The Simple Life

It’s no secret that kitchen and bath designers need to create “the good life” for their clients. But as the world grows more complex, they are now being asked to incorporate “the simple life” as well.

These are the thoughts of leading design experts interviewed by KBDN who report that master bath projects are increasingly featuring cleaner lines, user-friendly products and technology for one objective: convenience.

Sally Ann Sullivan, CKD, of Showcase Kitchens and Baths, Inc. in Tulsa, OK, offers: “I think consumers are opting for convenience over style. They are making a statement that they want their bath spaces to be clean and uncluttered, and personalized with colors and shapes. You can really express what the client wants in a master bath because it is a personal space and retreat.”

Carlene Anderson, CKD, and owner of Carlene Anderson Kitchen Design, Inc. in Oakland, CA, offers: “What’s important to people is how convenient and ergonomic things are in their house.”

Specifically, she sees a growth in temperature pre-sets, “so every time you turn the water on in the shower, it is set at the same temperature. There is a predictability there [that clients want].”

Michael McCloskey, president of McCloskey Design Group in Marblehead, MA, agrees: “People want things they understand, they don’t want to fuss around with light switches [that have] little beaming lights and be left wondering [what each light means].”

It is also critical that the master bath retain spa-like qualities, creating a personalized retreat that helps the homeowner to disconnect from the outside world and truly relax and let his or her hair down.

“Often, people come in asking for a spa-like bath, and that is usually coming off an experience at a resort or hotel,” Sullivan describes.

She continues: “I am seeing a real shift from the Old World to the New World, and it is a much cleaner, richer look. It is a contemporary look, but also more transitional.”

James R. Dase, CMKBD, senior designer of Schaumburg, IL-based Abruzzo Kitchens, offers: “The retreat they want should be simple. They have so much going on in their lives that they want to feel like they are in one of these resorts or spas.”

McCloskey agrees: “If it is a bathtub, it might be enclosed in a wood surface or finish or wenge wood [as opposed to] antiseptic tile where everything is hard.”

With this in mind, many designers are seeing a variety of personalized items incorporated into the master suite, such as unique lighting applications, showerhead choices and furniture-style vanities that are less about the ‘wow’ factor than about resonating with the client on a personal level.

“There are many people who want us to build a small, personal home that fits them, their life and their culture,” says McCloskey.

Indeed, adds Dase, this is causing a marked difference in the size and treatment of master baths.

“The master baths are growing, but they are becoming more compartmentalized, with [the soaking tub and water closet] in separate areas. They don’t look like one big room,” he says.

He adds: “The main thing is that we, as designers, determine the client’s real use of the space. I see a lot of spaces designed for photography that look great, but as you look more closely, you wonder how comfortable they are for the client.”

Head of the Class

One of the more prominent product trends in the master bathroom today is the popularity of shower systems, says Anderson.
“Including the introduction of body sprays, our clients are very interested in what those showerheads are going to be like. In fact, we have a showroom here where you can turn on several showerheads and see how they rain on you,” she says.

Khoi Pham, director and founder of Montreal, Canada-based PK Designs, adds: “The shower definitely is its own entity, totally separated from the actual bathtub. With great attention to detail, the shower [has become known] not only for its practicality, but for creating an ‘experience’ for the user.”

Additionally, he cites wall-mount faucets as also being popular as they save space and create a cleaner ‘hole-free’ countertop.

He concludes: “Time spent in master baths is becoming more and more precious, combining practicality and indulgence. The ‘spa at home’ feel and the efficiency needs required when in master baths are often gathered under the same roof.”

Curbless Enthusiasm

Anderson sees curbless showers as another growing factor in the bath.

“We’re eliminating the threshold at the shower, so the bathroom floor slopes right into the shower drain. So, if anyone is in a wheelchair, they can get in and out quickly,” she says.

Dase agrees: “Curbless showers are very popular right now. I am even doing one in my home. While it does take up more space, people love them because you don’t have glass to clean.”

He continues: “If they are not doing a steam shower, it is a much cleaner and sanitary way to do a shower because it also dries out faster, especially when natural materials are used.”

And, this ties into the growing impact of Universal Design, the designers point out.

Anderson offers: “By doing Universal Design, we are trying to make people want to stay in their homes.”

Most bath designers agree that accessible design elements, such as grab bars, are beginning to be accepted universally by clients of all ages for the tub and shower.

Sullivan concludes: “Grab bars are now quite attractive to people and they can be done in a very sophisticated way, [especially] since the showers are so huge.”

Rub a Dub Dub

The tub – whether it’s a whirlpool, air jet or soaking tub – is also making waves in the master bath, designers agree.

Anderson offers: “One thing we are doing is a tub that adjoins a shower and a tub undermounted under a stone deck. We will continue that deck into the shower to create a shower seat.”

“People are doing [a lot of] soaking tubs right now,” adds Sullivan.

To that end, she says that her preference is to set the tub underneath the deck.

“[With a drop-in], if you try to sit on that deck or turn your legs over and climb in, it is exceedingly hard on your behind. Therefore, we undermount the tub most of the time and that creates the same thing as if you have an undermounted sink in a kitchen. You can just wipe the counter off. If you have a lip over the edge of the tub, it requires more cleaning.”

