SERLOHN, Germany -- While sex, politics and religion are famously risky subjects for dinner conversation, another topic -- namely, the bathroom -- is considered so outre, it's scarcely ever mentioned. No one's bothered to tell this, however, to Andreas Dornbracht. The president of Dornbracht, the German kitchen and bathroom fittings company, expounded on things lavatorial a few weeks ago as he tucked into his meal of mustard soup and Wiener schnitzel at a restaurant in Iserlohn, where his corporation has its headquarters. "Today, the bathroom is a place where you can spend time with your body and soul. You take a bath not just to be clean, but to relax, think, and ask yourself, 'what is the future of me?'" he said. "When we look at kulchur im bad [bathroom culture], we must consider the daily rituals that occur there."
In Dornbracht's vision of the future, we'll soon abandon any notion of the bathroom as a "wet cell," and embrace spa-like designs that make it more of a refuge, or what he calls an "intimate zone." As bath and bedroom merge, the toilet itself will spin off into a separate orbit.
He's hardly alone in such theorizing. Vogue's July issue, for instance, had a story about a beach house in Nantucket, where a sleek, white bathtub dominates one end of the master bedroom. And, trend forecasters and design gurus at many U.S. companies such as American Standard, Moen, Kohler and Waterworks agree that whether or not bathroom walls are a-tumblin' down, the bath's functionality is, of late, being thoroughly reconsidered and redesigned.
"Andreas Dornbracht and I are definitely on the same page," said Diana Schrage, an interior decorator at the Kohler Design showroom. "Over the last 10 years in America, we have seen both a great increase in the number of bathrooms per bedrooms, and the amount of square footage devoted to bathrooms. Stylistically, though, one of the biggest trends we are seeing is the bathroom as retreat within the master suite."
"It is becoming more of a shared room -- private only on a need-to-use basis," agreed Judy Riley, vice president of design for Moen. "For the kid's baths, parents only want to make sure they are not wasting water. But for the master, people want luxury."
A shower of money
According to the National Kitchen and Bath Association, based in Hackettstown, N.J., in 2004, American spent $23.7 billion on renovating bathrooms or building new ones. While this figure is dwarfed by what was spent on kitchens ($47.3 billion), it's worth noting that kitchen expenditures rose only 1.3 percent from 2003, whereas bathroom spending was up over 7 percent.
Where's all this money going?
Into products like the Alpha from Jacuzzi, an aeronautically designed swirl of a bathtub created by Pininfarina, the automotive team behind Ferrari and Maserati. Or, the Rain Sky from Dornbracht, a shower system that's flush-mounted into the ceiling and has several types of spray -- from a fine mist, to raging thunderstorm -- as well as aromatherapy and chromatherapy features. Coordinated "suites" of accessories are all the rage, so Waterworks offers towel bars, towel rings, shelves, toilet-paper holders, robe hooks, sconces, and mirrors that all match like tableware.
A further cornucopia of design possibilities were unveiled at the annual Kitchen / Bath Industry Show, held in Las Vegas last May. A "Best Bath Product of Show" Award was given to Engineered Glass Products for its new high-tech towel warmer. For the environmentally minded, toilets using fewer gallons per flush are available from Duravit, Toto and Villeroy & Boch.
Consumers also are trading up in the materials they select, with satin nickel being a top choice for faucets and accessories. Polished concrete, metal, exotic woods, even bamboo, are all exploding in popularity, as are glass tile and molded glass for sinks, counters, tub surrounds and flooring. As this might suggest, the overall movement is toward a "dematerialization" of fixtures, so the decor looks less like a lavatory and more like a lounge.
"We are seeing greatly enlarged bathrooms, too. It might happen that the kids go to college and their bedroom now becomes part of the master bath," said Bob Gibbs, president of Cox Kitchen and Baths Inc. in Baltimore. Gibbs estimated that the bathroom-remodeling end of his business is up 25 percent over just a couple years ago. "Shower spaces are becoming especially huge. A typical shower of the past might be 2 1/2 feet by three feet. We are now seeing showers three times this size, with multiple heads, so two people can shower at the same time."
