Mainstream Appeal

Mainstream Appeal

Luxury bath accessories and hardware go mainstream in an innovative design climate where minimalist and traditional flourish.

By Daina Manning

Good design should be accessible to everyone and these days, it actually is. As consumers become more involved in their homes and more educated about products, they develop more discriminating tastes.

As manufacturers respond to this new market, design features that were formerly the province of the upscale become a broad-based standard, with a host of new designs, finishes and luxury touches becoming available at all price points.

This is especially the case with bathroom hardware and accessories, which have become more stylish, more imaginative and of better quality than ever before, even at lower price points. Jeff Robboy, president of Baci by Remcraft, in Miami, FL notes, "We're starting to see a new trend: [middle income] people you normally don't expect to buy luxury items are gearing themselves for it. They buy something expensive and show it off. They're starting to realize their home is their castle."

However, regardless of income level, today's savvy consumers are investigating products before buying, willing to spend the money but only for quality and real value, and items that genuinely reflect their individual taste.

"A lot of people are becoming braver and bolder in their choices," says Tim Bitterman, senior product and brand manager for Creative Specialties International, a division of Moen, in North Olmsted, OH. "The more options and styles they see out there, the more excited they get. The market is getting more niche [oriented[, more fanciful and more playful."

Designer Wonderland

The new cornucopia of products enables bathroom designers to create much more innovative and interesting rooms.

"Consumers want hardware and accessories that keep the architectural integrity of their house, be it modern, Mid-Century, Craftsman or Victorian," says Adrienne Morea, president and designer at Atlas Homewares, in Glendale, CA. "But they're buying [the components] new, not vintage, because they want to add all of the modern bells and whistles."

"They're becoming a lot more receptive to intricate detailing and themed rooms, especially in powder rooms. They want something that speaks to their own personality," notes Bitterman.

Larry Jacobs, president of Ashley Harris Marketing Inc., representing Sign of the Crab, in Rancho Cordoba, CA, notes that homeowners who have multiple bathrooms might do each one differently, showcasing several eras of design styles, with perhaps a hardware finish used everywhere as a through-line.

Overall, there is no one overridingly popular style in today's market. Jerry Abel, managing director for THG USA, LLC, in Coconut Creek, FL, sees "the higher-end market returning to higher-detailed, more ornate design." Jacobs says his company's mainstay is products for period bathrooms featuring claw foot tubs and the like, but "we have introduced a minimalist line that's super clean, super simple."

"There is a trend toward minimalism in design that's gaining acceptance beyond the urban areas, which is interesting and good," agrees Sharon Bickler, v.p./advertising and promotion for Ginger, in Charlotte, NC.

Another burgeoning trend could be termed "minimalist traditional," wherein antique and vintage elements are used in a very modern way in spare, unadorned, somewhat cold arrangements with a lot of breathing space, no clutter.

"We're seeing a lot of that mixing contemporary and traditional," echoes Avi Abel, general manager for Watermark Designs, in Spring Creek, NY.

Kaijsa Kurstin, communications manager at Deco Lav, Inc., in Deerfield Beach, FL, sees vintage, early 20th century looks, for instance Art Deco, featuring pedestals and vintage furniture pieces, as a strong trend. Bitterman also sees a surge in 1950s retro.

Such a wide variety of trends demands a huge selection of finishes which, luckily, is readily available.

Finishes with a flourish

In the past few years, chrome has tended to mean "starter home," while exotic finishes signified the upscale. However, this is no longer the case.

"Retro is really big," says Jeff Pratt, v.p./North American sales for Danze Bathroom Products, in Bolingbrook, IL. This is translating to high-end, elegant designs that use period-appropriate chrome, such as his company's line featuring chrome and frosted glass that evokes the 1920s in New York City.

Minimalist contemporary looks also frequently utilize the clean, stark look of chrome against white fixtures.

Jacobs emphasizes that high-end chrome differs from the home center variety: "There's a difference between a low-quality and high-quality plating job," he notes. High end companies usually use triple plating, which produces a more brilliant, intense finish.