“The air jet is something that people seem to like in the whirlpool system, as well,” adds Anderson.

To reinforce these trends, Pham shares a recent customized project that his firm completed.

“It featured a Zen-like and clean look, with a waterfall effect in the custom shower, which was surrounded by porcelain with a semi-matte finish. The shower had a 3/4" thermostatic valve from Aquabrass with a 10" rainhead, shower rail and tester spout,” he concludes.

Vanity Flair

Perhaps nowhere does the importance of convenience play a bigger role than with the vanity area, says Anderson.

“What I recommend for vanities is that everything below waist height be a drawer, not a door. This includes pull-out drawers below the sink for a hamper or even for trash. Accessibility is a very important issue [for most people], and, notably, this is a universal request among men and women,” she says.

She continues: “We are acknowledging that most of us enjoy a higher counter height for vanities as well. For instance, we are doing most of them at 34" or 36" high rather than at 32". It is just easier on your back and it makes the space overall more ergonomic for the homeowner.”

“There is more open space as well as richer and darker woods being used,” says Sullivan. “It used to be crackled and washed and rubbed through and beaten up, but we’re not doing a whole lot of that anymore. In fact, the pieces are now a little cleaner.”

Storage is another key issue, Anderson points out.

“When you have a couple, both people like to have their own storage space, so we will develop storage that adjoins each sink, making sure that it is eye level. Specifically, I am talking about where you can have a lot of your cosmetics and potions and travel kits easily accessible.”

However, it is vitally important that designers are judicious in their usage of storage implementation, says Pham.

“Minimum storage equals maximum impact. There no more big and closed cabinets anymore as these take up too much space,” he points out.

He continues: “In fact, the style of the furniture is more compact, with a strong European style. For example, the concept of open cabinets is the trend today. To see the pile of towels on the top shelf creates the desired look [of a spa]. In that sense, the bathroom becomes a showroom as all products used within the space are displayed for all to see.” Meanwhile, Sullivan says

that overall spatial arrangements can make a significant difference as well.

“We are doing mirrored walls [a lot right now] and the mirrors will open so that you can see your back and your side. You add a touch latch to a mirror and you can easily pop it open.”

To that end, she also points out that pocket doors make a big difference in a master bath because the door doesn’t get in the way of the user when being opened. As an added bonus, pocket doors can create the illusion of more space, and provide more usable floor space.

Natural Habitat

The correct material selection can make or break a design, especially when creating a spa-like master bath, designers agree.
Anderson offers her insights: “I keep saying that no one does it better than Mother Nature and most of our clients are finding granite and marble very inviting these days. To that end, we often can find slabs for countertops and maybe a tumbled version of the same stone for the floor.”

However, she quickly adds that to avoid slipping on natural flooring, she will insist on the stone being honed or perhaps smaller versions of the stone created to establish some toe grab grout, especially in the shower pan proper.

“It is usually granite or marble and some kind of a stone or solid surface that goes to the ceiling,” adds Sullivan.

Pham adds: “Ceramic and porcelain – in both semi and matte finishes – are used as much for the walls as for the floors. They come in diverse designs, shapes and colors, go on the entire bathroom wall, from top to bottom, and are more resistant to humidity [than many other material choices].”

McCloskey agrees: “People are looking at things that are maybe more man-made and less invasive to the environment and the ecosystem.”

“We are doing a lot of Riverstone on floors,” adds Dase. “This creates a little more texture. People want the natural earthy feel, but they don’t want anything clad in stone so that it looks like a mausoleum.”

He continues: “In a bath, it is a much more sensual visual for people to have, for instance, to use a rough rock wall with light highlighting that has texture in it.”

To that end, McCloskey cites gains made with natural components used in master bath settings, such as strands of bamboo, grass or seaweed, as well as seashells and ground stones, as evidence of this trend.

“When you laminate these things you put them in panels and use them as countertops or as walls or backlighting and it is cool and earthy,” he says.

He concludes: “It is man’s use of a natural product, so it has this high-tech element, but it is used in a low-tech way.”

Hidden in Plain Light

According to Sullivan, one of the most critical aspects of master bath design is the proper use of lighting.

She explains: “We are trying to do lighting so that it really isn’t off of a fixture, but rather hidden. It is there, but not in your face. It is important for ambience so that you have really good bright lighting or soft mood lighting.”

She continues: “Lighting is so sophisticated right now that I would consider it [another form of] bells and whistles for our clientele.”

Sullivan adds that this also ties into the technology realm as “there is a control now where you can put all the switching that you need into a duplex plate that will have [multiple] functions on it.”

She continues: “So, I’m currently putting more covered lights in. I really want good light in the shower – especially if we are using more dark stone. Another way to let some light in – but still have privacy – is to use a transom above the commode room.”

Pham also cites LED lighting (a semi-conductor diode) as being used more frequently, particularly in the shower, as does Dase, who cites LED lighting as popular primarily due to the lack of heat that it gives off.

