Glorified Bathrooms: The Lavish New Prominence of a Once-Private Part of the House

IN 1974 AMERICAN Standard, one of the largest plumbing manufacturers in the United States, produced a fifteen-minute promotional film with the humble title That Room Down the Hall. The country’s postwar effort to build millions of inexpensive basic houses had by then run its course, and the plumbing industry was starting to aim for a different market—people who could be persuaded to put more money and style into the room nobody talked much about.

That Room Down the Hall presented new toilets, including one now-common model whose tank and bowl are a single, continuous unit, making it sleeker, quieter-flushing, and more expensive than a standard two-piece toilet. The film encouraged people to think about making the bathroom larger. A common size for bathrooms had been five by seven feet; by the 1970s one manufacturer had introduced a multi-person “Superbath" that required five and a half by seven feet for the tub alone.

By the early 1980s the plumbing manufacturers, aiming at an increasingly leisure-oriented public, had succeeded in associating the bathroom with sensual pleasure. Probably nowhere during the seventies and eighties has the bathroom been portrayed more dazzlingly than in the displays at the conventions of the National Association of Home Builders. On the floor of the Houston Astrodome during the builders’ 1983 convention the Kohler Company, a chief rival of American Standard, erected a many-tiered bathtub exhibit and had an attractive young couple saunter through it in swimsuits, dipping into tubs of various shapes and sizes while a smooth-voiced mistress of ceremonies extolled the bathroom’s role in “the emerging life-style of the 1980s.” The audience watching in the Astrodome’s stands seemed to be mesmerized.

While exhibits like this were prodding builders to put luxurious bathrooms into newly constructed houses, the plumbing manufacturers were also devising effective methods of reaching the remodeling market. Customarily homeowners had relied on plumbers to help choose the fixtures for a bathroom remodeling. The trouble was, plumbers tended to stick with fixtures that were familiar and simple to install— nothing exotic. Also, plumbers aren’t renowned for their sales skills. A few years ago the manufacturers found a way of bypassing the plumbers: companies like Kohler and American Standard encouraged the opening of scores of bath showrooms around the country. The showrooms, which continue to proliferate, have given the homeowner a way to see a wide selection of fixtures and fittings in plusher surroundings, where the selling is done by people who don’t wrestle with pipe wrenches for a living.

As a result of this and other developments, master bathrooms are getting bigger. Kitchen & Bath Business magazine reports that the average size of master bathrooms in existing houses, after remodeling, is fifty-seven square feet (about seven by eight), up slightly from what it was a few years ago. In new houses the expansion has been substantial. Douglas Poretz, the vicepresident of the Virginia-based NVR, the nation’s largest builder of for-sale housing, says, “Three or four years ago our Ryan Homes subsidiary was building two-thousand-square-foot houses with fiftyto eighty-square-foot master baths. Today the same house would have a one-hundred-twenty-squarefoot master bath.” The extra space has come from whittling down a secondary bedroom.

In New York, where space is tight, developers have been hard put to increase the size of bathrooms, so they’ve concentrated instead on making them posh. A decade ago the master bathroom of a typical new Manhattan luxury condominium had walls that were tiled up to about waist height. That is no longer considered sufficient. “Early in the 1980s, Museum Tower, above the Museum of Modern Art, set a new standard of luxury for New York housing—marble tiles all the way to the ceiling,” says Charles H. Henkels, a New York architect.

Saga House, an Upper East Side condominium building designed by Stephen B. Jacobs and Associates, features master bathrooms tiled from floor to ceiling in brown Italian marble. While I was being shown some of Saga House’s apartments recently, I thought that these bathrooms would be satisfying places to start the day. They conveyed richness, elegance, solidity. Only later, when I’d had time to mull over my first impression, did it occur to me that the handsome marble surfaces also serve another function: they divert attention from the fact that even in Manhattan’s luxury bathrooms people still usually have to do without windows, natural light, and natural ventilation.

