Understanding the New Face of Luxury Bath Design

by bkrigbaum@solagroup.com

There are a number of influences on our attitudes about luxury today, and it’s changing the direction of luxury bath design. Stories about the Mercedes buyer who asks for the same model and color car so no one will notice when a new car replaces the old one, or the Barney’s shopper who slips her Barney’s bag inside a plain brown bag, or, better yet, a reusable canvas bag, are demonstrations of the fact that affluence is no longer being flaunted as we become more sensitive to changes in the economy.

Homes have been shrinking, according to the National Association of Homebuilders, from a national average of 2,500 square feet in 2007 to 2,380 in 2010. Despite conflicting reports, the NAH believes this trend will continue, hitting 2,150 square feet by 2013. McMansions are out and small is big.

Add to this our current appreciation for health as the new wealth. Statistics and personal experiences show us that, as a country, while we aspire to good health, we do not seem to be successful in achieving the balance that leads to total health of mind and body. All of this points to some interesting trends in what surfaces as the new face of luxury in bath design.

The Space

While homes have been getting smaller, the jury is out on whether or not bathrooms have been shrinking as well. Given that the mid-20th century bathroom was a mere 5’x8′ space, just large enough to hold the basic fixtures and possibly a smidge of storage, we have definitely grown.

In more recent history, we’ve seen bathrooms that might require roller skates to make those nocturnal visits to the toileting space, and we may be backing off from these dimensions. Perhaps as a nod to current economics and environmental respect, there does seem to be a trend to remodel within the existing space, rather than adding space to create the master oasis.

An existing space that seems limiting will sometimes lead to blurring of the lines between the bathroom and the adjoining master dressing and sleeping spaces.

The gracious old homes of West Hartford, CT where I started out as a designer had huge, high-ceilinged bedrooms and miniscule bathrooms, and we often modified the wet area of the bathroom to include just the toilet and the shower, moving the vanity to the dressing area of the bedroom and the tub to the sitting area, where it became a place to soak and leave the stresses of the day behind.

Another trend for the compact bathroom is to convert it to a little jewel box with the best and the brightest of fixtures, fittings and finishes, sometimes including a toilet with integral bidet and converting a tub/shower to simply a luxury shower. If the tub is eliminated, the new shower may well include steam and certainly a seat, to provide that tension release that speaks to the health we are all after.

In larger spaces, the opportunity to go after our obsession with healthy living is greater. Our interest seems to be two-fold: taking control of what we can do to be healthy, and treating whatever conditions we may have in a positive, non-chemical way. Addressing both concerns, the tub often takes on the therapeutic aspects of a spa experience, and there are significant advances in product toward this goal.

The toileting area may then include the bidet feature, generous clear floor space, and storage relating to the usual hygiene supplies plus reading or communications technology. The shower is generous in size, often with dual entries, both no-threshold, and with comfortable seating and support rails.

Windows in the shower seems to be growing in popularity in spite of the challenges to avoid water problems, with their ability to incorporate natural light. Steam in the shower is not only a pleasure, but it speaks to maintaining health and treating physical conditions. The vanity area has evolved into the focal point of many bath suites, often with open knee spaces and adjacent storage, looking more like furniture than fixture. Storage continues to be in demand, and is fitted into every point-of-use spot available, as well as in adjoining areas.
Overall, the look is more streamlined, not just visually, but for ease of maintenance and minimal clutter.

The Products

The manufacturers of products and materials for the bath have certainly given us much to choose from, moving away from the “same-old, same-old” products of old. In terms of luxury bath materials and finishes, the trend toward rich textures and patterns from glass to stone to quartz seems to be one way that the smaller bath is made into the jewel it becomes. Another example is the way LED technology is transforming how light can be integrated into the space, from lighted tiles to direct those night-time trips to the bathroom to vanity mirrors with lighting embedded to eliminate shadows and glare.

In the vanity area, the materials being used to make lavatories have expanded in fantastic ways – glass, metals, cast stone and concrete can all provide unique forms for sinks. This explosion of materials has spread to the counters as well, with one strong statement coming from translucent quartz and glass surfaces that support indirect lighting, made easier with the growing variety of LED options.

Sensor faucets speak to reduced water use and convenience, and they are also enhanced with LED lighting to indicate temperature. Up to the vanity or medicine cabinetry available, the incorporation of lighting and technology allows for everything from night-lighting to integral television and communications, and vanity lighting is dramatically improved in terms of eliminating glare.

In the shower, integral support systems that enhance health and aesthetics, larger capacity steam generators, the addition of aromatherapy and chromatherapy, and the addition of sound technology make the new luxury shower a real retreat. In response to consumer demand, there are a number of ways technology is improving the shower experience, from thermostatic valve design to programmable pre-sets for different members of the family. The real story seems to be in bathtub design – tubs with integral support and even sliding doors to support health and healing, new designs for air and water treatments in the tub, lighting, sound and scents to again enhance the wellness experience.

And how long has it been since you updated your understanding of toilets? Today’s options include dovers that rise when you approach, warmed seats and feet, integrated bidet systems, night-lighting, and not just music, but your own music. While they all sound glamorous, they can truly respond to health and hygiene needs.

With client demand for value for every dollar spent, these concepts and products can help to create not just luxury but a strong step towards the health and wellness that we are all aspiring to – providing an opportunity for us as bath designers.

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