The look of your grandparents' - or perhaps their grandparents' - bathroom fixtures is back in style. Whether it's another effect of the aging Baby Boom generation or a wave of nostalgia touched off by the end of the century, it's a given that the traditional look is back - and thriving.
From recent retro trends in the automotive industry - such as the Volkswagen Beetle, the Ford Thunderbird and the DaimlerChrysler PT Cruiser - to the television success of PBS's most popular program, "Antiques Roadshow," the old-fashioned look is hot. And perhaps nowhere is the traditional look hotter than in home furnishings.
It's no surprise to manufacturers in the plumbing industry that this trend extends to the bathroom (and kitchen) as well - witness the rise of national retail stores such as Restoration Hardware. Yet industry insiders stress that only a very small segment of the market is looking for genuine antiques, which have proved not only extremely difficult to find and refurbish, but technologically obsolete as well. It is the need for modern interpretations of traditional designs that is driving the fixtures market - classic forms incorporating new technology and materials.
Whatever the reasons behind it, the surge in traditional fixtures - coupled with the rise in home remodeling, renovation and
new construction - has plumbing manufacturers scrambling to keep up with demand and musing about the causes of the trend
and what to name it.
Something Old:"The closer to the 21st century we get, the less like the Jetsons we've become," jokes Gary Uhl, process owner of product development for American Standard. He chalks up the surge in traditional bath and kitchen fixtures not to the Baby Boomers, but to a nostalgic look back inspired by the end of the century. This sense of reflection is evident in several of the company's product lines, which look to the 1930s for design cues but incorporate cutting-edge materials and technology. The Antiquity, Repertoire, Reminiscence and HeritageR suites feature pedestal and countertop lavatories, toilets, whirlpools and clawfoot tubs that cover different takes on the traditional look from a variety of price points.
"The challenge is to develop traditionally styled products the way people remember them, not the way they actually were," Uhl maintains. People like to think back fondly on their old plumbing, but in reality performance was not up to par. Faucets were not anti-scald. Toilets used too much water.
"The trick," Uhl continues, pointing to the new Volkswagen Beetle as a successful example, "is to recreate the feel of the traditional product while making the most of modern technology."
Perhaps overwhelmed with the pace of change today, consumers cling to a sense of tradition - and comfort - at home. This sense of comfort is emphasized by Steve Bissell, marketing manager at Kohler Co., who likens the rise of traditional fixtures to the resurgence of so-called "comfort foods." Consumers, he says, are looking for styles that "remind them of a trip to grandma's house."
Bissell refers to the combination of a traditional feel and modern convenience as the "New Traditional" look, asserting it encompasses modern interpretations of a Frank Lloyd Wright or "arts and crafts" aesthetic, and not the strict recreation of antique designs. He points to his company's FairfaxT faucet lines for the kitchen and MemoirsT collection for the bath as examples of "modern reinterpretations of classic designs" that offer an unprecedented variety of form and function. The Memoirs collection, for example, comes in black as well as a variety of colors.
"People have come to see the shower or the bath as an important place to relax, to release tension," Bissell explains. The New Traditional feel extends the sense of classic design to items that didn't exist a generation ago. "The question becomes: How do we interpret a whirlpool bath, a shower door or a shower tray in a traditional fashion?"
The result is a look that appeals to young and old alike. "A lot of people are very comfortable with this look," says Bissell, "and for that reason it's going to be around a long time."
Don Gamble, director of marketing for Eljer Plumbingware, points to the early 1990s as the time when the trend toward traditional fixtures really took off. Eljer's tradition-inspired Century bathroom suite has proved so popular that the company has come out with two other lines with stylistic cues from the past - the Savannah and Tosca suites - and is soon coming out with a third.
Gamble points to an overall trend of manufacturers offering a greater number of designs across the board, spurred on by the rise
in the number of showrooms and retail outlets. He asserts that the number of options for the consumer today as far as design and
finish have never been greater.
Showroom Quality:Bob Lando concurs. The president of Community Home Supply in Chicago, Lando is also the chairman of the Board of Governors for the Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Committee of the National Kitchen and Bath Association. He sees the increased popularity for traditional fixtures and faucets as simply a matter of the pendulum swinging between contemporary and traditional styles. He features both modern and traditional styles from many manufacturers in his 8,000-sq. ft. showroom, and he sees a long-term place for both styles in an expanding remodeling market.
"People want to individualize their homes, and that includes the bathroom," states Lando. "People want to reflect their personality in their bathrooms, and this is easier than ever with the wide variety of products and finishes available today." The number of finishes available today is an area of particular interest for Jamie Gregg of Colonial Bronze in Torrington, Conn. His company has manufactured cabinet hardware and bath accessories since 1927, and he has seen the number of finishes available explode in the last two and a half years, with the biggest increase in antique and distressed finishes. "A few years ago, everything was all polished chrome or polished brass," said Gregg, "but now we have over 35 finishes for brass alone."
The emphasis on antique finishes has his company scurrying to match fixtures and to develop finishes of its own for new lines of drawer pulls, towel bars and shower doors. The company now features six distressed finishes. The rise of what Gregg calls the handcrafted "Mission" or "Shaker" look is evident in the increase of satin and matte finishes in faucets and accessories. He attributes the stylistic appeal to the "pure romance" of the curved forms, but is quick to emphasize that collateral issues - such as maintenance and lighting - are also driving the trend.
The satin and matte finishes are easier to maintain than polished brass and hide fingerprints better, he points out, especially
under today's halogen lighting, which creates hot spots on highly reflective finishes. Gregg finds the traditional, handcrafted
look especially appealing to the Baby Boomers, and sees the trend as a lasting one. "These are classic designs," he concludes.
"It's 'cute' styles that don't wear well."
Homeowner Approval:Not only established manufacturers are seeing the benefits of the trend toward the antique look. As consumers find that original antiques are often impossible to find or refurbish, start-up companies are filling the niche by offering recreations of original fixtures. Affordable Antique Bath & More of San Andreas, Calif., specializes in old-fashioned clawfoot tubs and two-piece pull-chain toilets with oak or mahogany tanks.
Its cast-iron tubs are manufactured in Portugal, and the cost includes the feet as well as the freight in the continental U.S. - no small consideration, given that the tubs weigh well over 300 pounds. Affordable Antique Bath's Denise Konz links the tubs' popularity to portrayals on movies and television, and she has seen intimate bathroom scenes on shows such as "N.Y.P.D. Blue" and "Ally McBeal" boost sales. The Internet has also proved a boon to the 1996 start-up, whose business tripled in 1998 and doubled again in 1999.
Another company borne of the problems refurbishing antiques is the German Silver Sink Co. of Detroit. When a homeowner in nearby Grosse Pointe found the silver sink in his butler's pantry impossible to refurbish - the metal was too soft and the substructure was falling apart - the company found that no replacements were available.
The sinks had been handmade in Germany in the 1890s, but had been rendered obsolete with the popularity of stainless steel in the 1930s. Templates were made from the original and it was recreated from scratch. Word of mouth spread, and the company now specializes solely in the custom reproduction of antique bulter's pantry sinks.
Every sink is hand-made to order from sheets of 25-gauge metal and the highest grade silver solder, and requires 30 to 60 man-hours of labor to produce. As a result, this is an extremely high-end item, but owner Maggi Goscicki indicates that it always was. She indicates a newspaper advertisement for a 1912 sink has been found, and its price then was $252.50 - exorbitant for the time.
In a nod to modern convenience, The German Silver Sink Co. makes options such as a garbage disposal flange, and pitched sides and wells available. It just goes to show that true classics never really go out of style, they just continue to evolve.