Copyright 2002 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
The Kansas City Star... 11/15/2002

By Cindy Hoedel

American bath culture is changing.

We used to crave jetted tubs and pulsating showers that blasted our bodies like waves pounding the shore. Baths and showers were invigorating, exhilarating, energizing. They left us whistling Zippity Do Da and bouncing around like the guy in the Irish Spring commercial.

But these days, we're over vigor. We want to be soothed.The up-to-date master bath where the cool stuff goes is becoming a spa-like sanctuary. You can warm your bones in a steam shower, submerge yourself in a deep soaking tub or linger under a gentle rain shower.

Hold the Zest, and light a tranquility candle.

Bob and Marida Cutler's new 600-square-foot master bath is remarkable for what it doesn't have: a whirlpool. "I knew we wouldn't use it," Marida says. There is a tub an oversized custom-built stone basin with integrated seats but no jets. There is also a combination water/steam shower and a wooden bench in a glassed-walled alcove that overlooks the Leawood, Kan., couple's backyard pool.

Leslie Huffaker of Maysville, Mo., found the tub of her dreams on the Internet the Kohler Sok, an overflowing air bath with chromatherapy. The water appears to change color as underwater LED light ports move gradually through a progression of eight colors. By pushing a button, the bather can stop on a desired hue.

When she saw images of the Sok, Huffaker says, "that was it. I knew I had to have that tub." Even at the suggested retail price of $ 7,143, the indulgence is worth it, Huffaker says: "I think color really influences your mood."

With or without chromatherapy, air tubs are fast replacing whirlpools as the apple of the trendy bather's eye. Their advantages are many, say bath designers.

For one thing, air jets don't blast specific points of your body like water jets. Instead, they create loads of tiny bubbles. "It's an all-over experience," says Julie Sambo, showroom consultant at Ferguson Bath & Kitchen Gallery in Lenexa, Kan.

Air tubs are quieter than whirlpools, too. Sambo says water jet tubs can get pretty loud: "That can be annoying to people." Overflow tubs, such as the Kohler Sok, use splashing water to create a relaxing sound. Best of all, aromatherapy fans can use bath oils and bath salts in an air tub. Bubble bath and the like are a no-no in whirlpools: Water jets can become clogged or collect residues that harbor bacteria.

Despite the rising popularity of air baths and plain old soaker tubs, statistics show Americans still overwhelmingly prefer showering to bathing. But today's power shower is a gentle downpour from a ceiling-mounted rain head. The round flat fixtures, also known as sunflower or pan shower heads, range from 6 to a whopping 18 inches. And size does matter the widest models provide complete coverage, says designer Eric Negrete of Helix, so "you don't have to wriggle" to get your whole body wet.

Customers at Expo Design Center in Lenexa are also interested in free-standing shower columns by Pharo, says design supervisor Anastasia Blackwood. Angled body sprays and a hand-held shower head, some of which light up, are mounted on a pole that can be positioned away from the wall. This gives the walls a clean look and "adds a focal point" to the bath, Blackwood says.

But perhaps the biggest news in the home bath-cum-spa is steam. Sales of steam showers have risen steadily in the last two years, showroom consultants say.

A steam shower looks a lot like a water shower, except that the glass enclosure extends to the ceiling. Also the door has to be sealed; some trendy frameless models won't hold the steam in.

The thing Bob Cutler enjoys most about his new steam shower, he says, is the instant warm-up it provides "after you've been jogging or working outside on a cold day."

Most steam showers are purchased for new or remodeled baths. Prices range from $3,000 to $6,000. It's possible to retrofit an existing bath with steam. Freestanding units start around $ 1,500, Blackwood says. In decor, warm wood is replacing industrial chrome. Teak vanities, stepping stools and floor mats are the accessories du jour. Negrete just installed a teak vanity in a remodeled bathroom for a client in Kansas City, Mo. The warmth of the wood, he says, combined with the coolness of stone in the shower area creates a "great balance very Zen-like."

The Asian look that has been so hot in home furnishings is making its way into the bath, no doubt. Even World Market carries a line of Zen-look bath accessories such as towel holders and mirrors.

Negrete, who regularly travels to the coasts where trends begin, predicts Japanese soaking tubs will be making a splash soon. They are shorter, but deeper, than Western tubs and often have a built-in seat but no jets.

Continuing reluctance to travel on the part of Negrete's clients is driving the spa trend, he thinks. "People aren't traveling to the European spas they're accustomed to, so they're bringing (the experience) home," he says.

Other times inspiration comes from a favorite hotel. "I can't tell you how many clients have said 'I want my bathroom to be like the one I had at the Four Seasons (hotel) in New York,"' he says. With bathrooms getting bigger, Sambo says, there's simply more room to fill than there used to be. So why not add the spa to the gym and the cinema as places you no longer need to leave home to enjoy?

(c) 2002, The Kansas City Star.

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