Staying Neutral

Some designers may be surprised to find out that the most popular current color choice is, well…no color at all.
Anderson offers: “We’re finding that people really want to stay neutral in colors. Either it is all white or very neutral earth colors, typically, because they are afraid of trends. People want to bring in splashes of color with wall paint or towels, for instance.”

She adds that issues such as resale are not as much of a consideration as is the simple thought process that “they are going to get tired of it.”

McCloskey agrees: “Master baths have no colors [right now] or sounds – things that bring the outside world inside your house. Therefore, I don’t put a lot of color in my master baths because it’s always there and the client could say ‘I am not feeling red today’.

Pham concludes: “We are seeing earthy colors, such as stone and whites, dark browns and black. These color palettes give an impression of relaxation and purity.”

Smooth Finish

For many designers, creating a sense that hardware is the ‘jewelry of the master bath’ means selecting the proper finish.
“People are still going with the satin nickel because it is a warm tone, as opposed to chrome,” says Anderson. “It can either go formal or informal and they are more like a stand-alone feature.”

Sullivan interjects: “We are doing brushed stainless and I am seeing a little bit of the polished chrome coming in. It creates a cleaner look.”

She continues: “This is an evolution. I am also seeing polished chrome but more brushed stainless or nickel as well. This is especially true for towel bars or the handles on glass shower doors. I think the stainless, the nickel and the chrome are easier to care for, and that very well may be part of [the client’s thought process].”

“We are definitely seeing brushed nickel and stainless steel,” says Pham. “They both go well with the earth stone palette of colors that is so frequently being selected these days.”

He continues: “Stainless steel, originally used in the kitchen, has appeared in the master bath to become one of the most popular selections. These finishes pair well with granite and marble countertops as well.”

Sullivan notes that she is seeing cabinetry treatments being affected as well.

“We are also seeing a lot of glazes in the cabinet finishes. Whether it is a painted cabinet or a stain, it is getting glazed,” she adds.

Dase concludes: “Some of the bathrooms are very deep-toned, jewel-toned and dramatic, and others are very light and sensual and airy. This covers both hardware and cabinetry finishes.”

He also notes that he is seeing dark wall coverings and finishes that create a dramatic feel.

Green with Delight

Of course, it wouldn’t be prudent to talk about colors and finishes without discussing “green” design opportunities, says Anderson.

“In this area of California, which is near Berkeley, people will constantly tell us that they are building green,” she explains.

She continues: “For instance, quite often people feel like they have to run gallons of water before they get the right temperature. Therefore, we are doing a fair number of the instantaneous water heaters as a supplement to the house heater.”
Dase agrees, referring back to the popularity of shower systems.

“[Showers are popular] because they use up less water than a whirlpool, for instance, and are taking less time as well,” he suggests.

He continues: “It is also a matter of finding out about not only the products themselves, but how they are made and where they are made. These issues are becoming increasingly more important to people [each day].”

The same ideals are taken into consideration with cabinetry as well, he adds (see Healthy Kitchens).

“[People want to know] how it is made, what it is made out of and whether it is a renewable resource. Or they want to know whether the manufacturer is a green manufacturer, or are they

wasting energy making that product? Even whether a company is trying to make itself more efficient is an important
issue for consumers! It is all about how we are trying to be responsible and looking for other ways to do it.”

He also cites bamboo as an alternative flooring option that is not only eco-friendly, but which also promotes the spa-like feel today’s clients desire.

The Tech Files

On the other side of the spectrum, many clients consider technology and convenience as synonymous, Dase points out.

“Things are definitely becoming more electronically based [in the master bath]. Basically, our challenge these days is how [many ways can we] trick out a shower,” he notes.

Sullivan adds: “I have rarely run into anyone who did not want a television in the master bathroom. The flat-screen TVs are wonderful and have often solved a lot of [potential] problems with the size of the TV. That is generally mixed with music in the bathroom for mood music and news. I also like the remote controls that can close some type of privacy curtain.”

McCloskey agrees: “There are people who want televisions in their master bath. I have a stockbroker who has 11 TVs in his house, for instance, and I think it is sort of a business thing.”

“For many younger people, it is simply second nature to them to utilize technology that is available, so we will put the no-fog mirror in for men who enjoy shaving in the bathroom mirror, for instance. I had one client who even wanted a refrigerator to keep her nail polish in!” Anderson adds.

McCloskey adds: “You want things that are simple, spacious, easy on the eye and very easy to understand. If it’s complicated to figure out how to set the water temperature, for instance, that won’t work for consumers.”

Dase offers: “I think televisions are still big items for master baths, but people want to reduce the visual of it. They want to put it behind pocket doors or the mirror [so that it is more concealed].”

He concludes: “People like the technology, but they don’t want to complicate things. They want to simplify their lives and they want technology to either make the product, or the activity they are doing with that particular product, more efficient.”
Another notable technological development seems to be the growing popularity of radiant floor heating – and some inventive uses for it in the master bath – the designers agree.

“This is one thing that people are almost universally enjoying,” adds Anderson.

Sullivan concludes: “People are even running that radiant floor heating into the walls so that the entire wall is nice and cozy and [which establishes a relaxing and rejuvenating retreat].”