Watermark's Abel cites a new adventure pick: "a lot of the minimalist [hardware] that is typically in chrome or nickel. People are starting to do those in oil-rubbed bronze and antique brass. When I first saw that order come thought, we actually called up the customer because we thought it was a mistake," he laughs.

Stark contemporary styling with an antique finish plays into the "minimalist traditional" idea of design.

The re-emergence of chrome as an upscale material is the major story in finishes, those surveyed agree. Elsewhere, satin nickel still remains popular a new classic that's in it for the long haul. The same can be said of oil-rubbed bronze, a finish some once thought might be a fad. "Old World finishes have staying power," notes Bitterman, who also cites antique brass and antique nickel as up-and-comers. Antique copper and weathered finishes were also mentioned as options for clients who want something different.

Jerry Abel cites THG's rhodium and platinum tones as a richer, deeper finish analogous to chrome, while Avi Abel likes gun metal, which is similar to pewter, but darker. Manufacturers point out, however, that the one down side of going with a very exotic finish is finding all of the desired hardware and accessories in a bath, in a matching shade, since the "suite" approach is still a must for most consumers.

Including non-traditional materials in bathroom hardware and accessories is also an upscale, adventurous trend. Morea cites "the mixture of organics into bath hardware, which is a real throw-back to the late '60s, when Modernism was taken back by the hippie generation and natural was 'in.' However, our generation of consumers is putting it all together organically, but with lots of sex appeal."

Wrought iron remains an up-and-comer, though manufacturers disagree as to its staying power. "It's called the bird cage, because it's twisted to look like one of those finch cages," says Pratt. "Matte black is in; that's a finish that's come aboard recently."

Jacobs, on the other hand, thinks wrought iron's turn in the bathroom limelight is a fad. "Things should shine," he believes. "Hygenically, things should reflect cleanliness, and some of the darker finishes don't."

The perfect accessory

What's the one bathroom accessory consumers want these days? How about, "all of the above." The number and kinds of bath accessories available today increase seemingly by the hour, with more variety of products and styles than ever.

Overall, high quality is the important thing, even in the mainstream market, manufacturers agree. "Luxury products are really taking hold, and they're moving down market," says Bickler. "The trend [in the shower] is away from the plastic and the vinyl coated wire. People are expecting more, they see the options out there and they're looking for something that's closer to those options."

The formerly lowly shower caddy is now a stylish, well-produced storage unit that can also be used outside of the shower, notes Watermark's Abel. "People are putting them next to vanities, where you get a shaving mirror, a wire basket and a cup holder for your toothpaste [all in a] design matching the faucets, beading detail, rope ring."

Ginger's shower shelves are also designed to do double duty. "They're flat shelves meant for wet areas of the shower, but you could also use them in the kitchen. They're a very clean, minimalist look," says Bickler.

Shelves outside of the shower are a growing category as well, especially decorative glass shelves that strengthen the matching "suite" look of a group of bath accessories. This is a particularly popular addition for the Art Deco "1920s NYC hotel room" look. Along those lines, THG's opulent Art Deco line includes door accessories and an elegant bathtub with exposed drain assembly.

Other new accessory lines also take their cues from upscale hotels. Bickler cites her company's hotel-style towel shelves, which provide elegant extra storage above a toilet. Similarly, Deco Lav's Kurstin cites "multi-function valets, that [consumers] can put a newspaper or magazine on, or put their jacket on."

Bitterman says decorative toilet tank levers are also a rapidly growing category.

Another overlooked category? Matching brackets to hold up the mirror over the vanity, notes Avi Abel.

In other accessories, the standards toilet paper holder, towel bars and rings in several sizes, robe hooks, cup holders remain the biggest sellers. Bickler notes that "soap dispensers have become big and are probably supplanting the traditional soap dish."

In general, "accessories are going thin and petite," thinks Pratt. "[The trend is] definitely slight, fine lines."

He concludes, "I think the biggest driving force is that the accessories have become affordable. Before, to get any sort of styling you had to go into very, very high-end kitchen and bath showrooms. Now, they're really available in a mass market." KBDN