The Bathroom Reconsidered

The home's most private room is getting a thorough makeover

August 07, 2005|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,Special to the Sun

SERLOHN, Germany -- While sex, politics and religion are famously risky subjects for dinner conversation, another topic -- namely, the bathroom -- is considered so outre, it's scarcely ever mentioned. No one's bothered to tell this, however, to Andreas Dornbracht. The president of Dornbracht, the German kitchen and bathroom fittings company, expounded on things lavatorial a few weeks ago as he tucked into his meal of mustard soup and Wiener schnitzel at a restaurant in Iserlohn, where his corporation has its headquarters. "Today, the bathroom is a place where you can spend time with your body and soul. You take a bath not just to be clean, but to relax, think, and ask yourself, 'what is the future of me?'" he said. "When we look at kulchur im bad [bathroom culture], we must consider the daily rituals that occur there."

In Dornbracht's vision of the future, we'll soon abandon any notion of the bathroom as a "wet cell," and embrace spa-like designs that make it more of a refuge, or what he calls an "intimate zone." As bath and bedroom merge, the toilet itself will spin off into a separate orbit.

He's hardly alone in such theorizing. Vogue's July issue, for instance, had a story about a beach house in Nantucket, where a sleek, white bathtub dominates one end of the master bedroom. And, trend forecasters and design gurus at many U.S. companies such as American Standard, Moen, Kohler and Waterworks agree that whether or not bathroom walls are a-tumblin' down, the bath's functionality is, of late, being thoroughly reconsidered and redesigned.

"Andreas Dornbracht and I are definitely on the same page," said Diana Schrage, an interior decorator at the Kohler Design showroom. "Over the last 10 years in America, we have seen both a great increase in the number of bathrooms per bedrooms, and the amount of square footage devoted to bathrooms. Stylistically, though, one of the biggest trends we are seeing is the bathroom as retreat within the master suite."

"It is becoming more of a shared room -- private only on a need-to-use basis," agreed Judy Riley, vice president of design for Moen. "For the kid's baths, parents only want to make sure they are not wasting water. But for the master, people want luxury."

A shower of money

According to the National Kitchen and Bath Association, based in Hackettstown, N.J., in 2004, American spent $23.7 billion on renovating bathrooms or building new ones. While this figure is dwarfed by what was spent on kitchens ($47.3 billion), it's worth noting that kitchen expenditures rose only 1.3 percent from 2003, whereas bathroom spending was up over 7 percent.

Where's all this money going?

Into products like the Alpha from Jacuzzi, an aeronautically designed swirl of a bathtub created by Pininfarina, the automotive team behind Ferrari and Maserati. Or, the Rain Sky from Dornbracht, a shower system that's flush-mounted into the ceiling and has several types of spray -- from a fine mist, to raging thunderstorm -- as well as aromatherapy and chromatherapy features. Coordinated "suites" of accessories are all the rage, so Waterworks offers towel bars, towel rings, shelves, toilet-paper holders, robe hooks, sconces, and mirrors that all match like tableware.

A further cornucopia of design possibilities were unveiled at the annual Kitchen / Bath Industry Show, held in Las Vegas last May. A "Best Bath Product of Show" Award was given to Engineered Glass Products for its new high-tech towel warmer. For the environmentally minded, toilets using fewer gallons per flush are available from Duravit, Toto and Villeroy & Boch.

Consumers also are trading up in the materials they select, with satin nickel being a top choice for faucets and accessories. Polished concrete, metal, exotic woods, even bamboo, are all exploding in popularity, as are glass tile and molded glass for sinks, counters, tub surrounds and flooring. As this might suggest, the overall movement is toward a "dematerialization" of fixtures, so the decor looks less like a lavatory and more like a lounge.

"We are seeing greatly enlarged bathrooms, too. It might happen that the kids go to college and their bedroom now becomes part of the master bath," said Bob Gibbs, president of Cox Kitchen and Baths Inc. in Baltimore. Gibbs estimated that the bathroom-remodeling end of his business is up 25 percent over just a couple years ago. "Shower spaces are becoming especially huge. A typical shower of the past might be 2 1/2 feet by three feet. We are now seeing showers three times this size, with multiple heads, so two people can shower at the same time."

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