Some retailers of bathroom materials promote the idea of covering entire walls in tile—either marble or ceramic—by emphasizing that this is a European custom. “Bathrooms in Italy have been tiled to the ceiling ever since the advent of plumbing,” one tile specialist told me. Marble tiles start at about $7 a square foot for the cheapest marble—gray-and-white Carrara—and exceed $20 a square foot for hard-to-get varieties. A drawback of a fully tiled bathroom is that it can feel institutional—more like a public rest room than a room in a house. To avoid such a cold, monolithic character, some designers advocate using one pattern of tile up to a horizontal molding four feet above the floor and a contrasting pattern from there to the ceiling.

Recently Guy Robinson, an interior designer in Nahant, Massachusetts, took me to see a 1930s house that he had renovated for a family in the Boston suburb of Brookline. The bathroom measures only nine by six and a half feet, and the tub continues to double as a shower—a utilitarian combination that has recently fallen out of fashion. Even so, the bathroom feels handsome and inviting, thanks to its diamond-patterned marble floors and marble-sheathed walls. Cream-colored Spanish marble covers most of the wall area, and in subtle contrast, smooth bands of darker marble wrap around the room at baseboard, waist, and ceiling height. At the homeowner’s insistence Robinson even veneered the vanity doors with inch-thick slabs of the cream-colored marble.

While marble has become one of the distinguishing features of sophisticated bathrooms, there has also been a growing appreciation of traditional styling, especially in the Northeast. In a renovated row house I visited in the SoHo section of Manhattan, the master bathroom, designed by Michele Morris and Alfredo Carballude, architects at CMA Design Studio, and Alex Fradkoff, an interior designer, has walls surfaced in a mahogany that looks as if it could have been the robust work of late Victorians. The lustrous reddish-brown woodwork, protected by nine coats of lacquer, provides the backdrop for a salvaged old pedestal sink, white with a couple of indelible green blemishes. To stop the steam in the bathroom from penetrating an adjoining walkthrough closet, the owner can pull out a beautiful mahogany sliding door containing thirty-six small panes of beveled glass. The SoHo bathroom is, to be sure, idiosyncratic: it has no bathtub, because the owner wanted only a brass-trimmed shower.

There are fewer unusual touches in new speculatively built houses. Spec houses at the upper end of the price scale now boast these features in their master bathrooms: fine materials (especially marble), a “volume” ceiling (higher than eight feet), an oversize bathtub (usually with whirlpool jets), a separate shower (generally with a door of clear glass), two sinks (usually set into a single long counter), and a sleekly stylized toilet (often an elongated one-piece fixture, which operates quietly and is low enough to allow the installation of a shallow counter above the tank portion). Those features constitute the prevailing notion of mass luxury.

THE BROOKLINE and SoHo houses barely begin to explore the possibilities of individually designed bathrooms. To learn about what custom design can offer, I talked recently to a number of bathroom designers and interior designers, including Ann E. Grasso, in Providence, Rhode Island; Janine Newlin, in Chappaqua, New York; Charles Morris Mount, in New York City; Doris Bachmann, in Ramsey, New Jersey; Thompson Price, in St. Louis; Cay Fly, in Houston; Sarah Lee Roberts, in San Anselmo, California; and Martha Kerr, in Portland, Oregon.

One possibility has to do with bathtubs. Whereas builders of expensive tract houses seem to believe that the bigger rhe whirlpool bath the better, designers of custom bathrooms realize that the bigger the tub, the longer it takes to fill and the harder it is to clean. Many designers press their clients on whether a gargantuan bathtub will be used much. “After the novelty wears off, people find that it’s more practical to have a whirlpool bath for one person, not two,” Gay Fly says. Whirlpools start at about $1,300 to $1,700 for a small unit, five feet long and thirtytwo inches wide. The most lavish whirlpool, American Standard’s “Sensorium With Ambiance,” which has an undulating, wavelike profile and includes lots of electronic gadgetry, costs about $28,000—the price of a Lincoln Town Car.

