Full Steam Ahead

If living large is the penultimate expression of luxury, then the master bath is measuring up to that sentiment in spades – and sprays. Indeed, these suites, and baths in general, are becoming larger and offering more opportunities to add bells and whistles in showers that fit consumers' personal style.

Manufacturers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News are also seeing a rise in enclosure materials that bring the outdoors in, providing the tranquility of nature.

As a result, today's consumers are enjoying a nearly endless array of choices for stylizing their baths, from the deluge of decorative finishes and dynamic choices in materials and shapes in tubs and showers to the multitude of add-ons available in shower systems. And personalization remains the order of the day – especially when it comes to shower systems, tubs, bath enclosures and surrounds that dominate these most personal of rooms.

SHOWER POWER

The shower is the belle of the bath these days, and most manufacturers would agree that consumers' hectic schedules are a driving force in this trend away from tub-soaking. "Years ago, everyone had to have a whirlpool bath," says Jeff Carney, v.p./sales and marketing for Grohe in Bloomingdale, IN. "Today, I think, the shower is a more important feature in a bath."

"[Indeed], people want a separate shower for a number of reasons. One of them is instant gratification. If you use a tub, you have to fill it up, [which] takes a little while. You must maintain the water temperature with a regulating pump and some sort of heating system. With a shower, you can hop in, get instant hot water and stay in it as long as you want," contends Paul G. Williams, v.p./sales and marketing for Basco Shower Enclosures in Mason, OH.

While most agree that with a shower one can accomplish a lot more in less time, many manufacturers see the trend toward stand-alone showers as a complex issue. "The bath is the last sanctuary where you can control your environment," comments Lou Rohl, COO for Rohl, LLC in Costa Mesa, CA. "And you have a lot more control with a shower system than you do with a tub. You can start with a steam, then cool off with your showerhead and, at the same time, [get clean], too."

If part of reducing stress is feeling in control of one's environment, then the personalized water controls available in today's shower systems are going a long way toward helping consumers achieve that stress-free sanctuary. As hand-held sprays, multi-function showerheads and thermostatic controls begin to sprinkle across the mid-level market, manufacturers are answering with a surge of even more unique options for the high-end bath. "We have a wide variety of shower products that allow the consumer the ability to personalize his or her shower experience," reports Rohl. "Obviously, thermostatic control is important, but what we're seeing now is multiple valves, rather than having just one valve. On one side, you have "Her" controls, with her shut-off valves and volume controls, and then, on the other side, you have "His" controls. In addition, you can actually shut off your body spray at the point, versus at a separate volume control."

All-in-one shower panels with up to four body sprays are a growing, mass-market trend, assert manufacturers surveyed, because they make for an easy retrofit into existing applications. "In the premium segment," says Carney, "we're offering an 'all-in-one' glass shower panel [in] either frosted or clear. It's a category that's growing, [and] very new."

In meaningful connection with the outdoor kitchen trend of years past, Rohl sees outdoor showering as something to watch for on the horizon. "If you think about it from a spa experience, one of the things people are drawn to in spas is that open and airy feeling, where you feel like you're outdoors. To be able to create that at home is the height of luxury," he explains.

HOT, HOT, HOT

While in some upscale markets, a 600-sq.-ft. master bath suite might be spilling over with such cozy amenities as a steam shower, a fireplace and a massage table, manufacturers are also punctuating the mid-level market with warmer color palettes, Old World finishes and other options for the average consumer who has a desire to create the same inspirational, holistic environment in a smaller space.

"Earth tones continue to be very popular," adds Rohl, who also cites antiqued finishes. "It's a warmer hue. It feels like a spa should feel. Like a Roman bath. The term we always use is 'authentic-looking.' That's what people are seeking."

"We completely updated our hardware colors a few years ago," adds Williams. "We threw out all the 'lollipop' colors like raspberry and blueberry, and we introduced a true, brushed nickel, wrought iron [and] burnished copper. When you mix those [finishes] with the warm, inviting colors that are in the tiles and paints, [you get] a real Mediterranean look – [one that's] rich and elegant without being ostentatious. [And it's] very current."

"As a replacement showerhead company," says Rachel Schneider, marketing director for showers and water treatments at Waterpik in Ft. Collins, CO, "we are a follower, but we need to make sure that we're following with the correct finishes. With brushed nickel, for instance, some are very yellow, some are very brown, but as long as it has a nice, warm, yellow tone to it, it will blend well with the sandstones and the natural colors that you're seeing extend from the bedroom into the bath."

SURROUNDED IN STYLE

Just like hardware, tub and shower surrounds are in the midst of a heat wave, with natural stone blending well with all of the popular transitional styles, from the blossoming Mediterranean (or Roman bath) look to the minimalist, Industrial looks still emerging in urban areas.

Many manufacturers surveyed by KBDN are also seeing larger ceramic tiles in mauves and sandstones, and even amber-hued glass tiles are emerging as hot picks, both of which complement the clean but cozy transitional feel that's proving to be the dominant look of the early millennium. "We're seeing a lot of earth tones in tile – [and] tiles that have a variety of natural colors that you could find outside, as if you were in a hardscape environment instead of inside in your bath," observes Williams. "Everything's getting a more natural, earthy look to it."

