Bathroom Trends Balance Bath Experience with Function

Designers in our industry work hard to stay current with technological innovations emerging for the kitchen. But in our fast-paced business, innovations are being introduced almost daily in the bathroom planning sector as well. Because there are so many dissimilar products used in a bathroom, it can be difficult to keep up with them all.

However, trend watchers have been clear: We’ll be serving a younger consumer who is an Internet research activist. Therefore, savvy designers who plan baths must devote research time to learning “what’s new” in the various product categories for the bathroom.

Product innovations can be tracked by reading industry publications, attending supplier and association meetings and conferences and visiting bath product manufacturers’ Web sites on a regular basis.

However, I believe these product-specific, fresh new ideas are being driven by several “umbrella” design and technological trends.


The first such trend is the need to balance the interest in green living with the desire for high-performance faucets and fixtures. Consumers want to “live responsibly” – they want to be green without feeling like they are sacrificing their experience with water. The power of water…is pretty powerful! But, so is consumers’ desire to be responsible global citizens.

Our industry’s mandate of function before fashion suggests that before we delve into what’s “trending” in water experiences, it’s important we increase our awareness of an EPA program called WaterSense.

Products bearing a WaterSense label:

  • Perform as well or better than their less efficient counterparts;
  • Are 20% more water efficient than average products in that category;
  • Realize water savings on a national level;
  • Provide measurable water savings results;
  • Achieve water efficiency through several technology options;
  • Are part of the program after receiving an independent, third-party certification.

Talented designers are aware of the importance of specifying dual-flush toilets and water-conserving showerheads. So, researching products that carry the WaterSense label is a logical next step when suggesting green bathroom products to the consumer.


The interesting change that goes hand-in-hand with “green” design is the interest consumers have in the wellness aspects – not just the cleaning potential – of water. Consumers value the de-stressing and/or invigorating spirit of a water experience.

While in the past, a long soaking bath was what people chose for rejuvenation, today’s showering experience offers the same sense of renewal.

New hand-held and wall- or ceiling-mounted stationary showerheads offer a variety of water experiences. Rather than complicated multi-head shower enclosures, new “shower towers” are available that include a stationary showerhead, a hand-held showerhead (as well as body sprays), the diverter and thermostatic control…and possibly a storage shelf.

Typical in Europe, but being introduced more and more in the U.S., this optional approach relies on one plumbing connection and a bar of some nature that includes the controls, various water experiences and even a storage shelf. For example, the Rain Dance Register Select by Hansgrohe combines an overhead shower with a hand-held shower in what they call a “shower pipe.”

More complex, carefully orchestrated showering experiences are also possible. For example, Dornbracht’s ATT (Ambiance Tuning Technique) Shower System offers various water scenarios that combine temperatures and volumes of water at different outlet points – all regulated by a central control element designed to provide a balancing experience, an energizing experience or a de-stressing experience.

At the 2012 EuroCucina Fair in Milan, Italy, this shower system was presented in an installation where the person reclined on a horizontal bench. A soft, warm bench would be ideal for such positioning because this type of shower is much like a French “Vichy shower.” This is a unique aquatic therapy inspired by treatments used in the French city of Vichy. The shower experience is enjoyed lying on a comfortable surface while the entire body experiences a sense of warm, nourishing rain cascading over the bather’s skin.

Practical, ergonomically user-friendly, simple water experience variations for a single showerhead are also available today. For example, Moen’s Twist Handle Shower allows the user to switch between the shower’s four spray patterns with one hand, by swiveling the showerhead around the hand with the push of a soft grip, non-slip thumb pad. The sprays include immerse (a full-coverage spray); soothe (a heavy mist spray); drench (a soft, yet heavy rinse spray); and, shine (a strong, focused spray). Note how the manufacturer describes the water spray design by how it “feels,” not how it works.

Another newly engineered shower system is Delta Faucet Co.’s In2ition two-in-one showerhead/hand-held unit. The head control is separate from the control on the wand, providing a variety of water experiences.

Because of the growing importance of the master bathroom as an adult retreat as much as a place to get clean, clients today expect us to guide them through the selection process with a detailed understanding of wellness therapies.

Following is a brief review of the therapies often requested by clients interested in such wellness treatments.


Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine that uses volatile liquid plant materials, known as essential oils (EOs), and other scented compounds from plants for the purpose of affecting a person’s mood or health.

Aromatherapy is the supposed treatment or prevention of disease by use of essential oils. Two basic mechanisms are offered to explain the purported effects. One is the influence of aroma on the brain, especially the limbic system through the olfactory system. The other is the direct pharmacological effects of the essential oils. At the scent level, they activate the limbic system and emotional centers of the brain. When applied to the skin, they activate thermal receptors, and kill microbes and fungi.

While the efficacy of aromatherapy remains to be proven, some preliminary clinical studies show positive effects.

In the bathroom, some manufacturers have added a diffuser to the fixture, where the user places a few drops of oil mixed with water. A small pump brings air to the receptacle, which sends the aroma of the oil into the air.


Chromatherapy, sometimes called color therapy or colorology, is an alternative medicine method. Therapists trained in chromatherapy believe the use of color and light can balance energy wherever our bodies are lacking, be it physical, emotional, spiritual or mental.

Chromatherapy uses the visible color spectrum (therapists consider this to be the cosmic electromagnetic energy spectrum). These visual colors, with their unique wavelength and oscillations, are selectively applied to impaired organs or life systems with a light source to provide healing energy. Trained technicians believe colors generate electrical impulses and magnetic currents or fields of energy that are prime activators of the biochemical and hormonal processes in the human body.

In the bathroom, two or more underwater lamps (LED) let the bather enjoy the full rainbow of colors, or select one to set a mood. Alternatively, overhead chromatherapy lights can be included in the showerhead itself, or installed as a recessed ceiling fixture. Each LED light color enhances the bather’s experience in a different way, from calming blue to energizing red to detoxifying purple.


Since the ancient Greeks, people have found natural healing powers in bubbling pools of hot water. The heat, buoyancy and massage found in the warm, soothing waters of a jetted tub experience are both relaxing and rejuvenating. And, new shower systems offer a similar hydrotherapy experience.

Both bathing and showering hydrotherapy systems relieve stress. Stress has more adverse effects on health than many people realize. Some researchers estimate that nearly 80% of all diseases are stress related. Stress makes the heart work harder, breathing becomes more rapid and shallow and digestion slows.

Physicians and physical therapists also recognize the value of a massage water experience as an ideal environment for rehabilitation therapy. Muscle pain can be eased, fatigue overcome and stiffness and soreness relieved when relaxing in a hydro massage (jetted) tub because body temperatures rise, which causes blood vessels to dilate. This results in increased circulation and blood flow, which accelerates the body’s natural healing properties. The reason the healing process is increased is that lactic acid and other toxins are replaced with oxygen, In addition, endorphins – which are released during the process – serve as the body’s natural pain killers.

In the past, such a hydromassage was limited to the bathtub. Today, new shower body sprays can deliver a variety of hydromassage therapies as well.

Relaxing in a bubbling tub bath simulates the release of endorphins, the body’s natural “feel good” chemical, giving the bather a sense of renewal and rejuvenation. The warm water and soothing massage also can help relieve anxiety and relax tense muscles. New technological innovations have overcome the troublesome reality of “air baths” where the air was cold: BainUltra’s Geysair heats the air so there is a true feeling of warmth when the air bubbles touch the skin.


Heat has always been used in various forms to provide therapeutic benefits. Sunlight, heated sand and heated water were initially used as an effective means of therapy for ailments and pain. Early users of heat therapy also obtained heat from hot stones and coals, open fire and irons. This type of dry heat is used in today’s saunas.

The application of heat widens blood vessels and increases blood flow to the skin. Therefore, it relaxes superficial muscles, decreases muscle spasms and reduces stiffness of the joints. Some research has also shown it can block pain receptors for some individuals.

Moist heat appears to be more effective in treating pain than dry heat, as the moisture allows the heat to penetrate more deeply into the muscle. As the blood flows, local tissue metabolism is enhanced. The improved blood flow lowers concentration of pain-producing toxic metabolites. This has led to the greater popularity of steam shower systems.


The space provided for showering and the shape of bathtubs are also changing.

In addition to covering water experiences and therapies, a dramatic new collection of bathtubs was seen at last year’s EuroCucina Fair in Milan that enhances the visual experience of the bather.

