Functional Furniture

Like so many items in the home, bath vanities serve multiple purposes: They provide counter space for morning grooming routines, storage space for bathroom essentials, and, sometimes, an eye-catching design to add pizzazz to the space.

Styles vary between master and secondary bathrooms, but one thing remains true, according to manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News: Consumers want vanities that enhance the look of a room while remaining practical in the space they serve. Often, this means a vanity that is more like a piece of furniture than a simple cabinet.

“Both transitional and traditional designs are trending, and the overall atmosphere most homeowners want to achieve is a spa-like environment,” says Karen Wistrom, ASID, v.p./marketing for Dura Supreme Cabinetry in Howard Lake, MN. “Storage is of utmost importance, and many homeowners are paying close attention to organizational features and surfaces that are easy to clean.”

Steve Wilcox, director – marketing and product development for Sagehill Designs/SunnyWood in Cerritos, CA, says, “We continue to see the desire for furniture-like features on vanities rather than strictly cabinet-style vanities. This means having furniture-like details, premium hardware, visually interesting finishes and quality design features that are apparent on the sides of the cabinets as well as the fronts.”

Economic Investments

In these still challenging economic times, designers and consumers are also looking for value, manufacturers say. “Consumers are looking ahead with a healthy dose of economic skepticism, but sprinkled with enough confidence in the future that they are willing to begin spending on their homes again,” says Scott Korsten, marketing director for Showplace Wood Products in Harrisburg, SD. “The most likely types of projects are on a smaller scale, where improvements can be made at a level where they don’t worry about over-extending themselves. This makes the bath a prime target for their attention.”

Wistrom concurs. “If anything, the current economic conditions have pushed more vanity sales,” she says. “Some homeowners may have delayed a kitchen remodel because of the investment, and instead they opted for a bathroom or master bath remodel.”

Lucas Liu, CEO of Design Element Bath Furniture in Ontario, CA, adds that the economy has impacted trends in some very specific ways. He notes that vanities are often marketed by larger companies as separate components – with the base, countertop, sink and drain all sold separately, which can make the entire unit very expensive. When the economy turned sour, people began to look for something more affordable, and his company is capitalizing on the idea by offering modern-looking products sold as a complete package, making the price much more affordable for the customer.

Conversely, Korsten says that some of Showplace Wood Products’ strongest growth is in styles that tend to be more expensive. “Much of this comes by way of the finish treatments that can help personalize the room,” he says. “As consumers engage in smaller remodel projects, such as a bath or master bath, they increasingly want the ability to project a style or flavor that is clearly their own. They are willing to pay for it – but only when they are comfortable the price is fair.”

Wilcox adds that Sagehill/Sunny Wood sees trend-setting styles first available at higher price points. “After they are introduced, the styles are reinterpreted in order to maintain the overall look but reduce the cost to manufacture. The process can be applicable to any style, but certainly cleaner, more casual-contemporary designs work well at the lower price points due to the simple lines, spare proportions and less complicated manufacturing methods.”

Simple Style

While today’s popular vanities run the gamut from ultra-modern designs and more ornate traditional looks to plain, clean styles, manufacturers agree that the more simple transitional styles are trending high right now.

“A clean look and lifestyle is trendy,” says James Lin, president – Bath Division for Fairmont Designs in Buena Park, CA. “In the higher-end market you can see casual traditional pieces instead of ornate traditional pieces.” He notes that ornate designs are still needed in some markets, but not across the board, adding that transitional styles still lead the trends, even though contemporary styles are getting more popular.

Wistrom sees the same trends. “There has been a definitive shift toward sleek, simple transitional looks in all areas of the home, and we have certainly seen our contemporary offering being used steadily for bathroom remodels. The sleek surfaces are easy to clean and the edgy colors, glosses and textures easily make a statement in the bathroom.”

Mark Cross, v.p. of sales and marketing for the Corsi Group, a holding company for Greenfield Cabinetry and Corsi Cabinet Company in Indianapolis, IN, adds, “Clean lines with simplistic sophistication has been the trend we have seen through our dealers nationally.”

Liu has also seen a big shift from ultra modern styles to a more transitional look.

Jeff Ptacek, CKD, product manager for StarMark Cabinetry in Sioux Falls, SD, says that simple doors, which tend to be less expensive and easier to clean, are in high demand, along with furniture-style vanities.

People like the comfort of standing in front of a taller vanity, says Korsten, which lends itself to furniture-styled cabinetry, many times with open shelves in the lower area. He also agrees that in vanities, as with many other areas of the home, cleaner, simpler lines dominate.

Wilcox adds that, from a style standpoint, Sagehill/Sunny Wood sees two strong trends. One is a rustic look, featuring both light and dark finishes, with rough-hewn looking boards, natural edges and bolder hardware proportions. The second is what he calls “eco-hip” or “euro-casual.” This style is very clean, but features more of a natural-type wood finish, minimal or integrated pulls, and can have metal legs as accents. “Woods such as walnut, cherry and maple are used here due to their excellent grain and color,” he says.

Finishing Touch

When it comes to finishes, manufacturers say that darker tones lead the way, but there has also been a rise in white, natural and other finishes. Wistrom says they are also seeing a lot of exotic veneers being used for vanities, along with high-gloss acrylics and textured foils.

