Text by Rose Bennett Gilbert
Photography by Phillip EnnisSensitive faucets, chandeliers, a big-screen TV, under-floor heating, polished-nickel fittings—today’s 900-square-foot “brainy bathroom” offers luxurious bathing facilities fit for the Emperor Augustus
David Easton, the New York designer-architect, is only half right when he declares that his clients should reread Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire before they decide how to build their ultimate bathroom-spa. Perhaps the other half of the assignment should be a viewing of The Matrix, in which brilliant machines take over the human world.
Today’s bath—luxurious enough to arouse envy even among the decadent Romans—is not just about total self- indulgence, it’s also about elegant, highly individualized design and wow! technology that’s as superb as the modern “water experience” itself.
Water experience? That’s industry-speak for what happens in today’s master(ful) bath. People don’t merely take a shower or have a bath anymore—not in a space the size of a studio apartment (think 500 to 900 square feet). According to industry expert Joe Vadala, service manager at Warco Plumbing & Heating, in Stamford, homeowners are willing to spend up to $100,000 to design and equip their “ultimate bath.”
Vadala notes that in the last quarter-century, the master bath has grown from merely big to “massive.” It has also gone from a private place for personal use and cleansing to “a gathering spot, a sitting area, a place to watch big-screen TV … to hang the crystal chandelier.” To make the room truly luxe, David Easton would add a dressing table with star-quality lighting surrounding the makeup mirror, a slipper chair or two, and warm-water heating channels under a floor made of natural stone or marble. Oh, and there’d also be a heated bench for an extra touch of luxe in the shower stall.
Easton will soon be practicing, on a large scale, what he preaches about design in his frequent lectures at venues like the New York School of Interior Design. A decade or so ago, Easton created a fabled l8th-century-style estate in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a then–couple, John Kluge (of Metromedia, Inc.) and Patricia Kluge. Easton is now returning to design 30 more estate houses, including one for himself, on sites ranging from 6 to 30 acres adjacent to the winery that Patricia Kluge has established near Jefferson’s Monticello. Each estate will feature a mega–master bath designed for indoor-outdoor living, year round, in the relatively benign climate of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Easton’s own bath will open onto a courtyard, he says, and it will include a shower inspired by a trip to India: a simple overhead pipe that delivers a “delicious” deluge of water.
Easton’s is a typically personal version of today’s new water experience. “We use water differently,” confirms Tom Cohn, executive director of the five-year-old Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association, of Bethesda, Maryland. “The bath has been transformed into a personal haven for relaxing that is magnificently designed and technically advanced.”
Redefined and redesigned in the age of the computer, bathing can now offer a combination of posh, spa-style relaxation and hyper, water-park excitement, with a mega-jolt of sci-fi ideas and special effects thrown into the mix. Take, for example, the Neorest Bath Collection from TOTO, the 90-year-old Japanese company that calls itself the world’s largest plumbing manufacturer. The collection, which TOTO spokeswoman Leonora Campos calls “intuitive and intelligent,” includes a programmable air bath (air bubbles, not old-fashioned water jets, do the massaging) that will remember and refill itself to your preferred level—at the exact water temperature you like.
Today’s “bath with brains” might also include the Neorest Smart Sensor digital faucet, which “senses its users’ approach and anticipates their needs,” Campos says. Always in a state of what she calls “watchful readiness” (indicated by a lighted sensor), the faucet is awake and ready when you need it. Just touch its red button for instant hot water, its blue button for cold.
Wait! There’s still more to this brainy bathroom. Come near the Neorest toilet, and its lid opens automatically. Touch the wireless remote, and up goes the seat, too; touch again to turn on the seat warmer, to set off the warm water personal washing action and activate the warm-air dryer. Walk away, and the Neorest flushes itself, lowers the seat, and quietly closes its lid. More amazement: There’s even an automatic self-cleaning feature.
As Campos points out, “Consider the vital role computers play in our lives [and] it’s no small wonder that computer technology has found its way into the bath.” Thanks to technology, an indulgence has now been designed to tend to every bodily ache, every psychic need—even a potential cure for jet lag—and this pampering often comes by means of polished-nickel fittings that may look like Edwardian-era originals but that function like a precision-engineered automobile. (In fact, the sleek new KWC Canyon faucet for KWC America was designed by Bruno Sacco, former director of design for Mercedes-Benz.)
As technology and art converge behind today’s bathroom door, A-list architects like Philippe Starck, Michael Graves, and Sir Norman Foster are creating toilets and bathtubs that could pass for contemporary porcelain sculptures. There are also smaller sculptures—ethereal butterflies, panthers, and angels rendered in Lalique crystal—that add ne plus ultra elegance to faucet sets by THG Paris. For six-figure luxe, THG offers a gold-finished version with handles of lapis lazuli and crystal.
