Don Arnold shows us the trends he found at the 2001 ISH show.



One thing has become evident in the 20 years that I have been trudging through the myriad of buildings at the biennial ISH fair in Frankfurt, Germany: my legs get two years older each time. After this last one, I've decided it's finally time to get serious and do like the marathon runners; I'll train for it a few months in advance next time.

Seems like I say this about ISH each outing, but once again it's an amazing fact - this year's edition (March 2001) had more exhibits (2,285) - and more people attending (200,000) - coming from more countries (100+) than ever. The product categories I cover, outside-the-wall plumbing and hardware, grew to include still another building this year. The international scope of exhibitors continues to expand, this year including a much larger representation of Asian manufacturers. The U.S. roster keeps growing as well, and 2001 saw Kohler exhibiting for the first time. The list of American participants also included Acorn, Bemis, Fluidmaster, Leonard Valve, NIBCO, Oatey, Olsonite, Sloan Valve and Watts Regulator.

As I walk this show, I like to collar people I know from back home to ask what they have seen that's new and significant. Once in a while I get answers like "not much this year," and typically, by the time I'm done snooping around the show, I don't agree. Call me Super Sleuth.

Here's what I saw:

General trends and design themes

  • Stainless steel is a hot material for just about everything.

  • Japanese styling was evident in fixtures and bathroom systems.

  • An even broader range of materials is being used for plumbing fixtures, including concrete/translucent (sometimes backlit)/plastic/rubber/terra cotta/combinations.

  • There is an even greater crossover between residential and commercial fixture designs - stainless-steel toilets taking on the soft, rounded lines of china; electronic sensor faucets for the home.

  • You can personalize some products with your own artwork, monogram, whatever (includes china fixtures and toilet seats).

Let's move on to some of the trends I saw in specific product categories:

Faucets

I'm convinced that there are certain plumbing design trends that could act as markers for future archeological digs. If a faucet with a simple geometric cylindrical body and a peg or stick for a lever were to be unearthed someday, for instance, our Indiana Jones of the future would nod knowingly and mumble, "Hmmm, 2001." This design, tracing its lineage to Dornbracht's popular Meta series - and to some degree, several years before that to the classic Vola look - was everywhere in the show as variations on the theme.

The next most evident mega-trend in faucet design this time around was the joystick design. Now this needs a little explanation. A joystick is a single-lever faucet, but with a key operating difference. Instead of controlling it with a lever in a basic horizontal orientation (somewhat parallel to the spout), you control this type with a lever in a basic vertical orientation (perpendicular to the spout). Think of it as the motion of a stick shift in a car. One of the things that faucet designers like about these new joystick mechanisms is that they open a whole new range of design possibilities and that was certainly evident at the show. Many of the design concepts now are not really "stick like" in fact, which makes the joystick moniker a little less than descriptive. Some handles were cylinders or blocks matching the size and shape of the faucet body, for example. I also saw a bit of a trend toward smaller faucets, as well, made possible by smaller valving mechanisms.

In terms of finish trends, the rage for colors seems to be fading (pun intended) while you see a whole lot more brushed nickel (also known as stainless steel). This is a case of a trend that started here in the U.S. and migrated back across the pond. The place where you do see colors used on faucets somewhat now is on the lever of faucet handles (as an accent).

And here's a trend that has been triggered by a trend in another category: wall-mounted faucets for use with vessels and other types of above-counter lavatories. The evolution of the idea, beginning with the original Vola version, has grown to include two-handle valves, single lever and joystick varieties. There is another breed of faucets emerging for use with these lavs that is mounted on the counter - but in order to reach over the elevated rim, it is given a dose of hormones (made taller).

Two firms, KWC and Hansa, introduced faucets that dispense carbonated water in addition to the tap variety (equipped with an undercounter CO2 cartridge).

The growing concern for water conservation is evidenced by a growing number of faucets that are equipped with "override" mechanisms. The idea here is that you lift or rotate the handle to the point where you hit the equivalent of a speed bump - a point of resistance that tells you that going further will cause you to use more water and energy. On one model, Ideal Standard uses a similar override bump to signal movement of the lever from a "regular cold" to a filtered water selection.

Tubs & showers

Some whirlpool tubs are looking more like swimming pools these days, equipped with a perimeter grate covering a "gutter" overflow that feeds a filtered recirculating system. Headrests are morphing from air-filled to the gel type. Freestanding tubs continue to grow in popularity, with a couple of firms showing models made of brass. Several manufacturers showed Japanese-style deep soaking tubs.

Music with your bath is a growing feature - not in the sense of a stereo sitting on a nearby shelf, but integrated into the tub itself - in some cases sending pulsating rhythms right through the water and the person sitting in it.

"Car wash" shower enclosures and panel systems continue to grow as a category, with more bells and whistles than ever this year. For those who have grown jaded over the established list of equipment we have known (such as multiple overhead and body sprays, pulsating jets, sheet flow, steam and sauna) there are now some additional toys. I saw some aroma and color therapy concepts, built-in stereo, a hose for washing your feet - even a "tipping tray" of cold water that periodically fills and dumps onto you as you sit cooking yourself. Hansgrohe introduced a unique compact freestanding enclosure aptly dubbed the "cocoon." In addition to its fitting shape, it also breaks ground with previous trends by having color (as opposed to clear glass). Word is that Stephen Spielberg has bought several for an upcoming movie - coming soon to a theater near you! This same manufacturer showed a shower panel that adjusts up and down to the height of the user.

