At the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show, Bathrooms that Beckon

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YOU need a little razzle-dazzle to pull in the crowd at a trade show, and from a showbiz point of view -- lights! music! dance! -- it was hard to beat Kohler's DTV II shower, set up prominently near the entrance to the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show at the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago last weekend.

Large enough for two (of course) and equipped with a digital control panel (natch), it had four overhead showers set in a light box (chromatherapy, baby), an angled shower spray, three body sprays and a sound system that could play the music of one's choice. Friday afternoon, that was "Stayin' Alive" from "Saturday Night Fever."

At day's end, two waiters who had served Champagne at a Kohler reception stood gazing at the unit, which sells for about $11,000, like kids looking at a poster for Disneyland.

"The overhead rain is one of the most desired experiences -- the rain experience is very natural," Leslie Petch, the marketing manager of Performance Showering at Kohler, told the reporter the next day. "It's a very experiential shower."

The bathroom not merely as spa, but as grown-up water park -- that was the message at the show. Luxuriate. Escape. Get spritzed. Submerge yourself in your own effervescing bottle of Champagne, in which you can choose bubble size, temperature, intensity of vibration, while at the same time being environmentally responsible by extracting maximum flow with minimum water.

A good many American homeowners may be under water with their mortgages, but everyone else was encouraged to turn their bathrooms into aquatic playlands. Tubs simulated overflowing resort pools or Roman baths; shower enclosures had room for two and glass walls for those who prefer to watch; and showers, as befitting entertainment units, often had remotes.

Planetary responsibility, vis-à-vis water conservation and renewable resources, was invoked frequently. It was clear that if one did not have a dual-flush toilet, one might as well have a bumper sticker that read "I desecrate Mother Earth daily."

And all across the hall, toilet seat covers were closing silently, in slow motion, a development the reporter had somehow missed.

"Gone are the days of the slamming toilet seat!" a product manager at Kallista announced.

The sun god of this sybaritic but socially responsible scene was Kohler, the company that commanded the most space at the show and put on more floor shows a day than Radio City Music Hall. Monica Pedersen, a designer from the HGTV show "Designed to Sell," was the radiant, high-energy mistress of ceremonies; dancers from the Momix troupe did Pilobolus-like things, sometimes in breezy white gowns, sometimes in bathing suits on little carts with wheels. (Not a great image if you remember the unfortunates on the New York subways.)

Beyond the stage were the small, glittering planets of Kohler's luxury companies, including Kallista, which was introducing its first dual-flush toilet, Plié (we assumed that was an elegant reference to squatting). The price of the toilet and seat, which are sold separately, was $1,056.

The company was also introducing a line of marble faucets, which ranged from $1,900 to $2,280.

"Statuary white marble, from the kind of marble used by Michelangelo, not like Carrara," a product manager said.

Next door, Ann Sacks was presenting Indah, a new line of Indonesian hand-carved wood tiles -- "all plantation teak, sustainably harvested," said Arthur Moloian, the senior merchandising manager -- ranging from $82.50 to $151.25 a square foot. The company was also showing Gilt, a new line of tile by Michael S. Smith that has gold leaf under glass and sells for $140 a square foot.

"Ever consider putting a hundred-dollar bill under the glass instead?" the reporter asked Mr. Moloian.

"Then it would be $240 a square foot," he said.

Making You Feel, Every Time You Use It, as Fresh As a Newly Unwrapped Slice of American Cheese

Think about it, Lenora Campos, the public relations manager for TOTO U.S.A., was saying: would you consider something clean if all you had done was run a piece of paper over it -- whether it was your dishes, your body, the floor?

This, by the way, was a rhetorical question, for the product Ms. Campos flogs is one that washes and dries what she refers to as one's "undercarriage." It also heats the toilet seat and cleans and recycles the air in the bowl.

It is now available as the Washlet, a toilet seat that can fit on an existing toilet, or the Neorest, a complete toilet unit. Both are operated with remote controls that have specific, though gender-neutral, icons.

The Washlet S300, which sells for $1,364, can remember a user's bathroom habits and preheat the toilet seat in anticipation of arrival.

The Neorest 600 toilet, which is $5,678, is motion sensitive as well.

"When you approach it, it will open automatically," Ms. Campos said, demonstrating as she talked. "If you are a gentleman, you touch this button and the lid opens automatically. When the gentleman walks away, the seat lowers automatically."

Is this because men are too lazy to close the seat?

"It flushes the toilet as well," said Ms. Campos, who avoided the question but explained that the automatic close-and-flush is for both sexes.

And all the products, of course, have the soft-close seat.

"It is lowering itself slowly so you don't have that annoying toilet slam or that sort of injury when a seat slams down," she said.

Toilet seat injuries -- what might those be?

"Getting up and the seat slams into your hand," Ms. Campos said vaguely. "Sometimes people with disabilities."

Then she moved on to another topic, fluidly.

A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall, but You Can Afford It

There is just no way to sugar coat this: If you are showering under a single, rickety, wall-mounted shower head, you are doing a disservice to the sensory aqua fun park that is your 21st-century birthright. A large ceiling-mounted rain forest, while a step in the right direction, is also limited. The way to go these days is multiple jets that shoot varying streams and temperatures of water -- as long as they are water-efficient, of course.

Yes, we understand that too strong a blast at the midsection may remind the older, more socially conscious among you of the early days of the civil rights movement and Bull Connor's police force, but you can stiffen your resolve by putting Pete Seeger on the sound system.