Barbara Sallick, senior vice president of Design at Waterworks, concurred. "Today's bathroom isn't a 5-by-8 closet anymore, but a room where there is more air, light, and volume of space. We have better venting systems available than ever before, so things don't get damp. All of this changes how we think," she said. "As you begin to reconsider it as a room, not the bathroom, you might add a fireplace, or chairs, tables, places for visiting with your partner or spouse. More things like art collections are finding their way into this increasingly personal space."
Grooming and visiting
There's also a trend toward gender-specific areas, suggested Kohler's Diana Schrage.
"Just as men and women do not logically mix their clothes in a closet, we are seeing more 'his and her's' spaces in the bath," she said. "This only makes sense, as a man is usually taller, so countertops can be modified in height. Women do more 'fine-tuning' to their appearance, so they want a seating area. But both might like to have a shared place where family members, or guests, are entertained."
This, of course, is not a new idea. In Bathroom Unplugged: Architecture and Intimacy (Birkhauser, 2005), Georges Teyssor reminds us that for centuries, the aristocratic ideal in France was to place elaborate grooming areas within the bedroom. Dressing and arranging of hair took place before a table with a mirror (a piece of furniture known as a toilette), during which time friends, counselors, even tradesmen might be admitted into the bedchamber. It's for this reason that we still sometimes refer to the morning's beautification rituals as performing one's "toilette."
Only at the end of the 18th century, with the British innovation of indoor plumbing, did water closets, allow for all bodily needs, both toilette and toilet, to be consigned to an area apart from the sleeping chamber. What we are seeing today, then, is a reconsideration of this separation.
"The toilet is about waste removal, which has its own taboo. It's a place where you shut the door, you want to be alone and safe," said Gary Uhl, design director for American Standard. "These activities, though, have nothing to do with bathing or showering, which are all acts of rejuvenation and invigoration which we are comfortable sharing with our spouse or significant other. In the future, the toilet won't have anything to do with the bathroom."
In this idealized sense of a bathroom as a spot for personal renewal, Germany is probably still in the vanguard. After all, water has a nearly spiritual quality here. Think of how southern Germany is filled with resort towns like Baden-Baden and Wiesbaden, where, since Roman times, the ailing have sought health cures by "taking the waters." At these sumptuous spots, areas for socializing merge seamlessly into saunas, steam baths, and heated indoor pools.
Spa details at home
America, however, is catching up fast. According to Uhl, during 2004, there was a 25 percent growth in commercial spas in the United States. "Customers want to re-create a bit of that in the home," he said, citing increasingly commonplace features such as high-tech showerheads, radiant-heated floors, and shower units with chromatherapy and aromatherapy features. A growing number of people are adding a room adjacent to their master bath or dressing room that is dedicated to massage.
"Just think about the whirlpool," said Schrage. "Time was when people considered it a luxury, an indulgence. They said, 'I don't have time for that.' Now we have an aging population who see things differently. The American bathroom is becoming less about primping, and more about health benefits."
None of which surprises Andreas Dornbracht. Over coffee, he was still ruminating on the teleology of the toilet.
"We're on the cusp of a new way of looking at things, one that frees the bathroom from its acquired limitations and refines it as a space for living," he concluded. "Look at what's happened to the kitchen in the past few years. It is now the locus of family communication, not just cooking," he explained. "We have the chance to create a similarly new understanding of the bath."
Perhaps. On the other hand, if all this -- having the little'uns underfoot as you tweeze your eyebrows, say, or sipping tea with the neighbors while shaving your legs -- makes you squeamish, consider this final word from Judy Riley of Moen.
"Bear in mind, though it's becoming more of a shared room," she said, "entrance to the bathroom is still on a 'by invitation only' basis."
The 'open' bathroom
Should you decide to separate the toilet from a bath room, make sure the new "loo" has a window (or, at least, proper ventilation), ample light and its own sink for washing up.
If you have a view, enjoy it to the fullest. Put your tub by the window.
As the bath merges with a master suite, be aware that your bedroom door becomes the new privacy barrier.
Why do you have all those products on display? If you plan a combined bath / bedroom, it behooves you to eradicate countertop clutter.
Cox Kitchens and Baths, Inc.
6322 Falls Road