Could there be a better place to host a veritable "theme park" of kitchen and bath products? Even the Disney characters were here at this annual trade show, dancing gleefully across the rims of pricey bathroom sinks.
Fantasyland analogies abounded at the recent Kitchen-Bath Industry Show, where more than 3,600 companies displayed every imaginable bit of finery for the stylish kitchen and bath.
The numbers, however, are not fantasy, and judging from the array at this trade show, no "product improvement" is too trivial, no finish is too extravagant for the American home: A trade journal projects that Americans will remodel 4.5 million kitchens in 1999 at a cost of more than $30 billion. This figure doesn't even include the 1.5 million houses that are projected to be built this year.
You want luxury? Perhaps you need a bath sink with a bowl that has been hand-painted to match the pattern of your jammies.
You want technology? How about a refrigerator with a computer screen built into the door to keep track of the foods you need to reorder.
Maybe you'd just settle for convenience: Soon you will be able to roast a whole chicken in a few minutes.
Although an observer could come away with all kinds of overall impressions from this show--"self-indulgence" and "unlimited wealth" came to mind--two recurrent themes seemed to pervade, and we'll leave it to sociologists to analyze why they also seem to be contradictory.
One theme is that American consumers appear to be so time-starved that we demand more help from the appliances, materials and design of our homes.
The other is that we want to pretend that we really aren't time-starved. We want--and are willing to pay large sums for--showplace kitchens that imply that we have lots of time to cook, and we want "spa" bathrooms that fool us into thinking that we really do have time to soak in our gigantic whirlpool tub.
Hey, we did say "Fantasyland," did we not?
A few companies introduced products that may make some difference in our daily lives. Here are some highlights:
* General Electric showed its new speed-cooking system called Advantium. It combines intense halogen light with microwaves, promising the ability to bake, broil, grill and roast four to five times faster than a conventional oven. GE says it should be on the market in October.
* Maytag unfurled its new Gemini range, which is the size of a 30-inch free-standing range, but with two ovens underneath, instead of one. The smaller upper oven, at 1.2 cubic feet, is intended for the dishes of everyday mealtime. The bigger oven, at four cubic feet, is for turkey-dinner occasions and is practically at floor level, a position that might cause some interesting moments when it comes time to lift out that 24-pound bird.
* Still in the prototype stage is Frigidaire's "online" refrigerator, which has a flat-screen computer monitor built into the door. The possibilities: The consumer may create shopping lists and transmit them to supermarkets for home delivery; a built-in bar-code reader could keep an inventory of the foods that are being stored and used up; the device could display recipes; it could access the Internet to download recipes and clip coupons. It could act as a home message center and could snag your e-mail. No word on when, if ever, it could come on the market.
* Already a reality is Advantage 2000, described as an "interactive kitchen computer" by CMi Worldwide. It's available in built-in and countertop models, with a screen size that ranges from nine inches to 14 inches. The device has several functions: cable-ready TV, stereo CD player, video player; it has Internet capability and e-mail service and has been customized to access online information about cooking, health, education and beauty; it can provide online shopping and banking service and can be interfaced with security cameras.
* Another "concept" that got a test run at the show was Sharp's top-loading "microwave in a drawer," drawer appliances being a category that already includes dishwashers and refrigerators that pull out from under a counter.
The trend lines: If you're among the many thousands of people who have spent many thousands of dollars to update your kitchen, you can rest easy if you went for maple, birch or cherry cabinetry with "feet" that provide the "furniture look." Judging by the many model kitchens displayed throughout the show floor, that's still the dominant fashion.
But . . . the Next Beautiful Thing is a mix of cabinetry styles and colors, such as a wall of natural maple cabinets with perhaps an ornate olive-green (or plum or even baby-blue) island, depending on how daring you wish to be. Frigo Design displayed brilliantly hued panel and trim kits for adding a jolt of color via appliance fronts.
* Metallic finishes, now standard fare in kitchens, have begun to show up in bathrooms, where sinks now sport slick pewter-, silver- and gold-painted finishes.
There's no shortage of sleek stainless-steel bathroom sinks, either, but the show apparently had but one traffic-stopping stainless-steel toilet, complete with a plastic seat that had a fool-the-eye "stainless" finish. In what could be one of the great marketing crossovers of all time, Acorn Industries, which heretofore has specialized in outfitting prison bathrooms, soon will be offering this toilet for our homes.
* Totally tubular: No space in your house for a "meditation" room? Not to worry. At least you have your bathroom, which seems to be a logical convergence point for the spirituality, wellness and back-to-nature crazes.
Exhibit A is the aromaSpa by Variel Health International, which resembles nothing so much as the Orgasmatron featured in Woody Allen's 1973 movie, "Sleeper." This gizmo, however, is an "aromatic steam capsule," which translates into steam bath and "aromatherapy" chamber. Its manufacturer claims no special plumbing is required--you pour in water much the way you would for a coffee-maker--and no special wiring or ventilation. The user enters the capsule, closes the clear plastic door and sits down to await the "detoxifying" properties of the steam and essential oils, according to the company.
Things seen all over the place, which either means that we're on top of a trend, or way behind one:
* Bath sinks with clear or frosted-glass countertop surrounds.
* Kitchen cabinet doors with ribbed, translucent glass panels, often displayed as one or two such glass doors among a roomful of wooden ones.
* Concrete kitchen countertops dyed in any number of colors. Surprisingly smooth to the touch, some of them were "personalized" by having trinkets imbedded in them, including a computer circuit in one display.
* Turquoise. It was emphasized in so many displays, including one prominently hyped model room sponsored by American HomeStyle & Gardening magazine, that it seemed the return of the 1950s was imminent.
And then again, a few limited sightings that may mean nothing at all:
* The savants that warn us of massive shifts in taste regarding color preferences suggest that blue is about to make a comeback because we associate it with spirituality and relaxation. So we must point out that Eljer has introduced--and is prominently promoting--a toilet in Oxford Blue. See reference to toilet seat named Solace.
* Pricey barbecue grills on wheels keep getting bigger all the time. The current record may be owed to a company called Lazy Man, which displayed a wheeled grill that measured fully 10 feet long. The Belvidere, N.J., firm says it would be happy to custom-make longer ones.
A couple of years ago, Kohler Corp. got a lot of attention with the introduction of "Vessels," a line of bath sinks that resemble glass or ceramic bowls that appear to sit on top of the counter.
The inevitable imitators showed up in hordes this year, particularly in beautiful translucent glass versions in dozens of colors, terra cotta and pottery versions, and several in sculpted granite from a company called Stone Forest.
At each trade show, Kohler also can be counted on for at least one Neat New Thing, and here it is: The sink that cooks. The premise is a kitchen sink alongside a "cooking cavity" that holds a stackable set of pots, with heating unit underneath, that can be filled with water by merely sliding the faucet into position over them.
The stacking pots include steamer, double-boiler and colander, and the concept eliminates the need to lift a heavy pot of water, particularly one that has been boiled. A push of a button drains water from the cooking basin. These PRO CookCenters essentially add a whole new spot in the kitchen where food can be prepared.
And then we have a lot of pull: By their sheer numbers, it was hard to miss the displays of knobs, pulls, handles and other decorative hardware on display. More than 80 companies offered various kinds of knobs, though what made them so noticeable was how far removed they were from the traditional notion of cabinet hardware: If you were so moved, you could grace your cabinets and drawer fronts with soccer balls, river rocks, lizards, leaves, bumblebees, stick figures, forks . . . well, you get the idea.
The level of imaginativeness was remarkable, though one wonders whether many of them would have been better received as clip-on earrings.