Heaven at Home

Just as the once-lowly kitchen has become the province of status seekers and those on the hunt for the next hot thing, the master bath has evolved into a wonderland of expensive and luxurious materials and products designed for people who want to play “trophy bath.” 

Not necessarily so, insists Diana Schrage, interior designer, Kohler Design Center, Kohler Wis., who believes status-seeking conspicuous consumption is on the way out. “We’re seeing an honesty where people have realized that some of the things they have purchased are running them,” and precious time is spent on maintenance. “We still want to purchase wonderful things, but we also want them to be things we’re going to be using.” Schrage thinks that, even in a luxury situation, “less is more. And when there is less, clearly it has to be specifically functional and give the homeowner what they are expecting it to.” 

This means top-quality products that are customizable to a consumer’s individual desires, which have become more sophisticated and elaborate in recent years. 

The complete home spa 
Consumers get their concepts of the perfect bathroom space from two primary sources: hotel facilities and health clubs. “As the baby boomer generation moves toward retirement, they have the bucks to spend on staying healthy and living active lives,” notes Mitch Altman, president, Thermasol, Simi Valley, Calif. 

A bathroom space to rejuvenate and relax is on top of their wish list. For any age, “there’s an increasing concern with wellness,” adds Michael Kornowa, director of marketing, MTI Whirlpools, Sugar Hill, Ga. “People are looking to the bathroom as a sanctuary, a place for solitude, to foster wellness and a more holistic experience.”

The general, oft-reported trend toward cocooning also plays a part. But Gary White, CMKBD, president, Kitchen & Bath Design, Newport Beach, Calif., believes that it’s less family unity than a vacation from the rest of the family, especially returning “boomerang” kids, that motivates adults to create a serene mecca in their master bath. “It’s the bomb shelter concept,” he quips. “Just about everything you’d need for existence has found a way in there. Separate refrigerator, media, laundry system, exercise equipment — everything you’d need to survive for an extended period of time.” 

Whatever the motivation, the first step in creating a sumptuous custom environment is to help the client specifically define their needs and style preferences. 

The aforementioned trend toward less is more also manifests itself in design trends overall. “I see contemporary making a big-time comeback. The contest on how many Enkeboll parts I can glue on one project is going to fade,” White jokes. “We’re still going to see historically inspired designs — but much cleaner.” 

Even with traditional style, “there’s not as much ‘bling,’” Schrage agrees. Instead, there’s more of a sense of breathing room, with less clutter. For a vintage style, the current bets seem to be on Art Deco, which radiates glamour and elegance, but has a sleek look. 

In soft contemporary, “we’re seeing more of a Zen feel,” says Russell Adams, vice president, business development, MTI Whirlpools, Sugar Hill, Ga. “We’ve come out with a couple of Japanese soaking tubs to meet that trend,” which feature serene natural materials and minimalist, precise space planning. 

For cutting-edge contemporary clients, industrial loft looks are the current favorite, and polished concrete is a striking adventure pick for both floors and horizontal surfaces such as Roman tub surrounds. 

Natural stone, particularly marble, or engineered stone remain the most popular picks for horizontal surfaces. For verticals, classic ceramic tile is increasingly supplanted by inventive tiles made of glass, metal, natural stone and, for a true adventure pick, beach stones embedded in acrylic tile. 

To bathe or not? 
Opinions about the efficiency of a bathtub vs. a shower vary greatly. For clients with space constraints in their master bath, White recommends eliminating the bathtub altogether in favor of a larger shower. 

Schrage, however, believes that the tub is an essential component of the spa experience, especially for women. She notes that just as his and hers closets are a long-standing tradition, his and hers facilities in the bathroom are a growing trend, too. “For men, it might be a shower with blasting shower heads; for a woman, a serene tub with air jets and chromatherapy,” she elaborates. 

