Hot & Steamy

The summer of 2006 may have been one of the hottest on record, but even as September cools things down, manufacturers of shower systems,
tub enclosures and surrounds continue to feel the heat. In fact, hot and steamy are two huge buzz words in the bath right now, as manufacturers offer up a vast array of new technologies and natural design styles to help provide designers with myriad possibilities for creating personalized shower experiences.

It’s always been something of a challenge to get a consensus on what consumers want out of their bathing experience because, for most consumers, their bathing experience is unique to them. However, with the growing options in shower systems, designers are able to truly customize the shower experience to enhance the spa-like feeling consumers so desire.

Paul Patton, senior product development manager, Delta Faucet, Co., in Indianapolis, IN, explains that this was one of the key realizations that drove his company to start looking at emerging technologies as a way to take personalization to
the next step.

However, in addition to personalization, he also sees the growing water conservation movement as key to the next generation of shower products. To that end, Delta has introduced a technology into its shower systems that, among other innovations, can regulate droplet size and water pressure. “We wanted to really enhance the experience that consumers got within the shower,” he says. “But the key to it all was it allowed us to deliver that experience at less gallons per minute.”

Always enthusiastic to provide more personalization options in the shower, other manufacturers are also taking note of how new technologies can be put to clever uses. For instance, Joan Bostic, president of KWC America, Inc., in Norcross, GA, says, “We’re seeing things that are convertible, where a shower head can be a rain shower and then you flip it up and it turns into a stream.”

Jaclo Industries in Cranford, NJ, has recently developed a new line with its partners in Italy, expanding into the decorative specialties market and introducing a thermostatic valve program. Says Larry Brodey, president, CEO and co-owner, “With the [European] engineering that these shower heads have, we’re able to offer the ‘wow’ factor not only in design, but in function.”

But it’s not just about high style or function – health and well being is also a hot topic. To that end, Jaclo’s patented nebulizing mist, which is one of five functions available on the company’s hand-helds, shower heads and new body-sprays, is “not only great for kids, but also for those with thin or sensitive skin,” according to Brodey.


With some shower manufacturers partnering up to create new lines and others expanding their pre-existing programs to include such luxurious and technologically innovative amenities as pressure-consistent shower heads, vertical rain bars and toe-testers, it’s a safe bet to assume that the vertical spa trend is rising to new heights.

KWC America, Inc. offers a toe-tester that allows the consumer to test out the water without having to get under the shower until the temperature is just right. It also has an added bonus of de-humidifying the bath after a steam shower. As Bostic explains, “Because of the health benefits, so many people are putting in steam showers these days and [the toe-tester] can be used to take the humidity out of the air very conveniently.”

Jaclo’s adjustable shower head rail is another example of an innovative design that answers the demand for a more personalized shower experience. “It has a two-foot range, which allows for both a tall and a short person to use the same shower [in a way that works with their height],” explains Brodey.

Ed Detgen, v.p./marketing for Danze, Inc., in Woodridge, IL, agrees that coming up with new and innovative products is essential to serving the shower market and providing personalization options.

Joe Serina, v.p./Marketing for Luxury Bath Systems, Inc., in Glendale Heights, IL adds, “In the last year and a half, we’re seeing an upsurge in tub-to-shower conversions.”

Sign of the Crab, a luxury claw-foot tub and faucet manufacturer in Rancho Cordova, CA, is expanding its offerings to tap into the growing shower market, with a freestanding shower pan with claw-foot legs that’s designed to match the firm’s soaking tubs. According to manager Larry Jacobs, the freestanding pan has many advantages over a traditional tiled-in enclosure. “Because it’s all contained in the pan, you don’t have to go in and prepare the flooring or the sub-flooring, and you don’t have the added expense of tile.”

“We’re seeing a continuing gravitation toward technology [in the vertical spas] and a simplification of that technology,” adds Michael Wandschneider, senior product manager, performance showering, for Kohler Co., in Kohler, WI.


While last year’s warm and rich colors continue to spice things up in the bath in some markets, many manufacturers are seeing an interest in employing a more natural, watercolor palette in surrounds ­– all the better to bring Mother Nature in, and perhaps, some might argue, to soften some of the hard angles that are coasting into the bath on the waves of the new technology.

“We’re definitely bringing the outside in,” says Peter Warren, president of Swanstone, in St. Louis, MO. “We came out with our Prairie series [of panel surrounds] a few years ago, which incorporates natural colors and textures designed to simulate different plants.”

“I’m seeing more earth-tones,” agrees Serina. “Particularly when paired with granite, the earth-tones [are popular] to balance off the granite look.”

“We’re seeing our satin nickel, Tuscan brass and English bronzes become more and more popular,” says Lou Rohl, chief operating officer/managing partner, Rohl, LLC., Irvine, CA. “If consumers are doing a traditional English bath with the white subway tile, then they’ll soften it with the polished nickel, but if they want more of that country French or Italian look, that’s when they’ll go with the granites and you’ll see more of the earth-tones.”

“Chrome is still the anchor of the market [for bath fittings],” says Wandschneider, “But in the shower, people are recognizing the brushed finishes.”

Manufacturers surveyed by KBDN are seeing an interest in more subtle looks across the style palette, from bamboo-motif enclosures to distressed finishes to amber-hued glass accent tiles. Natural stone and solid surfaces designed to emulate it continue to bridge the ever increasing gap between contemporary and more traditional styles, carving out a transitional foothold in the high-end market.

