The window of Union Hardware in Bethesda is full of alluring vessel sinks. There is a radiant blue glass sink; a wooden one carved in a circular pattern worthy of Frank Lloyd Wright; a wide, futuristic bronze-sculpture sink.
Inside the showroom are creative sinks that nestle under countertops, including a frosted-glass one etched with Japanese carp and a silver-plated bowling-ball-shaped sink. A one-piece counter-and-sink unit made of rough-edged stone looks as if it was heaved from the core of the earth.
“When my grandparents opened this place in 1914,” says owner Barry Goldberg, “it was a simple hardware store. About 50 years ago, when my dad was running it, he added a small section for fancy brass faucets and cabinet knobs that manufacturers were starting to make. After a while he noticed that a lot of people would congregate in that little section.”
High-end bath options were once marketed primarily to those who owned, say, Versailles. Over time, manufacturers started making luxe fixtures widely available. Nowhere is the range of options more evident than sinks.
Buyers can find an array of sinks in family-owned stores including Union Hardware and W.T. Weaver & Sons in Georgetown as well as big-box retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe’s.
Homeowners also get creative. Jewelry maker Bobbie Medlin bought two antique marble Turkish-bath sinks from a shop in Kansas City. Both can be found in the guest bath in her Georgetown home: One serves as a sink, the other as a sculpture.
More options can be found online: sinks made of Mexican ceramic, hand-blown crystal, copper, onyx. Some homeowners commission a ceramic, bronze, or glass artist to create a custom piece.
The idea of an artist-made sink isn’t new. A century ago, from the American Wild West to Italian villas, people would pour water from a pitcher into a bowl—often an elegantly painted ceramic bowl—for washing. With no indoor plumbing, that bowl was your sink and shower.
More recently, artistic sinks began making a comeback in such places as posh hotels and chic restaurant restrooms. If a room at the Ritz had a beautiful sink, guests often wanted to buy it. Makers started producing them for the masses.
You can never tell where a trend will come from. Mike Weaver of W.T. Weaver says the most popular sink is the Kohler K2210. “That simple white bowl was made to meet ADA standards when those laws were passed; the drain is set back so you can pull a wheelchair up to it,” he says. “Now people say it is a classic.”
Sometimes trends are inspired by the artists. Many of Union Hardware’s products are from small, family-owned businesses. “I find that the innovative designs are coming from the smaller companies,” Goldberg says. One brand, Alchemy, which turns sand into glass sinks, started as two artists in a warehouse in California. Another company, Cherry Creek Enterprises in Colorado, was making glass globes for electrical meters. One day its people made a sink. “They aren’t in the glass-globe business anymore,” Goldberg says.
Though the majority of Weaver’s sales are oval white sinks that cost between $75 and $125, he says vessel and handpainted styles now account for one-third of sales. White porcelain sinks with some sculpting or scalloping are closer to $300. A clear glass bowl may run $500. Hand-painted designs can cost $750 to $1,500.
Designer bowls in bronze, copper, or colorized metals start about $250, Weaver says: “Bates and Bates’s Copper Mountain sells a nice round 16-inch bowl for $595, but if you add options or finishes, it can inch toward $895.”
Gigi Sloss, of the Kitchen & Bath Design Center of Annapolis, says some handmade sinks cost in the thousands. Kohler’s Botticelli, a sink hand-formed from a single piece of Carrara marble, starts at $3,000.
If you’re adding or remodeling a bath and want an eye-catching sink, what’s the latest?
Metal is the next trend to watch, Weaver says. Stainless steel, so popular in kitchens, is moving into the bath. Duravit is one company making stainless bath sinks. Sloss says minimalist square sinks are becoming more popular. “The trend is heading toward sleek, spalike designs and less ornate,” she says. Both St. Thomas Creation and Kohler are making clean-lined, square sinks that start around $250.
Another new thing: sinks that glow. Weaver says designers have added lights in the cabinets below, and some sinks have lights that change the color of the water from red to blue, depending on how hot the water is.
The trick to a designer sink is to plan ahead. It is easier to install a standard-size sink than, say, buy something artistic that needs a custom counter built around it.
A beautiful sink is not always the most practical, as USA Today reporter Donna Leinwand discovered. “I was overseas on assignment, staying at a stylish hotel with a glass vessel sink. I hated it,” she says. “I found myself cleaning it, inside and underneath, every time I used it. Even the smallest smudge of toothpaste ruined the aesthetic.”
Barry Goldberg admits that a vessel sink he chose for his own guest powder room—granite with rough edges—is not one he’d use multiple times a day. “It’s really a matter of where your needs for form and function meet,” he says.
Union Hardware shopper Michele Singer chimes in, “I don’t want to be overwhelmed by the needs of my new sink, but I do want something fun. It’s just me at home, not a bevy of kids, so I don’t mind cleaning glass. But with vessel sinks, I don’t like cleaning in that narrow space between the counter and the sink. And I don’t want something that I’m going to regret in a few years.”
Goldberg agrees. “Baskin-Robbins offers 31 flavors for a reason. We all have different requirements. Before you just had a faucet and a sink, end of story. Today Union has hundreds of designs.”