For the upscale market, the question becomes how to customize each client’s experience and differentiate it from what’s available on the mass market. After all, basic whirlpools can be purchased at Home Depot for under $500. Options include shiatsu massage or otherwise customized jets, Kornowa notes. A high-end company can provide “the complete ability to personalize the bathing experience. If you happen to have a few bad vertebrae in your spine and would like to add a jet, or move a jet, we can do that.” 

A “combo” tub that provides both jets and air is also available. De-stressing “air bubbles glance off the skin and open capillaries and increase blood circulation,” Kornowa notes, whereas jets provide deep-tissue massage to relax the muscles. 

An upscale company also makes life easier for the designer/builder, Kornowa adds. For instance, MTI tubs come pre-leveled and framed, making installation much easier. An integral tile flange enables quicker finishing work. 

For a high-end adventure pick, there’s the Kohler Sok Tub, an extra-deep tub with an innovative, constantly overflowing water pattern that also provides the additional sensory dimension of the sound of cascading water. 

Deeper, longer soaking tubs are a popular choice for those who want to make a major design statement such as a historically correct clawfoot tub in a vintage room. A plain soaking tub also accommodates consumers who favor oils, foaming baths and other products that can clog a whirlpool’s jets. 

Jetted and/or air tubs have become more design focused as well. Kornowa notes his company’s undermount tubs, which provide a clean, minimalist look, as well as sleek free-standing air-bubble tubs. 

Whirlpools also are available in many colors, though white and neutral off-white shades comprise the bulk of the market. 

Steam, sauna, both? 
Just a few years ago, the sauna was the province of the upscale because it required a separate space, unlike the steam generator, which could be retrofitted into an existing shower. But with the advent of larger bathrooms, sauna popularity is on the upswing, notes Martha Orellana, vice president, Mr. Steam, Sussman Lifestyle Products, Inglewood, Calif. 

Master bath saunas usually are installed in new construction, though one can always find some space if a sauna truly is desired, insists Marilyn Tarkianen, vice president, Finlandia Sauna, Portland, Ore. Tarkianen notes that people sometimes use a walk-in closet for a retrofit sauna. The trend toward tempered, insulated glass fronts prevents a small sauna from having a claustrophobic feel. Tarkianen cites Finlandia’s unique, scenic-etched glass doors as a new design element. 

Today’s saunas feature more stylish and custom-sized benches that are wider in size for lying down in comfort. Finlandia’s Ever Ready heater also allows for much quicker heating. “Once you heat up the stones, the heater stays on a low standby mode,” Tarkianen explains. “When you open the lid and turn on the vent, all that heat pours into the room and you have an instant sauna.” 

A similar system is now available for steam baths, Altman reports. Fast Start technology enables the consumer to get steam going within seconds rather than minutes. Thermasol’s Ambiance system provides a remote control for the steam, as well as a CD player, chromatherapy and mood lighting. Fog-free mirrors also are available for shaving. 

Steam systems are becoming more design-focused as well. Thermasol’s streamlined steam head lies flat when not in use, and includes a self-cleaning aromatherapy well for eucalyptus and other scents. Mr. Steam now has eight different finishes for its steam hardware, including oil-rubbed bronze, satin and brushed nickel. 

Steam also is increasingly easy to install in both remodels and new construction with Thermasol’s factory sizing, which simplifies determining what size generator a space requires. Manufacturers emphasize the material of the surround must be taken into consideration, because acrylics, concrete, stones and ceramics all have different heat retention and heat-loss factors. A floor-to-ceiling door also is a must for a steam retrofit. Additionally, the ceiling must be covered with a hard surface or other waterproof material. Ideally it should be sloped to discourage water dripping down on the bather. 

The generator itself is compact and can be located up to 50 feet away from the shower area. “Then it’s plumbed into the shower and controlled digitally for time and temperature,” Altman notes. At a price range of $2,000 to $8,000 depending on the features involved, steam increasingly is a must-have for a much larger segment of the population than just the upscale. 

“People realize they can have it at home,” Orelanna says. And with today’s consumers, once they realize that, they must have it.