Furniture Focus

Today’s bathrooms are about more than just function – or fashion. Rather, these spaces can be a diversion from the everyday grind, a refuge of luxury for the hassled homeowner and an emotional haven where they can enjoy a peaceful, soothing environment while preparing for the rigors of the day.

And while today’s consumers continue to show a healthy respect for a still-troubled economy, the emotional connection to the bath still drives interest in products that help to beautify and organize the bath.

Baths tend to be trending larger in size, but even smaller bath spaces are being designed with greater care to detail and an eye toward personalized style – a trend in which the vanity plays a key role.

When it comes to vanities, transitional style with clean lines and easy-to-maintain tops are in high demand, while furniture styling is also a hot trend. The eco-friendly trend is having some impact, though cost-conscious consumers seem to be more concerned about value, according to many manufacturers.

Additionally, there remains a growing demand for bath vanities that make a personal statement while also providing flexible storage for a wide range of bath products.

“We believe that homeowners want to create unique bathrooms that are individualized to their tastes,” says Rod Brewer, v.p. of marketing and product development for Mid Continent Cabinetry in Eagan, MN. “They don’t want ‘off the shelf solutions’ that are ‘one style fits all.’ They want choice and flexibility.”

Ideally, bath vanities need to offer a blend of style, practicality and quality, regardless of the price point, according to top manufacturers recently surveyed by KBDN.

STYLE TRENDS

When it comes to style trends, the furniture look continues to make a strong statement in bathrooms across North America. Part of the look’s popularity, manufacturers agree, is that these pieces enhance the beauty of the bathroom without sacrificing functionality.

“We are seeing more people request stand-alone vanities that look more like furniture than the typical vanity cabinet,” says Jeff Ptacek, product manager for Fieldstone/StarMark Cabinetry in Sioux Falls, SD. Ptacek explains that today’s popular furniture-style vanities sport “various styled legs supporting the cabinetry portion,” and notes that this adds to the sense of elegance in the bath.

Angela O’Neill agrees that the trend toward furniture styling is huge. Director of marketing and advertising for Wellborn Cabinets, in Ashland, AL, O’Neill has also seen a shift in the placement of these vanities. “The furniture vanity was more commonly found in the guest or powder bath, but master baths featuring vanities have recently become more customary,” she explains.

In addition to furniture styling, other hot buzzwords for vanities include transitional, clean and casual. But clean and casual can come in a wide variety of incarnations, manufacturers agree.

According to Steve Wilcox, director of product development and marketing for Sunny Wood/Sagehill Designs in Cerritos, CA, “In general, we continue to see an overall casualness of consumer lifestyles and interior design trends. But this casualness can be interpreted in traditional, transitional and contemporary styles. The overall style trends present themselves as a mixture of pure styles, or updates in scale, proportion and finish that are both friendly and approachable by the consumer.”

Wilcox concurs that casual is a key trend, and adds that the focus is on “less ornate detailing” and “cleaner or a simpler design emphasis.” These styles, he says, “could be described as American Casual or Casual Contemporary.”

“The most desired vanity design is a clean, transitional, Shaker-style vanity with less detail, more defined lines and light colors to make a fresh, clean look,” asserts O’Neill.

“Unique veneers are also gaining popularity,” explains Ptacek, citing such exotic veneers such as “bamboo, rosewood or versions of other species like burled or birds eye maple.”

As far as color and finish trends, darker stains and painted finishes are gaining ground in the bathroom, according to Scott Korsten, marketing director for Showplace Wood Products in Harrisburg, SD. He adds, “A nice change is the increased use of furniture-quality, vintage-type finishes in the bath. Even though they carry a higher price tag, the increased cost is more palatable in a smaller-scale project. These finishes help homeowners personalize the space…”

O’Neill notes, “Colors from light to dark with a brown undertone have become increasingly popular, emerging from the previous trend of red undertones,” adding that there is also an increase in glazing.

Ptacek also cites “dark warm tones” as being hot right now, explaining that they create a tranquil environment.

James Lin, president, bath division for Fairmont Designs in Buena Park, CA also believes that dark finishes are the leaders right now, though he points out that medium natural tones are also in demand.

Although Wilcox finds there are exceptions to the latest trends, he maintains that when it comes to finishes, there is a clear path. “There seems to be a trending away from the extremes and more toward the middle. Practically, this means that there is less drama in finishing criteria such as less extremes in finish color, physical and finish distressing effects, grain, glazes and gloss effects. We are seeing success in medium brown stains, medium blond stain colors on the lighter end, and off-white painted finish colors. However, the finishes are still highlighted by subtle hand-detailing or glaze effects. But the effects are less dramatic than perhaps several years ago.”

Ptacek also cites an ongoing trend toward larger baths with his-and-hers vanities, as well as a greater demand for “clean, wide stile, flat-panel doors.”

Mei-Ling Wang, general manager of Ronbow Corp. in Newark, CA, has seen similar trends but adds some specifics with regard to geographic preferences. On the West Coast, explains Wang, transitional designs rule with an increase in demand for bath furniture and a decline in demand for vitreous pedestals. On the East Coast, however, Wang says compact vanities with maximum storage space are in high demand.

Wang adds that contemporary design is “coming on strong with the Gen X” market and predicts that “we’ll see an increase in demand for this styling during the next decade.

