Bring luxury home with a spa-style bathroom

From fixtures to accessories, the modern bathroom is becoming the place to recreate opulent day-spa experiences.

The opening of the new Sara showroom on Dubai's Sheikh Zayed Road last November was, by any standards, an impressive event. Guests including foreign diplomats and local dignitaries circulated among the mocktails, canapés and roving photographers in the artfully lit 6,000-square-foot space. Surprisingly, however, it was not the launch of a luxury car or couture collection that held the assembled glitterati enthralled. It was a collection of baths, sinks showers and hot tubs.
That Sara's brands include Villeroy & Boch, the 260-year-old standard-bearer for quality bathrooms, imbued the event with glamour, but nonetheless, why such a brouhaha over humble sanitaryware and taps?
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"The bathroom industry is growing like never before," says Andreas Pfeiffer, the chief executive officer of Villeroy & Boch's bathroom division. "Homeowners are not content with the bathroom as a functional space anymore. They want superb design, cutting-edge technology and the sort of amenities they are used to seeing in spas they visit outside the home.
"They are prepared to spend money to get what they want and with a showcase environment like Sara they get to see and feel the product instead of relying on brochures or websites."
According to research conducted on behalf of the Global Spa Summit, the "wellness market" is worth about US$2 trillion (Dh7.3trillion) - which, austerity and recession aside, notches up rather a lot of hot tubs and massages per capita. And evidently, consumers aren't willing to wait for high day and holidays for their spa treats any longer, with a generation of well-travelled homeowners becoming increasingly keen to recreate the experiences they've enjoyed during spa visits both locally and overseas within their own homes.
"Ultimately, people are looking for escape and their own private retreat," says Pfeiffer. "In a turbulent world, it seems we want a personal haven to unwind and refresh, if even for a just a few minutes a day."
Nita Ambani, who, along with her husband, Mukesh, is one of the richest couples in the world, knows the feeling only too well. She took such a fancy to Asian-inspired interiors in the spa at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York that she tracked down its designers, Perkins + Will and Hirsch Bedner Associates, to recreate it - and more - in her Mumbai home - all 27 storeys of it.
But even without the bottomless pockets of the Ambanis, this changing face of the bathroom has given architects and designers scope to elevate the once functional space into a "lifestyle-enhancer", a trend that at least one local developer has been quick to embrace.
At Al Barari, Dubai's uber-luxury development set within signature landscaped gardens, many homes feature an outdoor bathroom set off the ground-floor master bedroom suite. Carved Mashrabiya screens set the serene outdoor space apart from the main garden, lending it an intimate, Zen-like ambience. The "room" features an outdoor massage table, plunge pool-turned-jacuzzi and a daybed where occupants can while away the cooler months, gently fanned by the tropical foliage surrounding them. Not surprisingly, the concept has proved to be a real selling point among Al Barari buyers.
Pfeiffer agrees the owner-occupier phenomenon of the past decade has also led to the company's desire to raise its profile locally.
"The majority of luxury developments in the UAE feature bathrooms that are identical to each other, so many of our customers are looking to personalise their rooms, especially as the majority of homes here feature five or six bathrooms - almost unheard of in Europe," he says. "As well as stylish fittings, they want features such as sound systems and iPod docks incorporated within their bathroom cabinets. This is a space people are increasingly spending more time in, so it has to be as comfortable as any other room in the house but also restful, so these state-of-the-art features are often out of sight."
A steadily growing section of Villeroy & Boch's market in the region is their whirlpool spas, which can be integrated into the home, garden or roof terrace. A handful of customers ask for them to be situated outdoors as an extension to an existing bathroom similar to the Al Barari idea but "this is really still in the super premium sector of the market", Pfeiffer says.
One trend that is undoubtedly on the increase in all budgets, however, is the wet room concept. "Showers are ceasing to become boxes within the larger bathroom environment and instead the whole room is integrated within the shower; as a result the bathroom space is now far more free-flowing." This in turn is giving owners more scope for cool (albeit waterproof) wall and floor coverings in stone, tiles or a funky machine-cut mosaic by companies such as the Jumeirah-based Sicis.
When it comes to shower heads, faucet manufacturers say the focus is on hi-tech wizardry that gives the bather as intense an experience as possible in a short amount of time, which is why hydrotherapy is becoming so popular in modern shower design.
Homeowners who are really ready to make an investment are opting for custom options such as Tag Studio's SilverTAG, which allows users to programme 18 different sequences on a touch screen and have the water hit six different body zones. Dubbed "the ultimate shower" by bathroom bloggers, it comes with a steamy price tag of US$100,000. However, rain showers of all price brackets have now flooded the market.
"As long as the it has good extensive coverage and good pressure, that is enough for a decent shower experience," Pfeiffer says. "A lot of the massage option showers cause problems for the user in the long run."
Despite the multitasking super showers reigning supreme, there is still very much a place for the classic bath in the 21st-century bathroom spa. Generally, modern baths tend to be free-standing, sculptured forms to be admired rather than for jumping in for a quick scrub. However, in the designer Ron Arad's artfully skewed world, bathers can solve the "bath or shower?" conundrum by turning it on its head. Arad's unique collaboration with the Italian bathroom design brand Teuco involves the whole bath revolving to turn, at whim, into a giant shower.
Yet to arrive on UAE shores but a hit in the hedonistic neighbourhoods of the US are Baden Bath's whimsical creations that encourage hours of languorous soaking complete with mood lighting, sound systems, drinks chillers and high-definition TV screens.
One element many manufacturers would like to see in contemporary bathroom design is a return to colour. "People don't play with colours in their bathrooms. They are afraid it will date quickly like the bathrooms of the 1970s, and of course to get rid of it you need to completely remodel," says Pfeiffer. Villeroy & Boch has introduced subtle motifs on its designs to encourage buyers to add interest to their space, and reports that black is on its way back (was it ever here?) as well as granite-coloured basins, which it sees as a trend that has filtered down directly from commercial spas.
Other designers have gone a step further. Kohler devotes several articles on its website to convert colourphobes into playing with bright hues in their bathrooms. "We also have an increasing amount of customers who simply want one distinctive colour feature - a hot pink bath or toilet or a brightly-coloured vanity unit - to add drama to otherwise all-white bathroom fittings," says Mark Bickerstaffe, the director of new product development at Kohler.
But while the showers, baths and shelving may be the bathroom's "furniture", the accessories give truly contemporary bathrooms a real spa ambience, say industry professionals. "The pleasure derived from a visit to a spa is not just about the interiors. The experience pervades all the senses, especially the sense of smell," says Clare Maskall, the marketing director of The Product House, a UAE-based company supplying high-end spa products to the region's hotel and day spas.
"Spa companies that were once focused solely on their commercial markets are becoming very aware that clients want to evoke the same feelings of luxury and well-being they receive at the spa at home, and the right products are such a big part of that."
To that end, the brands Maskall handles, such as Anne Semonin and Aromatherapy Associates, now produce many of their candles, lotions and potions in retail sizes to give sleek bathrooms the look of a stylish apothecary. They also offer detailed information for spa devotes to recreate the experience in the comfort of their own bathrooms.
Says Maskall: "The thought of relaxing at the end of a busy day with wonderful products in a beautifully designed space that no one else can invade - for most of us, life rarely gets any better than that."

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