Do you prefer sterling silver? Bronze? If your interior designer—or your own design sense—dictates, fittings in these metals are readily available from companies like Waterworks Ltd. and THG, respectively. Even old-fashioned copper fixtures have returned on the tide of interest in personalizing master baths. Native Trails, a California-based producer of handmade copper tubs, has introduced a “curvy, sexy soaker tub” that celebrates copper’s high heat-conductivity: the entire tub warms instantly when the first hot water hits. For $10,500 to $19,500, no more leaning back onto cold, hard enamel.Comfort Trumps Technology
Overall, in fact, traditional styling and old-fashioned comfort still hold the edge, no matter how brainy the bath fixtures may be. Natural materials, neutral colors, and finely crafted hardwood cabinetry are the order of the day, and polished nickel is the hardware finish of choice. Chrome is so last-century, according to Joe Vadala. And never mind that polished nickel’s Edwardian good looks depend on scrupulous daily maintenance. While satin-finished nickel and other surfaces may be easier on the housekeeper, they lack what Vadala calls “the deeper, warmer look” of the authentic polished-nickel antiques that were—and still are—made by venerable (mostly English) manufacturers. Topping the list of such firms are Czech & Speake Ltd.; Barber Wilson’s & Company Ltd.; and Perrin & Rowe, Mayfair (available through ROHL, a firm in Costa Mesa, California, whose plumbing graces the baths of stars like Brad Pitt, Madonna, and Jennifer Aniston).
Think of that gleaming, elegantly engineered hardware as “jewelry” for the bath that has everything else, says Tim Murphy, of Klaff’s, the 85-year-old Connecticut plumbing and design giant with showrooms in South Norwalk, Westport, and Danbury. Specifically, it’s “guy jewelry,” he says. While women are usually the major decisionmakers when it comes to planning the high-end bath—they pick the tub and the colors, Murphy reports—men go for polished-nickel thermostatic valves exposed like fine machinery on the outside of the shower wall.
“It’s a ‘guy spa,’ what men see in their country clubs,” says Murphy, a 25-year veteran of the industry and a board member of the Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association. To also duplicate the high-volume deluge-shower spa experience at home, Murphy says, such high-end hardware has been upgraded so that newer, 3⁄4-inch thermostatic valves can deliver up to l6 gallons a minute (as opposed to the typical 4-to-6-gallon output from a regular 1⁄2-inch pressure-balanced valve).
Never mind that there’s an eco-sensitive regulation limiting the water flow from showers to 2.6 gallons per minute; the entire industry simply looks the other way, says Ed Pell of the National Kitchen & Bath Association, in Hackettstown, New Jersey. Unlike the strictly enforced l.6-gallon-flush restriction on toilets, “No one pays any attention to the shower regulation,” agrees Tim Murphy. “Who would ever buy a deluge shower if you could get only a trickle of water?”
Separate body sprays—often set in banks of three or more on each side of the shower stall— intensify the “carwash” experience. Get a set with a programmable readout and you can vary the way the waters play as you shower. Enclose the shower space in floor-to-ceiling glass and you can add a steam bath. Or perhaps you’d prefer to combine a shower head with a hand spray mounted on a slide bar next to a bench, an arrangement their customers find convenient for shaving, says Lou Rohl, COO of his family’s eponymous 20-year-old firm.
Out of the shower and into the tub, other contemporary bath options flirt with New Age ideas. BainUltra, for example, suggests such supplements for its hydro-thermo massage as chromatherapy—using the beneficial powers of color; luminotherapy—intense light treatments that counter the effects of seasonal light-deprivation; and aromatherapy, in which essential natural oils and fragrances are added to the bath and/or air.
Chromatherapy taps into the psychological and physical effects that colors are said to have on human biorhythms. BainUltra’s integrated LED system lets you bathe in different-colored lights while you steep in the tub. Studies by such organizations as the Color Association of the United States (CAUS), in New York, support the theory that colors’ differing wave-lengths induce specific reactions. For example, red is said to wake up the senses and activate one’s circulation. Green is calming and stabilizing; blue reduces blood pressure and stress; violet detoxifies and stimulates the immune system, and so on around the color palette.
Luminotherapy, the marketers claim, fights off the winter blues and blahs brought on by the season’s short-rationed daylight, a condition now classified as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). BainUltra’s spa treatment exposes you to 10,000-lux light—an intense, UV-filtered light—for periods of 5 to 10 minutes. It’s also said to counter jet lag and the disorienting effects of graveyard-shift work.
Aromatherapy helps “re-establish harmony between body and mind,” according to BainUltra’s spec sheet. It relies on essences of aromatic plants, flowers, and resins, said to stimulate one’s skin when added to the bath and to stimulate the sense of smell when it’s spritzed into the air.
“A few years ago, this might have been all witch-doctor stuff,” acknowledges Klaff’s Tim Murphy. Today, it’s another good reason that we’re happily spending so much more time and money—some $27.8 billion last year—on a room that few other people are even allowed to see. TMERose Bennett Gilbert writes a weekly column on lifestyle and design, “Décor Score,” that appears in some 250 U.S. newspapers. The author of seven books on design, she is a member of the board of the International Furnishings & Design Association (IFDA). 212.674.5108; Rose.firstname.lastname@example.org