“Always our most popular colors are in the neutral beiges, the naturals,” says Warren.

“Colored glass has an organic feel to it,” says Rohl. “In combination with ceramic tiles, it integrates well with the overall water theme of the bathroom and it doesn’t overwhelm.”

“It’s the back-to-nature approach,” explains Warren. “Obviously, with the popularity of natural stone in horizontal surfaces, it’s translating into vertical surfaces, as well.”

While the “green design” movement and all its off-shoots have likely trickled down through consumer consciousness and had some influence on style and color choices in the bath, manufacturers argue that it is the reaction to new technology that is driving the au naturel approach in surrounds, enclosures and finishes.

If part of the “spa as sanctuary” philosophy is moored around getting away from the shock of the new and into the sweet and cozy relief of the familiar, then shower system manufacturers are increasingly challenged to provide the high-end water technology consumers want ­– without bypassing their desire for less “technological-looking” technology.

“Consumers just want to have an authentic, sensual experience,” says Rohl. “They don’t want to have to think about what they have to do to get water to come out of the shower head or body spray.”

“American manufacturers are starting to develop better-looking body showers and trim systems,” echoes Detgen. “There’s all this creative stuff going on that really appeals to people.”


Manufacturers agree that there has been an increased interest in glass enclosures in the last year. They cite not only the plethora of choices now available in both framed and frameless enclosures, but also the growing emphasis on unique finishes in hardware and frames that play into the trend to beautify the shower.

“Heavy glass enclosures are becoming a larger segment of the market these days,” says Mark Rowlett, national sales manager for Coastal Industries, Inc., in Jacksonville, FL.

“Because of the high cost of aluminum now, a lot of people are going ahead with the frameless doors,” says Serina. “And with the frameless, because there are fewer places to clean, they can simply wipe it down and go.”

“Frameless clear glass is the most popular,” says Rowlett. “But the glass manufacturers are stepping up to the table now and the consumer is seeing a lot more choices.”

With the upswing in finish options for hardware and the wide variety of glass styles (Rowlett’s company offers 49 options), it’s easy to understand why designers and consumers are getting excited about enclosures all over again.

“It used to be that the enclosure was a solid piece of a glass with a door handle and some hinges, where the fixtures inside the shower were to be focused on,” says Rohl. “Now, I’m starting to see a little bit of architecture going into these enclosures, where there’s a little more framing.”

“You have so many different things you can do,” says Rowlett. “You can etch patterns in the glass, sand-blasting with gorgeous designs [to do] one of a kind type things.”

“Shower door and enclosure manufacturers are now coming out with matching finishes,” says Rohl. “This allows [designers] to make even more of a design statement.”


While the vertical spa trend charges full steam ahead in the master bath, tub manufacturers continue to offer up a sea of innovative designs.

Luxury Bath Systems has just released what the firm calls a “walk-in” bathtub, which is, oddly enough, exactly what it sounds like. It has a small door that opens inward, leaving only a 1" threshold over which almost any consumer can easily step. Other than that, it looks exactly like a conventional tub and can even be combined with a conventional shower. Says Serina, “It’s for older people who can’t step over a high threshold, or for those with knee injuries. It even has a seat in it. But even if you just want to shower, you don’t have to worry about stepping over a tub wall.”

Versatility in a niche market is what Jacobs sees as the key to his company’s continued success in the wake of the vertical trend. “Because we had always been a claw-foot faucet manufacturer, introducing the claw-foot tubs was a big growth area for us. Whereas some [manufacturers] were just selling tubs, customers were having to come to us for the faucets. Now they can get both from us.”

Having one of the smallest claw-foot tubs on the market has also been an advantage for Jacobs. “We’re going to do more along the leg-tub line next year,” he says. “Maybe some different sizes, both in the cast iron and the acrylic.”

At the high-end, and where the square footage and the floor can support it, Rohl is seeing a real interest in granite tubs. “The real adventure pick is this big carved granite tub, or maybe cast bronze,” he says.


So is the future of shower systems going the way of the high-tech, touch-controlled iPod? “There’s always a segment of our society that feels comfortable with that, but I don’t see it with our customer,” says Rohl. “The high-end consumer likes the idea of having a knob they can turn.”

“From the tech side, we’ve been working very hard at engineering [our products] so that they really work and [the consumer] doesn’t have to mess around with them continually, but also so that they have an emotional impact.”

“We’re going to see all kinds of new material systems that marry natural products with the benefits of man-made technology,” says Warren. “Engineered stone is an early iteration of this.”

Detgen sees a continuing surge of product options in the bath, citing chromatherapy as a frontrunner for the high-end segment. “It’s not just lights coming out of the ceiling anymore. People are really pushing the idea of chromatherapy and whole new ways to handle lighting in the bath, including leaded-glass chandeliers.”

“These [shower systems] are very functional, but can sometimes skew clinical,” says Warren. “What really moves people is design. {with good design], your emotions become engaged. Your mood is affected by design, texture, color.”

Rohl echoes those sentiments, explaining that his customers, “…want to have a shower head or a hand spray that first of all is [well] designed, that matches the overall design of the shower system. Second to that is the function.”

For the future, Wandschneider predicts: “A streamlining of the technology while elevating the experience is the trend that’s going to be most the prevalent over the next two to five years.” KBDN