The Perfect Accessory

It used to be, metal surfaces in the bathroom consisted mainly of a faucet, knobs on the vanity and a towel bar. They all matched because all of the items were only available in chrome. "Ten years ago, you never thought of making your bathroom a place where you enjoyed being," notes Jeffrey Robboy, president of Baci by Remcraft, in Miami, FL.

Now, of course, the bathroom has become the focal point of a comfortable, relaxing, sanctuary environment in the home. A home where "coccooning" is the aim is likely to include a huge master bathroom with "super shower," whirlpool, steam and/or sauna, as well as a downstairs powder room that's the height of luxury and style to show off to guests.

New products are constantly being introduced into the market to meet this new aim but now, they have to match myriad designer finishes, according to the manufacturers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

"The bath accessory market is pure style," declares Gene Carpenter, product manager for Geberit Manufacturing, in Michigan City, IN. "You can still go into the local hardware store and buy a $10 towel bar, but right next to it is a $250 towel bar."

"People are being much more creative in buying the quality products they want, yet customizing for their personal touch and flair," adds Peter Dircks, product manager for Broan-NuTone, in Hartford, WI. He adds that design-conscious mainstream stores such as Pottery Barn are making consumers more aware of style overall.

"People are [also] more conscious of buying products that [have] quality and craftsmanship, [rather] than stuff that's just out of the box and price-driven," adds Robboy.

For many, a coordinated, high-quality look begins with a distinctive finish that starts with faucetry and is carried throughout the bathroom, from shower heads to knobs to such exotic items as designer exhaust fans. "People are trying to tie everything together in their homes," notes Patsy Nickum, co-owner of Rocky Mountain Hardware, in Hailey, ID.

"Everything should look seamlessly integrated," agrees Ari Zieger, v.p./sales and marketing for Interbath, Inc., makers of Ondine, in Los Angeles, CA.

"A lot of the work we're doing [in towel warmers] we see in satin finishes nickel, brass, gold, rather than the traditional chromes," says Sanford Hunter, North American sales manager for Myson Inc., in Colchester, VT. "Those are the finishes that are attracting people."

Similarly, Sandy Kartzman, national sales manager for Jaclo Industries, in Mountainside, NJ, cites "super shower" components such as a ceiling-mounted "rain" showerheads, decorative wall bars, hand-held showers and body sprays as popular. "You basically get in there, you turn everything on and drown yourself," he laughs. All are now available in exotic finishes such as oil-rubbed bronze.

Kartzman explains that what's hot in finishes is very much a regional proposition. "Other than in New England, polished brass is pretty much dying away." In the West, oil-rubbed bronze and antique copper are the top picks, he believes. In the Southeast, antique brass is an up-and-comer. Overall, satin nickel remains the most popular pick. Raymond Lombardo, president of Afina Corp., in Patterson, NJ, also mentions stainless steel as a hot pick. "People love the stainless steel factor, because it won't corrode or rust."

Carpenter cites brushed nickel, and "there's a couple of new [finishes] on the horizon the pearl nickels." A pearl finish has a reddish tone instead of a hard silver one, with more depth and dimension. "People are just going nuts over brushed nickel. They want that warm tone," adds Robboy.

Nickum names bronze in various patinas, from light to very dark (the bronze equivalent of gunmetal gray) as a hot finish, and adds that the coordinated look can now be extended to a bronze sink. "It [makes it] really easy to create a cohesive look where everything flows together," she notes.

And, there's polished chrome, which still finds itself in upscale bathrooms for retro looks, which pick up on the white porcelain-plus-chrome configuration of bathrooms of the 1920s through 1950s. "Chrome is still chrome," concludes Kartzman. "It's like vanilla ice cream."

innovative edges
The advent of glass vessel sinks has prompted a whole new product category decorative exposed plumbing. And it, too, is available in a variety of finishes to complement any bathroom.

"You have beautiful oil-rubbed bronze faucets, and a beautiful glass vessel sink," elaborates Kartzman. "We're launching a whole division that will have traps, supply lines, valve shut-offs, drains, all that stuff [in exotic finishes]. We'll also have toilet handle levers that will [match]."

"That's becoming much more popular," agrees Carpenter, citing "fancier supply lines that complement the rest of the room, in brushed or satin nickel, or satin chrome." He adds that valves can also be designed in a variety of styles, "from traditional with cross handles on them, to totally modern valves that are all round edges. We even carry one that has a stainless steel screen in it to filter out what we call line trash before it hits that really expensive faucet."

Zieger notes the overall design trend toward translucence and visible mechanics, as evidenced by the popular iMac computers. He elaborates, "An interior designer did an interesting thing with our product. The designer mounted a shower system against a glass wall and then exposed all the plumbing."