"There's a real interest in colors beyond basic white [at the mid-level market]," adds John Heckenlaible, executive director of marketing for Mesa, AZ-based Re-Bath, LLC, which specializes in tub-to-shower conversions.

"Our acrylic molds can be designed to look like travertine, granite or warm-hued tiles with unique and interesting patterns."

"Natural stone has exploded," agrees John Veras, president of Duschqueen in Wyckoff, NJ. "I think that's due to the availability. It's coming in from everywhere now. Our major market is the New York City area, and we're seeing natural stone even in secondary baths. Where we see tile being installed, it's [being paired] with some beautifully hand-painted border tiles or unique moldings. It's not just [taking] 6"x6" white tile and throwing it on the wall. It's a work of art when it's done."

"I think the more natural, the better, is the inclination of most consumers," adds Rohl. "Whenever possible, they try to get something as authentic as possible. It all goes back to this whole personalization concept, to show that they have broken out from the mainstream."

HEART OF GLASS

With so much design effort being put into upscale master bath surrounds, consumers are increasingly unwilling to obscure that beauty, foregoing the milky or frosted glass enclosure in favor of clear glass. By doing this, the artwork and unique fixtures of the tub or shower are allowed to emerge as a focal point in the room, like a gorgeous, Fabergé egg under museum glass.

"We're seeing a variety of glass types in enclosures – new patterns that have a floral look, and some that have a leafy pattern. [However], in our luxury glass segment, clear is our most prevalent glass," states Williams. "People want to show off their hardware and tile work, and the configuration of the unit."

"There are so many more patterned glasses available," notes Veras. "Consumers are willing to introduce a subtle pattern into the glass, but not so much that you lose that clarity, not so much that you segregate the shower from the rest of the bath."

"When people get into these component bath systems, they're looking at frameless glass. There's very little metal or chrome around the doors and glass. They want a designer piece to show off the bath," adds Joe Serina, v.p./marketing for Luxury Bath Systems, Inc. in Glendale Heights, IL.

Serina points to the firm's frameless, pivoting glass doors designed for stand-up showers as an example, while Shelly Roberts, senior marketing manager at Lasco Bathware in Anaheim, CA mentions a frameless, textured bamboo glass as a luxury pick for the upscale, master bath.

Veras, however, is troubled by the surging popularity of the large, frameless shower doors. "It's been a growing concern for legitimate shower door manufacturers for a couple of years now," he explains. "What we have seen happening, is… everybody has gotten into it – local glass shops and the like. Everyone is seeing this huge profit center. We see what the possible liability can be for some of these doors that are improperly installed. They might be what the customer wants, but six months down the road, they could pull out of the wall and hurt someone."

In answer to this, his industry will be introducing a draft of voluntary manufacturer standards. "We're aggressively formulating them now," adds Veras, who is also president of the Bath Enclosure Manufacturers Association in Topeka, KS.

With the revival in decorative hardware, some manufacturers are looking with renewed interest at the framed enclosure. "Where you have the shower and the rest of the bath flowing together," points out Rohl, "it's important that if you start with, say, a Tuscan brass finish in the lavatory, that you continue that theme into the shower. Getting all of the finishes to match is the greatest challenge."

Williams is in favor of a more relaxed, eclectic look. "Warm, framing colors can finish out the whole bath suite by complementing other colors in the bath. For instance, you have a weathered pewter faucet on the lavatory and then, maybe a copper, leafy motif light fixture with a natural light hood. When you look at the organic finishes on the shower door and the complementary faucets [in] the shower, it really does come together [for] a beautiful look."

SPLISH SPLASH

While smaller homes may still favor the space-saving tub/shower combo, the four-fixture suite concept is definitely gaining ground with the advent of the larger master bath in new and remodeled homes. And, it's leaving plenty of dock space for tub manufacturers, who are flooding the market with some innovative designs.

But even smaller baths can enjoy a scaled down sense of luxury, manufacturers note. For instance, in a one-bath unit or even in a small, powder room environment, Sign of the Crab offers miniature clawfoot tub/shower combos in a variety of shapes and designs, which is in line with the trend of creating big impact in smaller powder rooms. "With our small tubs, you can [also] make an under-the-stairs bath into a complete full bath," contends Larry Jacobs, manager with Strom Plumbing by Sign of the Crab in Rancho Cordova, CA.

"In newer homes," he further explains, "with up to four or five baths being installed, one room dedicated to the antique or traditional style bath can act as a haven for a consumer who loves his/her vertical spa with all the bells and whistles, but who just can't do without his or her deep, soaker tub."

"The reality is," says Veras, "people realize that you need at least one tub in the house, whether it's for resale or for the children, or even for the dog. There's always going to be that occasion in everyone's life when they need to take a bath."

"You're not seeing that [vertical spa] trend in the secondary bath," emphasizes Roberts. "Secondary baths are still relegated to a fairly small space, and tub/shower units are still what goes into them."

"[However], the shower is replacing the tub as the bathing vessel of choice," believes Williams. "There are a number of tub companies that are changing the look of their tubs [in response to this trend]. They have a place you can sit in, but they also have a place lower down where you can put just your feet in and get some hydrotherapy. Maybe the tub as we've known it all these years is morphing into some other type of thing to capture this whole spa-type feeling."

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