According to David Lingafelter, the president of Moen, a study conducted last year by his firm found that 60 percent of 2,000 consumers surveyed bought hand-held showers or shower combinations. Moen's latest entry in the market is the ioDigital, which has a rain shower, a hand shower and four wall-mounted body sprays. Temperature and spray are controlled by a remote panel that can be programmed to remember four different combinations. It sells for about $2,400.

On the far reaches of the hall, where a number of Chinese manufacturers had their booths, the Mingliu company, whose minimalist vertical showers showed a striking resemblance to the Fantini Acquatonica line, was displaying multi-jet showers with many of the fun features of Kohler's DTV II, but at a much lower price. The company's WB8168 shower, which will be available in July through the American distributor Wind Bay, has a USB outlet for an MP3 player, an FM receiver, 15 multicolor LEDs, four body jets and two overhead jets. Plus, when the control panel is off, it turns into a mirror. The suggested retail price is $1,899.

Is it a copy of the Italian shower, we asked Eric Yuen, the general manager for Wind Bay.

"It is not a copy," Mr. Yuen said. "They just try to do a European style."

Aaaah, Wilderness

MAAX, which makes very high-end bathroom fixtures, is doing a version of its elegant elliptical Viaggi tub in wood. This was a refreshing change from the sea of white at the show, although the tub, which is tentatively scheduled to come to market this summer and will cost $12,000 to $15,000, does look somewhat like a salad bowl.

Why wood, we asked Terry Rake, the vice president for market development for MAAX Bath.

"Actually, because of two things," Mr. Rake said. "One of our sister companies is in the lumber business. The other reason is that a large portion of the population have cottage second homes that are very often rustic."

Does he see a matching sink in the future?

"Absolutely," he said. "It's the same technology. There can be and there will be."

How about a toilet?

"We're not in that business."

Little-Known

Shower Head Fact

From Hearst Castle

William Randolph Hearst had seven shower heads in each of the bathrooms in his Casa del Mar guest house, where he lived while Hearst Castle was being built, and this was in 1919. We got this from the people at Enkeboll Designs, the architectural trim company, which is selling a line of Hearst Castle molding. Hillsborough, a replica of what was used in the castle's bathrooms, is $325 for an eight-foot length.

Won't Granny Love Hanging Her Dainties

On These?

Just when you start feeling pretty good about American bathrooms, you come across the Italians and you realize they live in color and you live in black and white. Such is the case with grab bars and the firm of Ponte Giulio. While the Americans are doing stainless steel or the occasional white, Ponte Giulio has been doing primary colors. At the Chicago show, the company displayed grab bars in its new Pastello line, which cost about $70 for a 12-inch bar.

"We are trying to introduce a new concept of the grab bar," said Enrico Carloni, the firm's 47-year-old general manager, who was attending the show with his father, Emidio, who is 75 and the company's founder. "This is not a tool, it is sort of an accessory. We base our colors on Italian fashion. When you think about getting older, it is not being handicapped."

The new Invisia Collection, by the Canadian firm HealthCraft Products, is also rethinking the grab-bar concept with a line of circular bars disguised as accent pieces. "We wanted to get as far away from the standard grab bar as we could," said Don Ed, the company's vice president. All the pieces are $259.

At Last, Something

For the Children

One of the more unusual tubs introduced at the show was a 36-inch-high red fire engine, by Safety Tubs Kids. Designed to be installed over an existing tub, it enables parents to wash their children without getting down on their hands and knees. The inventor is Adam Schwartz, a 44-year-old retired mortgage broker in Chicago and father, at the time of his voilà moment, of an extremely slippery 2-year-old.

"The way it started, my wife had hurt her back and was having trouble getting our son out of the tub," Mr. Schwartz said. "It wasn't the empathetic me that came up with it, it was three months into me doing the bathing. They're squirmy and slippery little suckers."

The tub, which is expected to be available in October, has a suggested retail price of $2,200 and includes an infant seat and changing pad. There is also a storybook carriage model for those slippery little suckers who prefer pink.

Enough About Them

Robern, the high-end bathroom cabinet manufacturer, which produces clever sliding horizontal medicine-cabinet doors as well as vanities and medicine cabinets with electrical outlets to accommodate hair dryers, is introducing a 70-inch-high mirrored unit with a small cooling cabinet. The price of the 20-inch-wide version is $4,295.

"For bottled water," said Beth Anna Deacon, the company's product manager. "And some cosmeceuticals."

Cosmeceuticals?

"Serums and $400 and $500 face creams," Ms. Deacon explained.

For the Pitifully Small-Bathroom People

In a rare industry acknowledgment that most people do not have theme-park-size bathrooms, Fairmont Designs introduced four 18-inch-wide vanity and sink units that range in price from $850 to $1,150 and will be available in July. They were built, Chandra Paschal, a sales support manager, told us, with the urban market -- particularly New York -- in mind.

"We did a line of 20 inches last year, but they actually said they wanted it still smaller," said Ms. Paschal, who lives in California.

Also worth checking out is Robern's new glass-and-aluminum Deep Vanity Base, which comes in a 24-inch width and has excellent storage space for a small unit, for $1,898. A night light -- an optional bathroom accessory that is increasingly popular -- brings the cost to $2,095.

For Your No-Good Brother, Who Disappeared

Some Years Ago in China

The Chinese manufacturer JINZI showed a handsome stainless steel toilet at its booth. It seemed just the thing for people who went crazy for stainless steel kitchens.

Who is buying them, we asked Yizhe Chen, the president of JINZI, through his interpreter, Jenny Bai.

Ms. Bai told us that the toilet, which sells for $320, has been bought by restaurants and prisons in China and by the military and prisons in the United States. But there were two designers who had stopped by the booth during the show, she added, and they seemed interested.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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