European design still leads the way in plumbing products.

From March 23 to 27, the plumbing, heating and air conditioning industry of Germany ran its biennial gorilla of a show in Frankfurt - ISH. Like most gorillas, this one will throw you up against the wall, or at least scare you silly at times.

Most of the abuse comes from the mobs that choke the aisles and exhibits. The crowds are made up of folks who clearly seem to know where they are going and are determined to get there. If you, on the other hand, aren't quite so sure of yourself, prepare yourself to be trampled underfoot.

As I have commented following past excursions to ISH, however, I really see this high level of attendance and interest as positive. I wish we could inject some of that "attitude" into our trade shows here.

ISH is still the world daddy of plumbing shows when it comes to brute size and significant new product introductions. Though ISH attracts exhibitors and visitors from around the world, it is still primarily a European show from the standpoint of the manufacturers involved.

Since Europe has had such a strong influence on plumbing design trends during the past 20 years, the show is increasingly watched by U.S. manufacturers for early warning signs of new directions. Many of the Americans I see studying the products displayed at ISH are staffers from domestic firms - ranging from CEOs to marketing managers, product designers, engineers and manufacturing types. One way to gauge what's hot in new products is to see where these guys are spending the most time at the show.

A funny thing about the perceptions at a show like this: Invariably, I run into folks who have gone through it and tell me they haven't seen much that's new this time. I'll grant that 90% of what you see at ISH is neither innovative nor significant, but you always can find a number of truly new product concepts. Following is what I uncovered this time in outside-the-wall plumbing.

General trends

Residential and commercial convergence.The lines between the residential and commercial categories are becoming increasingly blurred. It used to be that products for use in public places were supposed to be stark, clunky and homely, while their residential counterparts were colorful and attractively styled.

We are seeing these two worlds coming toward each other now with examples of products such as electronic proximity faucets, prerinse faucets, pot-fillers and stainless-steel materials coming into the home. At the same time, somebody decided that public washrooms don't have to be "early penal colony" in design theme. Some gorgeous new concepts are being introduced as a result. Examples at ISH include products with much better styling and far greater breadth of material options: solid surface, glass and wood, to name a few.

Blue isn't cool; it's hot. Blue is definitely the hot color this year. This is not the sky or powder variety but the bold "in-your-face" kind. You see this blue used on a variety of materials, including glass, china and enameled steel.

Contemporary vs. traditional design. During the past 20 years, the rule has been that Europe favors contemporary designs, the United States, traditional. While that is still predominantly so, an increasing amount of examples reveals a growing interest in "retro" looks by the Euro-peans. These range from authentic Victorian to other period designs. One example: Faucet manufacturer Jorger found in its archives some dusty old drawings of the first faucet line that the company produced back in 1909. They have reproduced it in exact form, and named the recreation - what else? - "1909."

Other retro concepts. Wall-mount faucets (both exposed and concealed) have come charging back due to a revival of wall-mount lavatories and kitchen sinks with integral back splash. This is also a result of the growing popularity of free-standing lavatory basins.

Lots of glass. The hot material for plumbing continues to be tempered glass - clear, colored and frosted. Glass is used with lavatory bowls, as well as in making countertops with integral basins.

Wood lightens up. Wood materials continue to be widely used for products such as lavatory bases and other bathroom cabinets, but the specific trend is definitely toward the lighter grains and stains. Beech is a popular example.

Somebody else's business. Many line extensions are taking manufacturers into new categories that once were someone else's product domain. Companies that once made just faucets are now making in-wall toilet tanks. Others that only made flush valves are making electronic faucets. And on it goes.

PVD finishes come to Europe. The super-hard metallic finishes that we've seen introduced by U.S. faucet and hardware firms have jumped the pond. A number of European manufacturers now offer them.

Specific product trends

The joysticks of faucets.For the first time, faucets are using joystick controls. These faucets use cartridges that operate with vertical handles, opening a whole new range of styling possibilities. Some of the more interesting examples were found in the Gessi exhibit, where many controls were located at the end of the spout. These rendered the faucets somewhat reminiscent of the old soda fountain look and function.

Another innovation in operating motion and appearance was Fantini's design, which provides individual hot and cold levers that pivot forward and back, rather than rotate.

Other new faucets. Stainless steel is a hot look in faucets. Some have housings made of the actual material and others are coated to look that way. Pillar mixing faucets (with a lateral passageway located above deck) are coming on strong. Once strictly the domain of Victorian lines, some contemporary versions are now offered.

Among other unique faucets is a new Kludi kitchen model that activates with an electronic proximity sensor but provides temperature, volume and measure control through a programmable touch pad. For example, you can program one of several memory buttons to deliver 8 oz. of cold water. Push that button and hold your glass under the spout; the water then flows and shuts off by itself. The touch pad can be removed from the faucet and used remotely like a TV clicker.

Tubs to talk to. Duscholux has a tub that will respond to a series of audible commands to deliver more or less whirlpool action or air movement. Ideal Standard introduced "Soundpool," a tub with speakers that literally send music or other sound right through you.

Duker lets you know you've got mail while you soak. The tub has an accompanying monitor screen, which allows you to watch TV, surf the net, check your mail or, if all that bores you, control your whirlpool action.

A British firm called Victoria & Albert introduced at the show a series of authentic-looking, free-standing clawfoot tubs made of solid surface material.

Other hot stuff. While this might bring a chuckle, a female urinal dubbed "Lady P" drew a lot of serious attention. Its claim of being the first such fixture is probably not accurate, but this execution of the idea is probably an improvement over previous attempts. Simple icons on a panel above the fixture provide usage instructions.

Once again, three major German manufacturers teamed up with a leading designer in the development of an integrated bath suite. Indiana's Michael Graves was chosen to develop the "Dreamscape" series for Duravit, Hoesch and Dornbracht. The design theme is a spherical bowl shape.

Soap dispensers have emerged as a new European standard, acting as an extension of many faucet and accessory lines. Until recently, soap dispensers have been considered "American" and not much of a factor in European marketing.

As mentioned, free-standing lavatory bowls continue to grow in popularity, as well as in style and material options. This is the kind of bowl that sets atop a counter or stand with its underside exposed. Materials used for these bowls include glass as well as stainless steel, enameled steel, wood, terra cotta, solid surface and china.

New toilet seat designs include ones with tabs located out from the "business area" for lifting; some of them spring up when lifted slightly, and then drop slowly. Pressalit introduced a new quick-release mounting for easy cleaning.

Toilets with concealed (in the wall) tanks continue to grow in popularity in Europe. It's a great look, and makes you wonder why the idea hasn't taken hold here yet. A number of manufacturers exhibited dual or "two-stage" flush systems, which deliver two different volumes for dispensing liquids or solids.