ON TOP OF THINGS

While the look of the vanity box can have a dramatic impact on the aesthetics of the bath space, the design of the top is equally important. Fortunately, a slew of material and design options are available to help consumers make a personal statement in that very personal space.

To that end, flexibility is key. Wilcox explains that flexible vanity top heights, unique design choices, and quality are important concepts to every consumer.

“The emphasis here is again meeting the needs of the consumer lifestyle and the cabinet design,” he explains. Many unique top materials are available to the consumer at great values.”

As far as what’s trending right now for vanity tops, Lin notes that quartz is very popular.

Wang concurs: “Quartz is gaining appeal in the market because of the durability.”

But while many manufacturers agree that quartz is on the rise, some point out that granite is still in demand. Ptacek notes, “Quartz and granite are still by far the most asked for [choices].”

And O’Neill states, “Solid surfaces are still in high demand, although there is a slight transition moving from granite materials to engineered solid surfaces.”

WORKING THE SPACE

Of course it’s not just about the look of the vanity: Easily accessible storage is also important. Consumers seeking storage solutions in the bathroom want flexibility, as well as lots of options and contemporary features such as soft-close mechanisms, according to manufacturers.

“Flexibility seems to be the best description of an effective storage solution in the bath environment,” says Wilcox. “This storage can be open storage, such as an exposed display shelf or glass-enclosed linen cabinet. This open storage space is meant to store bath items, but also to pleasingly display personal items. The other [option is] closed storage, which is meant to conceal most items and becomes a more functional aspect of the design.” Wilcox also points to the need for modularity that allows for “maximum design and storage flexibility.”

Korsten explains that “consumers are opting for vanities with more drawers” that are deeper and provide more storage capacity. He adds that “vanities with internal hampers are gaining ground” slowly but steadily.

Wang adds that vanities that offer “large amounts of storage spaces” are popular, along with “well-designed drawers and shelves for decorative and hidden items.”

While baths are getting larger in many cases, there are still a number of homes where space is limited. In these baths, doing more with less can be a challenge. However, manufacturers are addressing these smaller spaces with vanities that maximize storage space.

O’Neill says, “A common trend is emerging of more storage in less space.” To do this, vanities are showing up in a wider variety of sizes and shapes, and in some cases, a mix-and-match approach offers the consumer the best opportunity to meet individual tastes and storage needs. Ptacek adds that “vanities will be built so that there will be multiple ways” of using open storage, such as “large X-storage for rolled up towels and wash cloths, wicker baskets with liners and open shelves below the cabinet portion.”

Brewer also mentions a trend away from tri-view and large plate glass mirrors in the bath. He explains that consumers are now starting to choose smaller-framed mirrors and smaller wall cabinets with mirrors in the doors.

EARTH-FRIENDLY TRENDS

Recent years have seen an uptick in demand for ecologically friendly products. The kitchen and bath industry has responded with numerous products to satisfy consumer demand in this area, and O’Neill says, “Consumers are calling for more green building and responsible procurement [of products].”

But while Lin expects to see demand grow for low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) emission water-based finishes, and Korsten reports that Lyptus (an exotic and sustainable hardwood) “continues to do well,” others say they’ve seen a drop in interest with regard to the green scene. “This trend seems to be declining due to the downturn in the economy and the cost of being green,” explains Wang.

Korsten adds, “We are really not seeing any traction with requests for additional eco-friendly directed products.”

Other manufacturers, however, are still seeing consumer commitment to the environment. “Consumers…want to make sure companies they purchase from are environmentally conscious,” says Ptacek. “If you can prove to them that you are using the proper material, recycling and [doing other things] to help the environment, they will lean more towards purchasing from [your] company.” Ptacek notes, however, that consumers are “not willing to increase their budgets” in order to buy green.

Wilcox reiterates the need for companies to make a sound commitment to maintaining and improving the earth. “The green economy is certainly a trend on the rise,” he explains. “While I am not sure that the strong marketing emphasis used in other industries is really effective, it is clear that each company should have a commitment to being a responsible global neighbor when it comes to the environment.”

THE ECONOMIC IMPACT

While vanity trends are ever changing, the economy continues to have a strong impact on bath remodeling as a whole, with mixed signals about the future and the ongoing effects of the economic downturn continuing to drive a more cost-conscious approach to bath product purchases.

Ptacek says, “The economy has made consumers aware of price much more than in the past. They are looking for ways to create the [luxury] feel without having to spend top dollar. If they can save money in a certain area they will try to do that.”

“Consumers and dealers are generally more motivated by finding a good deal [today],” agrees Korsten. “When they find a product that gives them the quality that fits their expectation and they can realize savings in a way that tells them they are getting the best available value, they are willing to buy.”

However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t spending money.

According to Korsten, “[Consumers] are becoming increasingly likely to take on smaller remodeling projects that fits right in with bathroom [remodeling]…there seems to be a pent-up demand to increase the livability and value of their homes.”

Wilcox agrees that the economy is driving one of the biggest trends in the bath industry now. He explains, “The macro trends we see are the desire for a perceived value at any price point, an expectation of quality, thoughtful styling and practical functions. It goes without saying that the current economy and retail environment are very competitive. We believe that it is crucial for any new product introduction to be very strong in its design, construction finish and value.”

Wilcox sums it up succinctly: “Consumers want more for less…and value, value, value!” KBDN

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