PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 March, 2007, 12:00am

BASINS THAT LOOK like infinity pools, lavish touches of wenge wood, and floors that radiate warmth - bathrooms are becoming the focal point of home makeovers.

Once regarded as a purely functional space, bathrooms are increasingly receiving the kind of attention once reserved for bedrooms and living rooms. According to a survey by the US National Association of Home Builders, an ordinary bathroom just isn't enough any more. People want closet space, skylights, double sinks, Jacuzzi tubs - and amenities galore.

In the US and Europe, designers are inserting dramatic elements such as couches and fireplaces, space permitting, or making more subtle alterations with items such as frosted glass basins and towel warmers.

'People care about having a certain kind of luxuriousness without necessarily wanting to give over a lot of space,' says Joel Karr, a San Francisco-based designer who's just launched a line of products under the label Group 41. 'The challenge is to do something that feels lovely and luxurious without wasting additional space on it.'

Online design magazine Pure Contemporary says that incorporating materials such as stainless steel or mixing textures such as nickel with ebony can give a new look to bathrooms. Brands such as Ramon Soler, which combines maple with chrome, exemplify the fluid and interesting looks developing in bathroom design. Especially important are different woods used for sinks, tubs and vanity tops, as well as small accessories such as soap trays and mirror frames.

Karr says wood is a fresh take for bathrooms, especially when it's combined with stone and marble. White marble paired with rich dark brown cabinet work is popular, as is glass in saturated aquamarine blues or rich mint greens. It gives off a fresh, clean feeling, he says, whereas the soft tonal beiges that have come to define bathrooms in recent years looks passe. 'Ten years is usually the timing horizon for a bathroom makeover, so anything done in the mid-90s is generally looking a bit old.'

No matter what's being done aesthetically to bathrooms, however, space is often a concern in cities, which is one reason designers are breaking down the walls dividing it from other rooms. 'Space in these apartments is a challenge that leads to new creative ideas,' says Jaspar Jensen, co-founder of 129 Office for Spatial Design in Amsterdam. 'Bathrooms are being combined with other living areas, like the bedroom. Spatially, they become much more interesting.'

The synthesis between the bathroom and the rest of the home resulted in Jensen's award-winning design Blossom, essentially a canopied bed attached to a toilet, shower and sink in one piece. Glass doors separate the shower from the toilet, and the sink and mirror are built into the head of the bed.

Karr says bathroom revamps can be kept simple and functional, while still delivering dramatic space. Heated floors and towel warmers are almost considered basic, as are double vanities.

'Low-flow toilets are a requirement [in the US] now, but the design has always lagged. In Japan, they're doing some spectacularly designed low-flow toilets.'

Glass tiles are becoming popular, and in some cases are replacing stone, although Karr says slab stone in showers is luxurious. 'Clean bathrooms in modernist designs are desirable now,' he says. 'Most of my recent projects are looking back at clean, classic decor, but instead of going with all white, there are beautiful rich colours and materials.'

Opulence was certainly on show in a bathroom design contest held recently by the US National Kitchen and Bath Association. One designer created a room featuring hand-stamped concrete tile floors and walls covered with burnished glass squares, natural cork and aluminium. Another design included a black lacquered Asian console table, cloisonne vessel sink and a floor-to-ceiling shoji screen, with a red Chinese ladder to hold towels.

For property-conscious Hongkongers, renovating an old bathroom makes financial sense. Most real estate experts agree that upgrading a bathroom usually boosts the sale price.