even more of a thing. And when you’re stuck in your home for a year, every inch of it becomes meaningful.”

Quite obviously, cool, stylish, and funky bath mats are here to stay. And while Cold Picnic’s cheeky and unusual designs are still at the forefront of the movement, the trend is rapidly evolving to include styles for every preference. Ahead, a few of TZR’s favorites.

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