Wilcox says that finishes seem to be following a more casual or natural approach, too. “Less glazing, lower sheen, and a more subdued overall look seem to be the trend for new product finishes,” he says.

Liu notes that white finishes are on the rise, much to his surprise. Design Element Bath Furniture had discontinued most of its white vanities since they weren’t selling, but in 2011 the company came out with some London vanities in white, and they began selling very well. He says that oak and cherry have a market too, but nothing compares to Espresso, which he thinks makes up more than 60% of bathroom vanities in the market.

Lin agrees that dark colors still dominate the market, but white and natural finishes are on the rise. Ptacek adds that grays and a driftwood style of color are also coming back strong.

Bells and Whistles

The overall style of a piece is just the beginning, however. Liu says, “People who used to purchase vanities just for the look started to realize they also need this thing to be practical, too.” They need counter space and storage, and they desire features such as soft-close, as well.

“For a higher-end bath vanity, people expect features like soft-close drawers and dovetail construction,” says Naomi Neilson Howard, CEO and founder of Native Trails in San Luis Obispo, CA. “That said, people are often pleasantly surprised to see soft-close drawers in our rustic themed Chardonnay and Cabernet vanities made of reclaimed winemaking materials. It’s like an unexpected bonus – to fall in love with a vanity’s looks and then find out that it’s sustainably built and has soft-close drawers.” Additionally, she says requests for more drawer space have inspired the company’s Monaco design.

Storage is extremely important in the bath, and Korsten says that deeper storage drawers are preferred, while roll-out trays find their way into tall utility-height storage units. “Convenience and organization are as important in the bath as anywhere else in the home,” he states.

Open and Shut

There’s a fine balance between finding a look that is unique and eye-catching and letting it all hang out. Designers are faced with the choice between open storage and closed drawers or doors, and most manufacturers feel closed still wins out. There is, however, a market for some creative open storage as well, manufacturers say.

“In practical terms, we see both. But, I would say the majority is by far for closed storage,” says Wilcox. “Open shelves and accessory items like woven baskets in place of drawers can make for a richer visual interior design experience as it is used for displaying items. Many of the open-shelf designs make for interesting subjects of photography and advertisements so they may be represented in larger proportions than they are actually selling at retail. The basic idea behind closed storage is that it gets the clutter of the bathroom out of sight.”

Wistrom says that closed storage is still in high demand, though the company is seeing some open storage areas being used. “For the most part, practical homeowners are still opting for closed storage to maintain a clean look that requires minimal upkeep,” she notes.

Liu concurs that closed storage is definitely the more popular option currently, and that has to do with keeping things looking good. “People need to have the plumbing hidden. If you open up a drawer and look at what’s inside of the cabinet, usually it’s an ugly pipe, made out of plastic or metal. It looks nicer if the door is closed,” he says. “I know it looks cool when you have the open shelf unit, but it can be a nightmare if you have a lot of plumbing.” However, he adds that he does see demand for open storage on the sides, where you won’t see the plumbing.

Size Variations

One-size-fits-all certainly doesn’t apply to vanities, and size varies widely, depending on where the unit will be used. In a master bath, Wilcox says the area is often used by two people at once, therefore requiring a larger vanity. Sagehill/SunnyWood offers standard sizes for larger vanities but also offers a custom service where all of the firm’s vanities are available in just about any size required. “We also offer modular designs in our most popular collections, so that a designer can customize the products for built-in or freestanding configurations,” Wilcox adds.

Liu also sees modular items trending – for instance two bath vanities and a center console in between. “You still get the look of a single piece, but it’s easier to ship and carry, and the items come fully assembled,” Liu notes.

Ptacek, on the other hand, says that, in the master bath, he’s seeing his-and-hers vanities as completely separate units, rather than one larger unit.

Manufacturers agreed that, in the master bath, storage is vital, which can also drive vanity-size trends. “Master baths typically require more storage, especially drawer space, though a minimalist look with open shelving is very popular right now as well. Truly, we see it all,” says Neilson Howard.

In the powder room, storage isn’t a necessity, and simple, clean decorative pieces are popular, according to Ptacek.

Wilcox adds, “The powder room can move toward ‘haute-couture’ very quickly, where form rules over function.”

Wistrom agrees. “For secondary baths and powder rooms, homeowners are willing to take risks and create more cutting-edge, trendy looks. Exotic veneers are a popular way to make a statement in a secondary bath, as are glossy acrylics and freestanding or floating vanities. These small spaces don’t require as big of an investment, so consumers seem more willing to push the envelope with attention-grabbing finishes, grain patterns and textures.”

Fading Green?

Though discussions of environmental responsibility come up often, manufacturers say that these concerns do not play a great role in vanity trends.

“Green design has fallen on the back burner,” says Ptacek. “If companies can prove they are environmentally conscious, that seems to be good enough for the homeowner.”

Wistrom agrees. “If a higher cost is involved, most consumers are not asking for green products as long as they are assured of our company’s overall commitment to responsible manufacturing processes and sustainability,” she says.

But not everyone agrees on this point. Neilson Howard believes, “Green design is important for many people, especially when it is not a tradeoff for great design. Aesthetics, style and functionality are usually the most important things, and when a great-looking or unique bath vanity is also made from sustainable materials like bamboo or salvaged wood, it’s a tremendous plus.”