Because a whirlpool bath needs to be supported around the rim, it’s common to see the tub surrounded by a tiled ledge several inches wide, which can also serve as a place for dry towels, plants, or decorative objects. Some expensive spec builders embellish the tub still further with two or three marble-riled steps leading up to the ledge, but good designers wince at the use of steps. “It is very dangerous,” Ann Grasso warns. Anyone who cares about safety should do without steps or accompany them with grab-bars.

Where money is no object, individually designed bathrooms are increasingly built not only with a separate shower but with a shower large enough that two people can lather together, each under a shower head with its own controls. (“A woman can stand a hotter temperature than a man,”Fly says.) One popular accessory, made by Kallista, of San Leandro, California, and priced at $342, is the Rainbar, a twofoot-long sidespray that’s installed vertically—often one each on opposite shower walls. People who want to take a shower without getting their hair wet like these. A bench in the shower makes it easier for people to wash their feet or shave their legs. Designers usually include detachable hand-held shower nozzles in the tub as well as the shower, mainly for easier cleaning of the tub surfaces and the shower compartment.

Designers often specify that the shower be equipped with an anti-scald device, such as a pressure-balancing valve, developed by Symmons Industries, of Braintree, Massachusetts, and now made by a number of manufacturers (building codes in some states require such devices). The valve, which raises the plumbing cost by $50 to $100, aims at keeping the shower’s water temperature constant when a toilet is flushed or a tap or dishwasher or washing machine draws water. An enormous variety of Americanand foreign-made faucets and other fittings is available to choose from. One popular product, recently introduced, is colored epoxy-on-brass faucets and handles. They are available mainly in white, black, and red, and sell in the $150-to-$250 range.

Designers believe that sinks and counters should be at whatever height suits the homeowner. Placing one counter and sink at about thirty-six inches for a six-foot-tall man, and another slightly lower for a woman who applies makeup while seated, for example, works better than putting everything at a standard thirtyto thirtytwo-inch height, Janine Newlin says. Lighting along the sides of a mirror, not just above it, enables a man to see his neck while shaving. To establish a mood and to make nighttime trips to the bathroom less blinding, dimmers can be installed.

The most surprising development in bathroom design is a widespread trend toward placing large windows only an inch or two above the rim of the tub. In many high-priced spec houses, especially in California, the tub is set against a pair of corner windows, making bathing a public spectacle. One explanation for this strange practice is that home-buyers are so much attracted by a bright, naturally lit bathroom that they don’t question the window placement until too late. Mitchell Rouda, the editor of Builder magazine, has coined the phrase “the twentyminute house,” by which he means a house designed to make a terrific impression during the few moments that a home-buyer typically spends inspecting a model home for the first time. You’d expect an eventual backlash against show-it-all bathrooms, as word of their lack of privacy got around. But instead, glassy bathrooms with tubs next to the windows are spreading from California to other, presumably more conservative parts of the country.

Clare Cooper Marcus, a prominent academic analyst of the built environment, and Carolyn Francis and Colette Meunier, two of her students at the University of California at Berkeley, looked at suburban model homes in the San Francisco Bay area for five years and came away convinced that the exposure of bathrooms to outsiders’ eyes is so common that it must be intentional. “After our initial astonishment wore off,” they wrote in the journal Places, “we began to wonder if the windows afforded a deliberate form of ‘social flashing’ of opulent bathrooms and their luxuriating owners to nextdoor neighbors, passersby, or, in some cases, golfers on adjacent fairways.”

Clearly a pronounced shift in attitude is taking place. In addition to their revealingly placed windows, a growing number of tract houses in California and other parts of the country provide a direct line of sight from bath to bed, with no door in between. The most likely explanation I can offer is that house design is finally accommodating itself both to the sexual revolution of the past quarter century and to the virulent materialism of the 1980s. Having a good time—as opposed, say, to living simply and saving for the future—has become a contemporary social imperative.

It has frequently been observed in the past several years that in America the boundaries between what’s public and what’s private have eroded away. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the bathroom. Designers and the plumbing and homebuilding industries have learned how to turn a once modest part of the house into an undisguised center of gratification, with a speed that continues to startle even those who helped bring about the transformation.