Once the most utilitarian of household hardwares, the lowly faucet, has become a real turn-on.
It's no longer enough that the water runs hot and cold. Discriminating homeowners want spigots that make statements. As a result, faucets have gone from functional to fancy--and even funky.
Many people favor the sleek, streamlined models that look like they're going to take off from the sink and wing around the bathroom. Some contemporary faucets resemble abstract sculptures.
Orange County hardware stores such as West End West in Laguna Beach and Amco Builders Supply in Costa Mesa carry faucets to suit every fancy.
"I like the contemporary ones. They're very elaborate but understated," says Sandy Kedhar, sounding much like a faucet connoisseur as she shopped at Amco for faucets to fit her new home in Laguna Niguel.
"It's a custom home and I want to have something unusual," she explained.
How about a jet-black faucet shaped like a crowbar? An elegant, gold, crescent-shaped spout with malachite handles? A gold-plated swan that spills water out of its beak, or an elaborate brass dolphin that pours water from its mouth?
Those who favor contemporary decors can find futuristic faucets in assorted geometric shapes.
Modern spigots by Eurotect Ltd. feature pyramids, cylinders, blocks and ovals that fit together like building blocks in split finishes of brass and chrome. One faucet has two triangular levers and a pyramid-shaped head.
Decorators with old-fashioned tastes can choose the Georgian faucets with traditional brass spouts and white porcelain cross handles. For a more elegant look, they can substitute crystal handles or S-shaped levers with intricate scrollwork.
Spigots, like people, come in all shapes--tall and slender, short and squat, angular and round. Bar faucets, which have found their way into the kitchen and bath, have skinny goose necks. Dramatic "C Spouts" by Altmans form a sweeping "C" out of faux malachite, lapis or black granite.
Semi-precious stones and metals adorn the fancier faucets. The brass plumbing comes plated in chrome, nickel, brass finish or even 24-karat gold. Amco carries a copper faucet, shiny as a new penny, with pink quartz handles.
Decorators can choose cylinder-shaped handles that have interchangeable rings of amethyst, malachite, crystal, onyx, ivory, lapis and other semi-precious stones. The cobra ring by Altmans has a coiled-up snake with ruby or emerald eyes.
Water does not merely dribble out of such fantastic faucets. It flows in rivulets down a triple aqueduct, or spews out in a thin ribbon from a flat, razor-thin opening. It slides down a curved sheet of metal or rolls down several tiers into the bathtub.
Turning the water on can also be an adventure. Contemporary levers, with their abstract domes, cylinders and blocks, offer no hints as to whether one pulls, pushes or twists.
Electronic faucets have no levers at all. They're activated by an infrared switch that turns on and off when the user puts his hands underneath the spout.
"They're used a lot in commercial buildings, but now we're finding people want them in their homes, too," says Steven Goldstein, an owner of West End West.
Thanks to new technology, homeowners have never enjoyed greater selection in faucets.
Decorators can now buy faucets in any color, thanks to the development of powder coats of paint that are baked onto the brass fixtures.
"White powder coats are the hottest thing right now," says David Schuck, co-owner of West End West.
With their clean lines, the white faucets look great in contemporary kitchens. Black and vivid red faucets have also upstaged the traditional chrome spigots.
Contemporary faucets owe their bulky geometric shapes to an engineering technique in which each piece is cut from bars of solid brass instead of cast from a mold, then milled and machined for a glossy look.
Homeowners willingly splurge on such innovations.
Most designer faucets cost $400 to $600, with the traditional ones starting at $200 and the contemporary ones at $300.
"Then the prices go up--and up and up," Goldstein says.
Prices fluctuate depending on the faucet's design and materials. At West End West, a gold-plated swan sells for $560, a modern waterfall faucet for $800 and the Wedgewood china faucet for $1,000.
Some pay as much as $2,000 for custom-made, gold-plated faucets with semi-precious stones.
People will pay more for fancy faucets because "the home is becoming vitally important," Goldstein says.
"They're spending a lot of money on and in the home, so they're willing to spend a little extra to get the finishing touches.
"Before, they'd spend all this money on furniture and wallpaper for the living room and bedrooms, but they'd neglect the bath and kitchen. Now they're looking at the faucets." And faucets have never looked better.