Feeling Flush

Article excerpt

Bathrooms with every imaginable luxury are ambitious homeowners' newest money pit--and designers are really cleaning up DOWN THE BLOCK FROM THE house that was the setting for "Home Alone," in a quietly prosperous Chicago suburb, is a five-bedroom Tudor with a room in it the size of a two-car garage. The room has a fireplace, a built-in sound system, original artwork and glass doors leading to a wooden deck. So it's not surprising that the owner of the house, Chicago ad executive Tonise Paul, spends at least an hour a day there and longer on weekends, hours she describes as among the most pleasant of her day. "There's no place else in the world I'd rather be," says Paul. The room is her bathroom. Paul and her designer, John Robert Wiltgen, refuse to discuss the price for such luxury, in part because it's included in a renovation of the entire 1924 house, in part because the chandelier hasn't even been ordered yet. But in general, an adequate budget for a top-of-the-line master bath runs about $50,000, half of what people might pay for a kitchen of the same quality. Of course the bathroom is usually a much smaller room--although sometimes not, as in the case of a 1,600square-foot bathroom Wiltgen designed for a couple in Rancho Santa Fe., Calif. It has floor-to-ceiling bookcases, three televisions, two whirlpool tubs, two toilets, a bidet and a steam shower "for eight of his closest friends." Wiltgen's profession is the beneficiary of a powerful trend in American society: the estheticization of the everyday, symbolized (this year) by a $246 pair of Baccarat cobalt-blue crystal faucet knobs from Kohler, for the purpose of turning on the water to brush your teeth. Toothbrushing, to state the obvious, is done the same way in a $1,200 hand-painted sink as it is in anything you might get at Home Depot. The boom in luxury bathroom design is driven by fashion, ego and self-indulgence. No one keeps statistics on high-end jobs, but the National Kitchen and Bath Association says the average cost of bathroom renovations has risen noticeably in the last few years, even in places not otherwise noted for being on the cutting edge of design. Homeowners with substantial budgets, like Paul, might spend thousands on a sink. But even those with more modest means are splurging on heated towel racks or self-adjusting thermostatic shower controls--the best, selling for up to $1,500, claim to keep water temperature constant to within one eighth of a degree. In contrast to kitchens, bathroom design is not primarily inspired by huge leaps in technology. The age-old problems posed by male anatomy have inspired exactly two inventions. One is the home urinal, which controls splashing, saves water and puts an end to marital discord over where to leave the seat. The other is a toilet with--in place of a lever--a concealed electronic control that flushes when the lid is lowered. "People want to be coddled," says Alan S. Asarnow of Ridgewood, N.J., an NKBA Certified Bath Designer--he had to pass a daylong exam--and winner of numerous bathroom-design awards. …