A thousand possible worlds of water
von Thomas Wagner | Mar 18, 2013

So what shower type are you? You enjoy showering or want all the effects? Or neither? Then you are perhaps a proponent of the focus shower (meaning the showerhead with the “whirl”). And what nozzles do you prefer in an energizing bubbly bath that either way is no longer a simple vessel filled with warm water? We no longer bathe without a jet-stream, back and feet nozzles, now do we? Whether it’s an effervescent bath, summer rain or a massage jet, small and fine or large and soft drops, water with or without fragrances, a jet or a waterfall from above, from the side, or a handheld head – in the year 2013 the bath seems to offer a whole raft of different forms of enjoying water. And is made of refined high-grade materials that feel good into the bargain.

The main thing is for us sorely stressed urbanites to feel good in our home spas and to enjoy what is by no means simply water, day-in day-out. On top of which, the latest versions of providing citizens with the wellness package in their feel-good bubbles give you a clear conscience because, for all the gushing water and perma-rain, far less of the precious element goes spurting through the faucets and cartridges than before. (According to the German Federal Statistics Office, average water consumption per capita per day in Germany has fallen from 144 cubic meters in 1991 to 121 cubic meters in 2010.)

Despite this achievement of satisfying all the senses, what applies elsewhere also holds in the sanitation industry. There’s a time for everything. The departure from the Spartan wet cabinet took its time coming, so did the focus on design, the bathroom as wellness island – as did the wish to be technically innovative, i.e., energy-efficient when creating the basis for comfort. Of course it’s all still on offer and the ecological transformation process of building and living has certainly not yet come to an end. Yet at the ISH in 2013 many booths clearly showed that in the still expanding industry (especially as regards energy) it’s not just new products on show, but programs and strategies that have been advanced. Where does this lead? More of that later. Let’s look around first, and see what’s happening at the moment in the water worlds of bathrooms and the myriad of possibilities.

More worlds of water than ever before

When it comes to wash basins, bath tubs, showers, faucets, cupboards and accessories, the number of shapes, colors, materials and designs on offer is truly legion. In recent years, not only have the cycles in which something new comes out and manufacturers with a design focus present their next highlight become ever shorter, but the me-toos have popped onto the scene ever faster. At one of the booths the few keywords that are generally deployed were all on display in large colorful letters: Design, wellbeing, sustainability, innovation. Whether and how they all go together is the aim of the game.

What everyone has can hardly been touted as an innovation, and it’s ever harder to present exquisite differences. But there are some innovative products. How new something is depends of course on whether you construe innovation as just a new product in a line or as a technological and design novelty. Best of all is when one product combines both.

For example, with its “Starck Organic” mixers, Axor has not done a complete about-turn, but has shifted the focus. Away from a more techy shape to something organic and natural. Now one could argue that as regards the medium of water that’s nothing so special. But that would be to underestimate Philippe Starck’s qualities as a designer. With “Starck Organic” he has not only come up with a decidedly organic shape, but the series also has other noteworthy elements.

When shaping the batteries, Starck took his cue from a forked branch. Let’s ignore whether this has anything to do with the “elegance of the minimum”. Fact is that above all the standard mixer has a great organic shape. The combination of archaism and technology, along with a pleasant feel definitely has a touch of elegance to it, and will no doubt therefore be popular for the contract market. (The handheld showerhead, a simple cylinder, and the overhead showerhead, with its angles, somehow don’t want to fit it all.)

Then there are two new technical features: The separation of temperature regulator (above) and water volume (below), which initially seems counter-intuitive, soon proves to be pleasantly practical. Then there’s the conical water jet, which spreads the beads of water as if from a showerhead. Not only is it pleasantly soft to the touch, it also saves water. (Three and a half liters of water a minute for normal use and five if you turn it on full.)