Freestanding bathtubs are popular but they are problematic – there is no place to stow a book, or keep a bar of soap handy. European bathrooms combine the sense of a freestanding bathtub with some type of attached partial platform that fits against the wall or in a corner.


Innovations in surfacing materials are being driven by printing system upgrades and computer-driven pattern possibilities.

Natural marbles and granites, solid surface products and quartz-based surfaces are often specified for bathrooms. Ceramic tile and natural stones are also popular choices and well understood by practicing designers.

However, in the surfacing industry, the ability to use inkjet printing technology, partnered with computer-generated pattern variations, is now creating surfaces that look and feel like natural products, and that are consistent, easy to care for and simpler to install.

In addition to pattern, textures on surfaces are also moving into the “3D world.” Contrasting layers of thin and thick, bent or warped and pulled or stretched formats create dramatic landscapes for light to play with across floors, walls or other important surfaces.

An interesting design trend is that 30- to 40-year-old households seem comfortable with man-made materials that are inspired by nature’s elegance – far more so than their older counterparts. They appreciate the beauty of pattern, texture and variety created by digitized designs.

They also do not feel bound to keep the products they select for a long time: If it is portable, they know they can sell it on eBay if they grow tired of it. If it is a permanent installation and a new innovation catches their eye, they expect to be able to simply resurface over the old.

Combining this younger consumers’ acceptance of man-made materials with immense changes in how ceramic materials are finished offers us a palette of affordable and durable ceramic products that are excellent alternatives to natural stone.

Additionally, oversized “everything” seems to be popular – even in small bathrooms! Large light fixtures with fabric shades, large monolithic tall cabinet doors, large patterned wall coverings and large-format (yet thin) ceramic tiles are all hot right now.

Such surfacing innovation requires the design professional to redefine the term “authentic” – it is no longer a concept or term reserved only for natural materials; authentic can refer to an exceptional man-made product. New laminates and better substrates mean that our cabinet faces may be something other than a fine natural veneer.

Learn about new reconstituted or textured wood grain laminate panels for cabinet fronts. Realize that wallpaper (it is not paper any longer, in many cases!) can be a viable wall surface in a bathroom. Larger patterns, more color, more texture – perhaps a glint of glimmer or metallic accents – are popular in many surfaces appropriate for spa-like master bathrooms.


Another hot trend is that safety and comfort are no longer unglamorous concepts. The best products are becoming safer to use, intuitive to manage, easy to clean and more attractive to look at.

Indeed, technology that enhances the comfort, safety and cleanliness of the space is highly valued by today’s “risk-adverse” consumers.

There are ventilation systems on the market that offer humidity-sensing operational advantages, and ventilation systems that are part of a light fixture or can be part of a whole-house ventilation system. Also available are ventilation systems that have a motion sensor with a delayed timer that activates the fan when a person enters the bathroom, and automatically shuts off the fan 20 minutes after the occupant has left. The built-in humidity sensor overrides the delayed timer until humidity returns to preset levels.

For example, the Broan-NuTone EnergyStar-qualified humidity sensing recessed fan/light is a recessed light with a quiet, concealed fan in a SensAire technology, which is a humidity sensor that automatically turns on when moisture is detected.

There are also more options for shower curbs, benches and doors. One great idea that has found its way to the U.S. is the shower screen in place of a sliding or swinging door.

There continues to be a steady stream of artful and practical problem-solving bathroom products and materials, and designers must keep a lookout for new and different ideas that make sense. A good way to embark on such a “what’s new” investigation is to set aside a specific time period weekly to visit the Web sites of manufacturers represented by the firm, as well as a bit of time to search generic product categories.

Perhaps it’s an outlet that also has a USB port…LED lights with a warm, candle-like glow…a shower door that disappears into the wall, or shower controls accessible from both inside and outside the shower. By staying abreast of the latest bath innovations, you will have more design options for creating functional bathrooms that provide an equally wonderful bathing experience.

Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, CAPS is a well-known author, designer, speaker and marketing specialist. A member of the NKBA Hall of Fame, Cheever gained prominence in the industry early on as the author of two design education textbooks. She manages an award-winning design firm, Ellen Cheever & Associates, and has been part of the management team of several major cabinet companies.