The Luxe Bath

By staff January 1, 2006

Benjamin Franklin reportedly took daily "air baths" by sitting in the buff in front of an open window. If he were around today, he'd surely opt for something more luxurious-a soak in a Zen tub perhaps, or a chromatherapy shower.

Yes, there's more happening in the bathroom now than ever before. Susan Mignone, an ASID Allied designer and owner of Panache Interiors, says design has changed considerably: "People are into large open showers and frameless glass doors with stainless, commercial-looking hinges." The frameless style gives the illusion of space. "They're also intrigued by freestanding soaking tubs, often on a pedestal," she says. "Many people discovered they didn't use their great big whirlpool tubs. It was sexy at first; now they're into soaking and the retreat aspect of the bath."

Manufacturers have turned tub design into an art. Kohler's Overflowing Bath, for example, has an ultra-deep reservoir for a continuous cascading overflow, similar to a negative-edge swimming pool. It's as close to enjoying a bath in the midst of natural waterfalls as you can get.

Judy Adams Hunt, an award-winning designer at Eurotech Cabinetry, says, "Natural, Zen-like designs make sense because the bathroom is a calming room. The absence of so much detail is soothing; the use of natural colors and elements found in nature-stone, wood-and simpler lines works well."

Great baths are functional and place a premium on comfort. To that end, counters are getting taller than the industry standard height of 30 inches. Hunt says a 32- to 36-inch finished height is more comfortable: "People are taller now, and they want taller counters."

Before bathroom cabinets, people placed bowls on top of furniture. Now cabinets are starting to look like furniture again, only now the bowl on top is called a vessel. Above-counter vessels in smooth, fluid lines are often made from glass, hand-painted ceramic, copper or marble. Unique self-rimming basins in fresh, organic shapes are also making a statement. And angled washing planes offer something entirely different for those into the minimalist look. Kohler's Purist, an artistically designed square sink with a flat, wet-surface design, is Zen-like in its simplicity. It has a unique drain channel for the flowing water.

Luxury home builder Lee Wetherington says not only do cabinets look like furniture, they're sporting framed mirrors attached to a cabinet below instead of the customary large plate mirrors.

Room with a View

Wetherington also says more master bedroom suites have a door to an outside garden area, with the option of going outside to shower. This door is usually right off the master shower. Of course, it needs some type of a wall around it, but great baths are not limited to the interior any more. Ideally, the bathroom has a scenic outlook. A window or door overlooking a garden or waterscape enhances the retreat atmosphere.

Interior designer Raymond Boorstein made sure Ilene Mirman's bathroom remodel took advantage of a secluded area outside her Siesta Key home. "The bathroom overlooks the pool area," he says. "Between the pool and house is a fabulous koi pond, very private. That is the view from the master bath, from both the tub and the large open shower. It's a wonderful place, an experience-not gaudy or ostentatious. You are enveloped in the space rather than walking in and saying 'Oh, what grandeur.'"

Boorstein used soft peach and cream colors to complement the marble that Mirman had held onto for years. "I found this rosa aurora marble about four years ago and had been carrying it around with me. I knew I wanted to use it someday. It matched perfectly with an old chair and ottoman that I always wanted to put in a bathroom," Mirman says. The bathroom was spacious enough to accommodate a sitting area, so Boorstein used her treasured pieces, creating the bathroom Mirman has always dreamed of.

"I'm looking forward to spending more time in the bathroom," she says. A lovely Queen Anne tub set with orchids and perfume bottles is calling her name. "I'm going to add a TV so I can just lie in my tub and relax," she says.

Focus on Fixtures

Luxury starts with the latest plumbing fixtures. Showers are increasingly fitted with multi-function systems that have pivoting body sprays, hand-held showers and adjustable height shower bars. Rain-head fittings are replacing traditional showerheads.

At the Plumbing Gallery, showroom manager Kate Brady says people are after function and comfort, but at reasonable prices. "People demand luxury but want value for their money. They don't buy for status; they buy for experiential luxury." One product that offers a unique, healing experience is chromatherapy, the use of color and light to gently create equilibrium. Ondine Electronic Light Shower drenches the body with both. Its showerhead has 270 water nozzles with light distributed to each nozzle using fiber optics. The halogen light source can continuously change colors or it can stop at a color of choice.

London Bay Homes, selected to build in the exclusive Lake Club at Lakewood Ranch, lavishes luxury on every room-perhaps none more so than the bath. Company president Mark Wilson says the current trend toward creating a master bath retreat provides opportunities to explore custom options such as fiber-optic ceilings that provide starry illumination; his-and-hers plasma TVs at vanities; exotic materials like marble, granite and onyx; and visual effects with water features adjacent to bath suite windows. The demand for such features shows that while many have embraced the minimalist look, others still want opulence-a dream bath experience-and builders are happy to oblige.

Clean and Green

Great baths are also healthy baths. Homeowners are asking builders and designers to create spaces that are cost efficient and environmentally friendly. They want ventilation that's powerful enough to ward off mold and mildew, without sounding like a hurricane. Manufacturers have responded by making high-powered fans with reduced sone (sound measurement) levels. Although they cost more, a powerful whisper-quiet fan makes a difference.

Conscientious designers opt for eco-friendly materials like bamboo and sustainably harvested woods, recycled-content ceramic tiles, and natural or low VOC paints. Full-spectrum lighting replicates natural "daylight" indoors. And toilets are less wasteful.

Ever since the federal mandate that toilets must function on 1.6 gallons per flush or less, manufacturers have been trying to come up with good options. Toto and Kohler are leading the race, and they've produced some interesting products. Toto's luxury loos have high-performance flushing systems that conserve water. High performance meets high fashion with Kohler's Purist Hatbox design, which is both compact and attractive.

Each year, the National Kitchen and Bath Association holds a design competition that acknowledges the talent of designers to plan functional, personalized spaces that incorporate imaginative designs and visually pleasing solutions. The 2005 winners included contemporary, Zen, and traditional bathrooms-worlds apart in style, but equally tranquil and inviting.

Even smaller bathrooms can be big on style. Regardless of size, the marriage of aesthetics and practicality is key. Functional, private, comfortable-today's great baths have universal appeal. And a few extras.

10 Steps to Bathroom Bliss

  1. Set the mood with color. Bright colors invigorate; subdued tones calm.
  2. Don't make the toilet visible from outside the room or the first thing you see. 

  3. Plush towels, fragrant soaps and flowers will make even the simplest bathroom feel luxurious. 

  4. Stunning bathrooms start with stylish storage. Eliminate clutter. 

  5. Incorporate an actual piece of furniture, such as an antique table, chair or dresser.

  6. Choose lighting fixtures that provide the right level of light for various activities.

  7. Install a bench or footrest in the shower

  8. Create a safe surface. Flooring with grout lines, such as small mosaic tiles, will be less slippery than seamless tiles. Use non-stick pads on rugs.

  9. Luxury is about quality, so don't scrimp on materials, finishes or fixtures.

  10. Visit a showroom to see all the new products and options.

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