An overview of the world's largest trade fair and international styles and trends.

While sitting on a Boeing 767, flying at 36,000 feet and going almost 600 miles per hour, I decided to use the 8-hour flight time from Frankfurt, Germany to the United States to consolidate my many thoughts and impressions after attending ISH 2003. ISH, which stands for International Sanitary Heating, is a large trade fair for plumbing, heating, air conditioning and ventilation products that's held every other year in Frankfurt.

It was a unique pleasure for me to attend as a journalist for Supply House Times. The show is so big, almost overwhelming, that I had trouble deciding between doing my overall impression of the show or covering the strong trends and styles that are taking place in bathroom products and the whole "Bathroom Experience." So I decided to write about both!

A Really Big Show

ISH is huge -- almost 900,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, spread throughout 10 buildings, most of them three stories tall. This year there were 2,360 exhibitors from 50 countries. Almost 200,000 people attend the show. It runs for five days and the exhibits are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Messe Frankfurt, Inc., one of the world's foremost trade fair companies, owns and operates ISH. The unique breadth and depth of the range of products to be seen at this show, combined with a high degree of internationality among both exhibitors and visitors, makes it educational and enlightening.

Almost 50% of the exhibitors were from Germany. Italy, Spain, Austria, Great Britain and China had a large presence and there were 19 exhibitors from the United States.

Trade fairs in Frankfurt started more than 800 years ago. The city has become Europe's largest trade fair center.

I worked the show hard for four days and only covered the sanitation (plumbing) portion of it. Some of the displays are two or three stories high and all are beautifully done.

Unlike the American shows that are primarily "show and tell" events, ISH is very much a "show, tell and sell" event. Almost all of the booths had caf¿reas -- many serving breakfast, lunch and beverages -- and work areas where attendees and exhibitors could sit in comfort and do business.

Many of the displays incorporated running water for sound effects and demonstrations. Grohe, Hansa, Hansgrohe and several others had big pools (20-ft. wide x 10-ft. in depth) with multiple showerheads, handhelds, body sprays and faucets. There were at least 100 jetted tub manufacturers, all with running water. Every color, style and shape was on display, blowing water, air and even "ultra sound." Mood lighting and a holder for the chilled wine has become almost standard. It struck me as a bit contradictory that there was so much emphasis on bathing in a part of the world where bathing isn't as important as it is in America and the Far East.

The whole event is more formal than at U.S. shows. Nearly all the men wore suits and ties and the women were in nice business attire. Virtually everyone working the displays spoke English.

As nice as the products being shown were, the sameness in design, color, and finish almost felt redundant. Probably 95% of the fixtures were in white. Chrome, in polished or matte finish, was the finish on the faucets.

Not surprisingly, the main design theme was modern and contemporary, yet in a very plain way. There had to be thousands of faucets on display, but somehow they all started to look alike to me. There are only so many designs that can be created that people will buy.

Technologically the products continue to get better. Form and function remain very important. This translates into the end user getting better-made products.

The design theme seemed to be "less is more." Products were streamlined, plainer, less ornate. Bathrooms were less cluttered, more functional. There was a balance between naturalness and modernity. The show was mainly European -- they've favored the contemporary look for years -- but I wonder how much they will influence traditional American tastes that make up 80% or more of the products sold in the United States.

The Bathroom Experience

The strong trend toward the bathroom becoming one of the most important rooms of the house is growing all over the world!

Another theme at ISH was "The Bathroom Experience." The bathroom has become one of the most important rooms of the house for relaxation, wellness, recreation and fitness. People want a retreat from their busy everyday life -- and the bathroom has become the place to go. They want to feel completely at ease in the bathroom.

Some of the things being incorporated into today's baths to help accomplish this continuing change are:

  • bigger, more elaborate whirlpools (many made to accommodate two people);
  • saunas and/or steamers;
  • couches and sitting areas;
  • television, sound systems and wet bars;
  • shower systems for two people that include multiple shower heads, handheld showers, body sprays, integrated waterfalls, seats and even foot whirlpools (all of this meant to invigorate and stimulate as well as clean). Several manufacturers were showing spas for the bathroom and even "swim in place" swimming pools. Add in fitness equipment and you have your own private health club within your home!

The bathroom is still used for personal hygiene, but now we have added relaxation, romance, recreation and fitness. The old 5-ft. x 7-ft. bath may become a thing of the past. For those of you selling these products for today's big and beautiful bathrooms, that's great news.

Many of the displays used innovative combinations of shapes, colors, sounds, fragrances, and materials to perfect the desired ambiance. For example, lavatory bowls were made of china, brass, wood, cast iron, stainless steel, glass, synthetic materials and copper. They were round, oval, square, rectangular, triangular, multi-angled, deep, shallow, dense, translucent (with lights built in), shiny, dull, bright, and muted. If it could be designed, it could be made, although that doesn't always mean someone will buy it.

Lighting in the bathroom has become more important than ever. Harsh lighting and depressing color schemes just don't get it. Good bathroom design will put good lighting where it is needed -- especially for shaving and make-up -- and provide subtle, warm, dimmable lighting in other areas.

TO BE CONTINUED: Read more about Hank Darlington's trip to ISH 2003 in the June issue of Supply House Times.