Lavatories

As mentioned, the "vessels" and related above-counter lavatory basins are the hot trend. What started as a "bowl set atop a counter" has evolved into a number of other variations on the basic theme in which the rim of the basin is elevated above counter height. In some cases, this means an extension of the same counter material. There are others that I would call "semi-recessed" - partly below counter level, partly above. Two trends actually merge here: the above-counter bowl and the ever-expanding range of materials used to make fixtures.

It looks like we're phasing out of the era of "jelly bean" shapes in fixture design. Another trend in lavatory design is a return to angular form, rectangles in particular. Think of these as the farmhouse kitchen sink come to the bathroom, only smaller. I also saw several examples of new ways to handle the drain in a lavatory. Instead of the traditional hole at the bottom of the basin, there were innovations involving a slit across the entire back bottom of the bowl. I assume the stopper was located in the connecting drain, like the system used on scullery sinks equipped with grid strainers. Speaking of drains, there is a bit of a trend away from overflow holes at the tops of basins, in favor of the Geberit-style drain with integral overflow capability. One manufacturer, High Tech, featured a series of lavs made by sandwiching a formed sheet of silicone rubber between rims of stainless steel. New styles of freestanding lavs are becoming more popular. Instead of the traditional pedestal look, these are more integrated in form, often taking a basic cylindrical shape. They usually do not provide a place for a deck-mounted faucet, further feeding the growth of the wall-mounted variety. Materials abound in this category of lavatory, too, with examples ranging from concrete, stainless steel, marble, glass and plastic. One award winner at the show was shaped something like a conga drum, made of translucent plastic and lighted from the inside.

Toilets, urinals, bidets

Now that water conservation is an "in concept" in Europe, so is the two-stage flusher for toilets (one button for a short flush, one button for long). Two manufacturers introduced "waterless urinals," or perhaps we should say, "the only water used is your own." With one concept, there is a gel-like fluid that is poured into the fixture periodically. This fluid allows urine to pass through, but acts as a barrier to prevent fumes from passing back up. The other concept involves a ball that drops by means of a sensor-activated solenoid when the fixture is being used, then pops back into its default sealing position afterward. On bidets, you see an increasing use of removable plastic rims for a more comfortable (and warmer) seating surface.

ADA-category products

There were several good product designs in this category (although the Europeans don't know the term.) Two manufacturers displayed adjustable- height toilets. One provided up and down positioning with a hydraulic system powered by the water supply. The other was motor driven, and allowed the bowl to tip down a little to allow the user to get seated more easily. In this case, a support arm alongside contained electronic controls. This same manufacturer showed a motor-driven adjustable-height lavatory with electronic controls imbedded into the front lip of the basin.

Bath on wheels

I was puzzled by a product I saw in one booth that was essentially a storage tank about three feet high, with a toilet on one side and a lavatory on the other. And it had wheels. It was explained to me that this product acts as a temporary bath in a home or building that is undergoing major renovations. Requiring no water or drain connections during use, it can be parked in a bedroom or other available location while the regular bath is out of commission. After use, it is removed and the holding tank emptied like you would for an RV.

European installation systems

I'll wrap up the tour with a little preaching. There is one aspect of European product design that continues to impress me more than all the pretty stuff: that's the attention given to how products are installed. These folks seem to spend as much time thinking about how a product can be most efficiently mounted as they do its ongoing performance. When we sell a whirlpool tub here in the U.S., for instance, we leave it up to the installer to figure out how to support it. The high-tech options employed typically range from slopping a puddle of concrete on the floor to cradle it, to jamming some scraps of wood underneath. What do the crazy Europeans do? They offer you a steel support frame designed to perfectly support the tub, guaranteeing exactly the same results every time. Go from fixture to fixture - tubs, lavs, wall-hung toilets, urinals - and you will find engineered installation and support components to go with them.

These ideas have ultimately evolved into complete "wet wall" systems made of steel channel components, kind of like an erector set for big boys. These systems are not just an alternative to wood studs for putting up your dry wall, they come with system components to assure perfect alignment and mounting of the plumbing fixtures and related piping. Geberit and Grohe/Dal have been successful in marketing these systems in Europe in recent years. At this year's show, there was a new entry called Ortwein that introduced a wall system with some additional assembly and water connection innovations. One component of that system is a plumbing version of a junction box in which hot and cold water supplies and the drain converge into an in-wall housing. This, then, establishes an exact orientation for all connections to come through the wall right on the money relative to the fixture location. The close-coupled arrangement uses a common escutcheon for the drain and supplies (and stops), providing a very clean and less obtrusive look vs. the way we typically do things.

These systems make too much sense not to be considered for use here (assuming they would be modified to work with U.S. plumbing products and piping). Yes, they will add a little to the cost of the installation; but yes, they also will eliminate most installation screw-ups, and that's got to be worth something.

2001 ISH Show at a glance

Exhibitors: 2,285 from 42 nations
Visitors: 200,000+ from 100 countries
After Germany, the top five visitor nations were: Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain and France.