Another innovation in shower accessories is Interbath's In Touch Organization line, which integrates designer shower storage with the actual hand shower system. "If you have a hand shower on that bar, you don't have to add another piece of hardware to clutter up the environment," notes Zieger. The modular system comes in different sizes to hold multiple bottles of shampoo and other products.

But, the most oft-mentioned up-and-comer in bath accessories and hardware is surely the towel warmer, which is rapidly making inroads into the mainstream market.

"We're seeing a sharp growth in our towel warmer line," says Dan Reinert, v.p. for the Long Island City, NY-based Sussman Lifestyle Group, makers of WarmaTowel. "When you step out of the shower, [you] get that great feeling that you had as a child when your mother pulled towels out of the dryer to wrap around you," he explains. "You have that feeling of warmth and comfort."

Many consumers discovered towel warmers during trips to Europe, Reinert elaborates, where they're a staple in hotel rooms and homes. "Everybody thinks, 'boy, that sure would be nice in my house in Maine,'" quips Carpenter.

However, the towel warmer market isn't limited to cold climates, manufacturers report. "We sell a lot of [them] in the South," says Reinert. "People use them in the summer, when the air conditioning is on all the time and the homes can be somewhat cold. They also have the ability to dry towels that stay musty all day because of the humidity."

"Towel warmers are [also] great for getting rid of mildew," adds Hunter. "One of our largest markets is in the Gulf States."

"People are putting more and more money into their homes," notes Dircks. "Heated floors and towel warmers are completely in line with that." He adds that the technology of the systems is improving, leading to lower price points. Carpenter adds that the newer models are easier to install and require less electricity than earlier versions.

Other technological improvements include customization, such as programmable timers. Towel warmers are also increasingly available in a wide variety of finishes and styles, with customized orders possible, as well. Hunter also notes an increase in sales for very large warmers, as much as 6-1/2' tall for multiple towels.

There are two kinds of warmers the standard electric, and the hydronic, which uses circulating hot water to heat up the towel bar. The hydronic systems are more economical, but require more elaborate installation. Electrics are more commonly used in remodeling work, while hydronics find themselves in new construction and additions where a more elaborate installation of pipes can be included in original plans.

While some believe the towel warmer is likely to remain a very high-end item, "We sell to EXPO [Design Centers]," counters Hunter. "They seem to feel these products are becoming very mainstream."

Warm floors are also increasing in popularity, but have more installation concerns because the floor has to be ripped up. However, "Tile is naturally cold no matter where you live," says Carpenter. "You'll see a lot more floor warmers in new construction in the next three years."

"People love it," offers Robboy. "It's a nice little touch, and it's going to become more and more popular."

"If people are gutting [their bathrooms] out and spending 30K, 40K or even 50K, they might as well spend [a little] extra and get that," adds Lombardo.

Carpenter also cites floor-warming systems that recirculate hot water as a growing trend. "They use that in Minnesota in parking lots and driveways so they don't have to plow [snow] as often," he notes.

Medicine Cabinets
The customization and coordinated look that consumers request in hardware is also reflected in medicine cabinets, explains Dircks. "You can recess or surface mount them, you can have wood frames or metallic or no frame at all," he says. "The sizes and variety of finishes keeps growing."

In addition, the interiors of medicine cabinets have become more high end, featuring such materials as stainless steel, glass shelves and a mirrored back wall.

Customized touches such as this have rejuvenated the medicine cabinet, which had been getting replaced by plain glass mirror walls for some years. "A cabinet is still a major feature of a bathroom," says Kartzman.

New styles such as the new glass sinks with exposed plumbing along with old-time pedestal sinks have also contributed to the medicine cabinet's resurgence, manufacturers report. Since there is no more cabinet under the sink, "there's an even greater need for storage," points out Karen Collins, marketing communications manager for Broan NuTone, in Hartford, WI.

Dircks adds that a linen closet is an increasingly popular addition for new houses. "But, people still need storage for the little things," he points out.

To make the medicine cabinet an integral part of a bathroom design, people often buy cabinets with unfinished frames to match the finish of a vanity. Or, they buy the cabinet with no frame at all and customize the frame via molding from the cabinetry company, Dircks elaborates. Lombardo also cites the expansion of frame styles into both contemporary and traditional styles.

Overall, bathroom design is all over the place, manufacturers report. Nickum notes regional differences. "In the South Atlanta, New Orleans and Miami they're a little bit more decorative than Seattle [where consumers prefer a] cleaner, more minimalist look."

Dircks thinks consumers increasingly prefer an eclectic combination of several styles. When it comes to soap dishes, shower caddies and knobs, "I have seen the gamut," adds Carpenter. "I've seen the old wire style that you'd see in the 1920s. I've seen very nice clear acrylics, high style almost water shapes, no sharp edges, no corners at all; they look like part of the bath. A lot of it is coming in from Europe, especially Italy and Spain. Sweden is doing some very nice geometric stuff. The consumer has a better choice than ever." KBDN