Right next door at the Hansgrohe stand you can see the terrain where the competition will be in years to come. With their slogan “Look forward to pressing the button” the company is advertising its new “Select” system. It’s based on the existing “iBox” that disappears into the wall and offers all the functions of button-based technology – meaning you press a button to operate or switch from overhead shower to handheld or choose the jet. There’s also a selector button on the showerheads. The water volume gets preset, the temperature regulated by thermostat.

Where other makers for whatever reason opt for digital controls in order to offer architects and bathroom planners greater scope when arranging the controls, Hansgrohe has, ingeniously, simply optimized the mechanical system. The question of “mechanical vs. digital” is a moot point and the differences will become more pronounced in years to come especially here (assuming the courage to invest).

Unlike Hansgrohe, Dornbracht has therefore plumped for a digi-system developed inhouse and which in future can be updated in terms of both software and hardware. The idea behind “Smart Water” is to lock into individual needs and exploit the countless opportunities to digitalize bathrooms and kitchens and drive developments here. Moreover, using so-called “Smart Tools”, comfort, safety and the experience will all be enhanced. In other words, at the twist of a wrist, two swivel knobs regulate temperature and water volume with great precision. And you can use the easily legible display switch to activate pre-settings and helpful functions. Along with the likewise new shower application called “Sensory Sky” (view the commercial in our advance report) entire shower choreographies and fragrance themes can be uploaded.

In particular, the decentralized layout of the controls (activation and water output) can now be flexibly installed, separate if need be, giving architects a lot to play with. Indeed, the pleasantly straightforward look of the “Smart Water” elements means they can be combined with all the Dornbracht series. Not to forget that it’s inconceivably easy to use the controls. Intuitive and readily comprehensible, and no complicated menus, either. In marketing-speak, this is “Hot, cold, click”.

Not just at Dornbracht, which has long been a manufacturer with a great feel for design, have people realized that not only the swift digital turn will leave its mark on the industry; so will the fact that alongside “wellness”, “health” and “bodycare” will become increasingly important. Moving products and systems that support these closer to center stage.

While Dornbracht talks about “aesthetics, beauty and care”, Hewi chooses “Demographics and architecture” as its slogan, promising “Innovative systems solutions for generations”. In keeping with Hewi’s product lines, this involves not only high-grade shower seats in different versions (and the user can weigh as much as 150 kg), but also supporting fold-out handles and height-adjustable WCs, to name a few. No need to think long to grasp that here a new market segment is emerging, and not just at the luxury end.

In the form of “Joyce”, Villeroy & Boch presents the “First bathroom collection with apps” – completely without electronics. So-called “app surfaces” are integrated into the sleek and timeless washstands, circular indents into which different (white or colored) “app bowls” can be placed – for toothbrushes, shaving kits, little bowls or pots. And “Joyce” also features various cupboards and cabinets with front inlays made of veneer or with a special soft-touch lacquer.

The seemingly light and elegant cabinets in the “Aveo New Generation” line, with their doubly curved surfaces, are also very refined. Anyone wanting that farmhouse, slightly nostalgic touch will love the hand-crafted washstands made of true oak, which can be combined with various basins.

Indeed, it’s all about the combinations. Many of the ISH booths boast washbasins that are circular, square, rectangular or oval. Customers hardly ever now have to take closed systems, but can combine at will what they like from the different worlds – and let’s hope it fits together aesthetically, too.

VitrA Bad’s “Metropole” series hinges on rectangular shapes with rounded edges. Hardly any other maker offers such clear and timeless models. And this also goes for the “Memoria” series Christophe Pillet designed. Indeed, there’s a trend to be observed, and not just with VitrA and “Memoria”, to go for thin-walled, sharp and precisely shaped basins. (Laufen calls this “Saphir Keramik”.)

In the form of “Istanbul”, Ross Lovegrove once again proves his love of things sculptural, and above all the WC and bidet are impressive designs. Pentagon Design’s “nest” grabs the eye first and foremost for the rounded edges, and the added extra: The rectangular basin has an edge of light that sets it off from the cabinet below, making it seem to float above it. Anyone seeking a well-designed shower cabinet will find it at VitrA; when not in use it can be folded up and tucked away between two thin shelves.

