What's the latest news in loos? Gadgets, in a word. From computerized toilet seats to kitschy sink ornaments, from a Jacuzzi with a movie screen (popcorn maker not included) to faucets dripping with diamonds.
To the people who make such things, the utilitarian bathroom has become a temple to ourselves, a place to perform ablutions in self-indulgent splendor.
"Bathrooms used to be these very sanitary environments. Now they are decorated like the den, the family room," said Gary Uhl of American Standard Inc., which makes bathroom fixtures.
"With the McMansions and starter castles, the master bath suite is comfortable, but [located] far from the rest of the house," he said. "They are putting in exercise equipment and small kitchens with appliances like refrigerators, coffeemakers and microwave ovens."
Long ago, the English dubbed the toilet chamber a water closet, owing to its size and function. America's postwar tract homes often had one smallish bathroom containing a sink, tub and toilet. Today's master bathroom has grown to accommodate a two-person whirlpool tub, loads of custom cabinets, his-and-her vanities with raised "vessels" for sinks, a bidet, separate steam shower and a toilet or two.
Beyond the basic plumbing, today's well-dressed toilet can be topped by a seat whose many features are controlled by computer microchips. Some models warm your bottom when first you sit, then wash and dry fore or aft before you rise. And they can mask odor.
Who buys do-almost-everything seats? People who can afford to and people who need them. Some medical models respond to voice commands.
"The luxury market, where people are concerned about personal hygiene, and the physically challenged," said Howard Weinstein, president of Sydsons Inc. He developed a $1,995 Bidet Spa Seat during his late father's illness. The unit is wheelchair accessible and gives people "the ability to toilet themselves. It gives them back their dignity."
The Bidet Spa features a retractable, self-cleaning wash nozzle in the rear and a feminine wash in front, with water temperature between 92 and 101 degrees. The air dryer, set at 95 degrees, enthused Weinstein, "is like a Caribbean breeze."
Toto U.S.A. Inc. doesn't warm the air, but its $699 Zoe "washlet" does heat the seat to 97 degrees. And its rear-mounted, unisex warm-water stream is activated by remote control, with adjustable temperature and pressure. As a finale, a catalytic fan starts whirring to break down odors without the use of heavy fragrances.
Church Seats' $699 "Purite" has twin washing nozzles in the rear -- a longer one for women, a shorter one for others in the family. Why isn't the feminine spray front-mounted? Because of the way women sit on the seat, said Church's spokesman Boyd Miller, and because the company found it easier to put both in back.
The controls on the side of the seat can be activated only when someone is sitting, so that "kids can't go up and start pressing buttons, so you won't have water everywhere," Miller said. Purite will be available in late September.
But toilet seats aren't the only hot items in luxury loos. Jacuzzi Inc. is promoting a $12,500 system that gives new meaning to the phrase "entertainment center." Its "J-Allure" unit comes with a whirlpool tub for two and a glass-enclosed shower with body jets and two full-length mirrors. It also sports a Panasonic sound system featuring four interior marine speakers and a waterproof, nine-inch television and VCR monitor, with remote of course. The CD player is outside the tub.
Company president Roy Jacuzzi said he catches the morning news on TV in his J-Allure, and, at night pops a "Barney" tape into the VCR to keep his young son amused while he's being bathed.
On a lower-tech note, American Standard's "Wonders of the Earth" sink line has little platinum-plated nickel turtles and frogs frolicking along the edges of ceramic basins that retail for $1,800 each. The price includes critters but not faucets and spigots.
The trend to custom-painted sinks continues, with artists replicating wallpaper patterns and sweeping landscapes. Some orders still surprise. American Standard's Jim Cain said it took him 12 hours to transform a small photograph into a hexagonal porcelain portrait of a man and his trusty black Labrador.
For unspeakable excess -- call it Liberace meets Versace -- the German company Nevobad offers a faucet and two spigots made with 3.3 pounds of pure gold and 486 diamonds. Feel free to request emeralds, rubies or sapphires instead. But if you have to ask the price, you probably can't afford these $250,000 bathroom baubles.
CAPTION: Jacuzzi's "J-Allure" unit, at left, combines a whirlpool tub for two, a shower and a VCR.
CAPTION: Toto's toilet, above, heats the seat to 97 degrees.
CAPTION: When pure gold isn't enough, Nevobad's faucet knob is studded with diamonds