Toilets With Sex Appeal

High-end toilets: the next frontier of bathroom bliss?

The NEOREST 550H from TOTO USA.

The Neorest 550H from TOTO USA.

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You might want to sit down for this: Your toilet could become the best seat in the house.

Next week, the annual Kitchen and Bath Industry Show opens in New Orleans, and among the products on display are toilets that run more like Teslas with their sleek, glam, energy-conserving technology. Among them, the Numi by Kohler—which boasts ambient lighting, foot and seat warmers, a motion-activated lid, water-saving technology and remote control operation—will now let users wirelessly sync the toilet to their favorite tunes. Previously, one could choose between radio or an original score composed for the Numi.

Plus, you can say goodbye to toilet paper. Toilets like the Numi, along with the Washlet and Neorest by TOTO, clean users bidet-style, with sprays of water and air that get the job done more effectively, manufacturers say.

Such innovations are part of a much larger trend in American home design, as customers seek stress relief in spa-like home bathrooms. Still, these toilets represent a whole new way of doing business, so to speak. Are Americans ready to adopt an approach more commonly used in Europe and Asia than in this country?

The avante-garde nature of the product provides a starting point, says Brian Hedlund, senior product manager of toilets and bidets at Kohler. "Toileting is kind of a taboo topic" that only surfaces with potty training, he says. "Once you get it down, you never really talk about it again." But the Numi changes that. "Wait a minute, the toilet does what?" people will ask, which can lead to a conversation about health, comfort and hygiene, he says.

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TOTO USA, a division of the Japanese company, has seen a strong response in this country, says David Krakoff, president of sales for the Americas. When it was first introduced here in 2004, the Neorest was so popular that backorders caused the company to expand the luxury line, he says. And sales of the Washlet, a device that attaches to one's existing toilet and comes in a range of prices, have climbed despite the economic downturn, he says.

Whether or not these toilets will go mainstream is likely too soon to tell. But attention to modern and spa-like bathroom design certainly has, says Alan Zielinski, the immediate past president of the National Kitchen and Bath Association, which produces the upcoming show. "Clean, uncluttered, balanced, ergonomical," he says, rattling off descriptors for the trend. Essentially, we want to Zen out in the bathroom. "This is one area of solitude, that place where they can relax and unwind," Zielinski says. "It's an adult retreat now."

According to Krakoff, consumers are looking for "things that provide comfort, ease of use, and that create a restful, almost soothing environment in the bathroom. The bathroom has moved from being purely a utilitarian space to almost being a refuge; someplace where you can escape for a while."

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At Zielinski's Niles, Ill.-based store, Better Kitchens, Inc., customers are seeking that tranquil getaway in their bathroom. So he commonly uses a range of products and therapies to create that effect: heated floors and shower benches; steam showers fitted with grooves for a few drops of essential oils and, consequently, an infusion of aromatherapy; and soaking tubs that employ chromatherapy, lighting the bath water in a range of colors to uplift or soothe the bather. Plus, automated is in—motion-activated lights, fans and faucets, for example. It's like the equivalent of automatic bill pay, remembering to turn the bathroom light off can become one less task for your brain to recall.

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"People are bringing more features and benefits and really, more technology, into their bathroom to improve their comfort and control of their toileting experience and their bathroom experience," Hedlund says. Of course, explaining the benefits of using a bidet instead of toilet paper can get a little awkward. "Most people tend to kind of giggle and dismiss it," he says. "We're a culture kind of raised on toilet paper."