At Laufen, the collection “Kartell by Laufen” takes a different approach, that of collaboration with a renowned furniture maker. Ludovica and Roberto Palomba (who have, moreover, considerably expanded the Palomba Collection they developed for Laufen) contribute the design, while Kartell provides the expertise in processing plastics, and Laufen brings its knowhow in ceramics to bear. The fruit of these joint labors: a versatile bathroom collection in which the washstands, sanitary equipment, mixers, furniture, shower trays, tubs, luminaires and accessories can be combined flexibly and adapted to the broadest variety of preferences. Thanks to the transparency of the latest generation of polycarbonate and the clear lines, the elements seem as reduced as they are playful. The strict geometry of the ceramic parts dissolves, as it were, into the multicolored lightness of the plastic parts.

Energy systems

Anyone entering Hall 8 will hardly fail to note that this is where it’s at! This is where the focus is on energy, specifically on the energy transformation process, which many hope to benefit from. The fact is that the transformation of the German energy world into one that relies on renewables and efficient, energy-saving systems is in full swing. Not only in new builds will the entire field of energy generation and air conditioning/ventilation change many things. In boiler rooms, where aesthetics are of subordinate importance, the hour of the engineers has tolled. Here, German industry is not only achieving an edge in terms of technology, but the house as an overall system is coming to the fore.

However, this will only essentially be realized if there’s even greater collaboration with architects, the group the companies are targeting for the products. At present, concepts such as Buderus’ “Das Energie PLUS Haus” or Stiebel Eltron’s “Project Energy” seek to woo clients with more efficient energy generating systems and present the existing range of technological responses. In years to come, what will count will be to blend technology and aesthetics, meaning to explore the architectural potential of new developments in heating and cooling technologies.

However, it’s already clear just what a great choice of such systems are already available – from various heat pumps through pellet boilers to heat/power cogeneration plants – and the direction in which things are moving. For example, Viessmann with its Vitotwin 350-F has launched a “Micro compact heat/power cogenerating system” with a total output of up to 26 KW that has a footprint of a mere 60 by 60 centimeters. And Buderus has developed a prototype named Logapower FC 10 that functions as the energy control room of tomorrow: a fuel cell delivers not only the heat for heating, but drinking water and power to boot.

To put it in a nutshell, there are definitely some significant changes underway both in the bathroom and energy sector: Under the sign of the energy transformation, new technologies are once again taking the front seat in the industry. With the result that while product design still remains important, on balance it tends to take a back seat to technological innovation. Exceptions confirm the rule.

Dornbracht's „Sensory Sky“, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Various faucets in a colorful surrounding at Dornbracht's booth. photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Visitors at Dornbracht, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Water games at the Dallmer stand, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
3 generations of the company Dallmer, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
A shower in black and white from Bette, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
A purist feel-good area at Kos, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
The whole world of bathroom equipment from Kartell by Laufen, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Bright colors from Kartelll by Laufen, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
The architect Roberto Palomba at the Laufen booth, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
The age simulation suit from Hewi offers the possibility of experiencing the typical limitations of older people. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Stiebel Eltron deals with topics like energy efficiency and heat pump technology. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Washbasins and washing stands made of glazed steel at the booth of Alape, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Laufen presents different bathroom accessories. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
A bathroom in white at the Laufen stand, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Toothbrush cups at the Alape stand, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Villeroy Boch's washbasin presentation at the ISH, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Villeroy Boch shows different toilet models. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
VitrA's oasis, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
An unusual washbasin from Antoniolupi, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Playing with water at Axor, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Philippe Grohe, Head of the Axor Brand / Hansgrohe SE, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
House and Systems Engineering from Stiebel Eltron, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
The technology behind the Stiebel Eltron products, photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark