Friday, November 30, 2012

No.6 Inventing The American Bathroom with Barbara Sallick of Waterworks

Who: Barbara Sallick
What: Waterworks -
The Destination for Artisanally Crafted Bathroom Products
When: Since 1978
Where: It began in a warehouse in Connecticut and now has showrooms internationally
To call Barbara Sallick delightful may be an understatement. Her voice barrels through the phone lines excited, energized and as enthusiastic about design today as a newly hired architect might be at their first job. She is flipping through an early copy of Gil Shafer's latest book The Great American House and relishing his talents and each detail she hones in on.
"Gil really is so talented." She says; you can just tell she is smiling and leaning over the glossy pages.
And she would know. Barbara has been the leading force behind what has come to be The American Bathroom Style. Brilliantly designed and meticulously crafted, Waterworks has changed what it means to have quality, beauty and excitement in a room that has often been undermined in the home: the bathroom. And as any truly successful craft or product for the home, this one was born out of a necessity.

A glowing assortment of Waterworks fittings.
Plumbing- perhaps not the most coveted utility of the home, but one that is functional, necessary and non-negotiable ever since the Romans first designed and implemented it. The distribution of water to and from buildings was no small feat and certainly not one that was mastered right away. As with any invention the trial and error of many a material came and went. Earthenware and timber failed the meeting the challenge when it came to implementing the various designs, sizes and geometry of these envisioned water systems. But then someone tried using lead to create a water distribution system. The dawn of the first plumbing standard was set when various apparatus' were fitted, jointed and worked out in lead. The word plumber itself derives from the Latin 'plumbus', or 'lead'. A big idea, exposure to building and design and lots of experimentation got it all going.

'Etoile exposed thermosaic shower system, unlaquered brass'

So, when a man named Samuel Gorgins started and ran The Nutmeg Plumbing Supply Company in Danbury, Connecticut in 1925, he may not have realized that his sheer knowledge, love of his family and exceptional skills at business would lead to yet another dawn in the evolution of water's relationship to a building (the home especially). And he would, as he had a very smart, curious and artistically inclined daughter named Barbara. 
"He [Samuel], his brother and his sister oversaw the company throughout Norwalk, Greenwich, Danbury [Connecticut]... I don't know how they managed but they started it and managed to keep it open through the War." Barbara Reflects. "He was alright as an engineer but a very good businessman. So my husband Robert [Sallick] joined the business in 1963 to help him out."
The Clothilde all hand polished, free-standing copper bathtub is made in the 19th Century French tradition, both in design and artisanal manufacturing method, but with a new regal scale and immeasurable elegance.
It's one thing to become familiar with the work one's parents do, but if you come from a family business it is all the more likely one might help out, work there part time, or, like many, perhaps fully go into and work at the family business full time. Regardless of which of these one might engage in, a sort of default education is cultivated sheerly from exposure to the business.

A sneak behind the scenes into the Waterworks Design Studio
So Barbara certainly had her fill of knowledge about the plumbing supply world, and so did her husband Robert, after beginning to work there full time. But this wasn't the only knowledge they shared- Barbara and Robert also shared an affinity for the American Decorative arts and architecture. 

"We've really always been collectors at heart." Barbara says warmly, "And I have always had a childish passion to look for new houses." she laughs, noting that while she and Robert have lived in the same house for 43 years, they became enamoured with 18th Century architecture and still love to tour historic houses open to the public in rural Connecticut, Massachusetts and beyond- emphasis on beyond.
"We're nosey!" Barbara laughs, "Shortly after we married we began taking regular trips to Europe, and wanted to get into as many buildings as possible to have a look around..."
Which is also no surprise, as Barbara had a hunger for discovering details in design, which, alongside the base knowledge of her father's business, was cultivated in a more formal education during her time at Yale. For over 6 years she had worked at a Yale art gallery where she assisted and oversaw a wide array of collections of American Decorative Arts. She absolutely loved being there and came to see the importance of maintenance, size, color, material, style... what it meant to create something that would stand the test of time.

A Waterworks white and taupe bath set.
As Barbara and Robert continued their sporadic trips through Europe, Barbara was of course more and more intrigued with the European bathrooms she was seeing.
"There were a lot of changes happening in the 1970's" Barbara recalls. "There were the waterfall faucets, and Villeroy & Boch were doing some interesting things..."
But Barbara and Robert had some new ideas about the bathroom. Sure, we all had the option to perhaps pick a color for our shower curtain and towels, our toilet or bathroom tile- but the quality of the choices available weren't enough. And they certainly weren't as personal as they should be. Furthermore- why not white? Keeping things white, spacious and with an Edwardian aesthetic, as Barbara had so often seen done in Europe, offered a new perspective to The Bathroom as Barbara had known it, and it seemed Robert agreed... And so, with enough pooled knowledge and passionate research, Barbara and Robert Sallick founded a new bathroom-devoted company in 1978.
"To help us get started my father gave us 1 year free rent for a section of his warehouse where we could set up shop." Says Barbara. "And it was my job to get the architects to our showroom to show them what we were doing."

Design Development Sketch of handle for Waterworks new R.W. Atlas collection
And they liked what she and Robert were doing- so did the general American public, who became enamoured with the new style they were seeing. This endeavour offered a completely new set of aesthetic options to use when designing (or redesigning or renovating or even envisioning) a home. Not to mention (finally) raising the bar of design in the bathroom while concurrently reviving the definitive standards of European craftsmanship. They had pooled together their knowledge of architecture, design, art, art history, plumbing, plumbing supplies, engineering, craftsmanship and materials all to create something that would officially set a new standard for bathrooms; especially as they were offering expertly crafted products made with exceptionally outstanding and luxurious materials. They were beginning to not only develop products that were completely reliable and functional, but that were also aesthetically superior to any bathroom products that were on the market. (Today Waterworks has grown all the more by offering a very full array of products from fittings and fixtures, to furnishings and surfaces.)
Some of Waterworks favorite Raw Materials
For example, some materials of many products on their website today range from: nickel, silver, bronze, copper, brass, chrome, metal, carbon or gold-- oh yeah, and those materials may each have options of finishes such as: antique, matte, shiny, burnished, lacquered, unlaquered and so on.

And such a visual astuteness and attention to detail came from both Barbara's exposure to the nuts and bolts of the industry but also from those many years working at that Yale art gallery.
"There's something you learn from experience with a three-dimensional object," Barbara says "I spent a lot of time taking things apart and putting them back together."
And this experience and appreciation for hands-on learning ripples throughout the company today. As Waterworks grew over the years, and was finally given a name (the Sallick's threw a dinner party with close friends asking for help brainstorming- one of them came up with Waterworks and Barbara knew that's it!), they continued to make sure they only worked with the finest manufacturers. And how else to do this other than to partner with some of the finest artisans throughout Europe and America?
"We seek out small talented artisan(s) outfits and work with them to teach them how to manufacture on a larger scale." Barbara says.
A Waterworks Artisan works in his shop to cast and forge meticulous gold hardware. Later it will be carefully retouched and hand polished.
She, and her son Peter Sallick, who joined their team in 1993 and now serves as President and CEO of the company, work together to seek out these artisans. Together they are searching for experience and quality, rather than criteria (as most crafts are taught generationally or via apprenticeship and hands on work- not through a college degree). Whereas some of their faucetry may come from a shop in Normandy, France, other hardware and furnishings may be made in a variety of allied shops here in New Jersey, New York, California... Which makes sense, considering how thoughtful each product, selected artisan and employee in the company is. When asked about working with her son, Barbara replies enthusiastically: 

Sultry color comes out in Waterworks' District Tile Collection

"Peter's eye, taste and extraordinary abilities as a visionary and a strategist make it an exceptional collaboration. But also I think it's a part of our strength as a whole that we say: Family First."

Peter Sallick has helped take Waterworks to the next level, offering a complete range of services for a complete bathroom. The Sallick's seem to know talent when they see it, as well as how important it is to uphold and maintain it in the design industry. Everything in Waterworks, from selecting materials, overseeing the design process and carefully controlling manufacturing has been and continues to be undertaken with meticulous care and attention to detail.

A Waterworks Surface Template

Furthermore, what makes Waterworks beautiful, aside from the products themselves, is that by continuing to seek out and partner with small shops and studios to manufacture their products, they are keeping a small and important pool of artists, artisans and craftspeople alive and well (the world always needs more art, and value of it, this is a rare field and place where that can happen). Even if some of the products may be out of your price range, the products, designs, textures and color pallets serve as a new set of precedent images to work from when creating and personalizing your own bathroom.

Over the years, becoming something of an expert on it, Barbara Sallick has continued to be none less than thrilled to continue developing and cultivating superior bathroom aesthetics. If you still aren't sure where to begin, or the countless ways to imprint your personal style and tastes into your bathroom, you can always follow her on The Perfect Bath, Barbara's personal design journal and blog. She cares deeply about the relationship between a person and their personal space and goes to great lengths to fuse her experience in this unique field and share it with one and all so you might benefit too.

Aside from carrying on and discovering new and old design styles everywhere to create something new, Barbara does want to leave anyone- experienced or new to design- who wants to improve their bathroom with these words of wisdom:
"Plan well, be sure to do your homework and lots of research- on the web and in libraries- and be sure you hire a true professional to work with. [When you are ready] Engage knowledgeable sales people and don't be affraid to ask questions. Hire a good architect and contractor and stay on top of them- this way you'll own the outcome."
The complete R.W. Atlas Collection makes its launch!
A shot of Waterworks' 58th Street Showroom showcasing the new industrial inspired R.W. Atlas Collection alongside its complimentary sibling the 'District Tile Collection'.
Barbara Sallick is the Co-Founder, Executive Vice President and spokesperson of Waterworks [Opertating Company, LLC]. She is the author of Waterworks: Inventing Bath Style as well as her ongoing blog The Perfect Bath, in which she shares her insights. She sits on the Board of Directors at the Institute for Classical Architecture & Art and still lives in her home in Connecticut with her husband Robert, and frequently travels overseeing Waterworks new endeavours.