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October 15, 2004

'Weight is the quickest gauge of value'


Marco Pasanella on bathroom fixtures.

Pasanella heads the design firm polenta, teaches, writes books, and of late has been contributing design-related pieces to the New York Times.

For yesterday's House & Home section, he wrote an excellent piece on bathroom sink faucet sets.

He spent a couple weeks shopping for them.

At the high end was the $1,130 version from the English firm Barber Wilsons (these faucets are used in Buckingham Palace).

At his low end was the $235 set made by Price Pfister, available at all the big box stores.

He learned that weight is the quickest gauge of value (the Barber Wilsons - or Barwil, as Pasanella referred to it - weighs four pounds).

In contrast, the Price Pfister was nearly weightless.

The difference is due to the heavy metal casting of the Barwil vs. the plastic components of the Price Pfister.

Pasanella noted that the strength of the Barwil allows for a wide throat for the water vs. the pinhole opening of the Pfister.

Thus, "water gushes from one [the Barwil] and trickles from the other, though both use the same pipes and have similar-size spouts."

Pasanella points out the lift test is particularly critical in big box stores "where the shelves can be stocked with lower-quality versions of well-known brands."

He notes that the Speakman showerhead sells for $125 at George Taylor and only $29 at Lowe's and Home Depot.

The difference? The expensive version is chrome-plated brass, while the economy model is chrome-plated plastic.

He goes on to note that the bargain versions drive plumbers crazy because the parts fit together poorly and they tend to break during installation.

But his choice of best faucet was not the Barwil; rather, it was a $528 model from the Chicago Faucet Company.


At 9.3 pounds, its solid brass casting was more than twice the weight of the Barwil.

Pasanella also points out that reliability and repairability are very important components of value.

The Barwil, though it breaks infrequently, requires a three-week wait for a potentially costly part.

The Chicago's replacement parts are inexpensive and available within days, and new parts will work even in a 60-year-old model.

Here's the story.

In a World of Choices, Cruising for Quality

We are a nation of high and low shoppers.

The Pradaphile is also the Target bargain-hunter.

We want our dream or we want a cheap alternative.

But in the search for value, what about the Great American Middle Ground - the middle of the market, long neglected?

The challenge for today's renovators, as they walk the miles of aisles in big box stores, is uncovering the secrets of the vast in-between.

The top-of-the-line item may offer instant gratification; at the low end lies the satisfaction of the great deal.

I maintain that the middle of the market is the homeland of value and not the backwater of compromise.

But now that Home Depot has arrived in Manhattan, with 20,000 products stacked on its shelves, the middle has never seemed wider or more bewildering.

I went shopping over the last weeks for an item that homeowners typically view as a high or low proposition: bathroom sink faucet sets.

I examined a range of traditionally styled chrome models.

At the high end was one made by the venerable English firm Barber Wilsons ($1,130), whose faucets are used in Buckingham Palace.

At the lower end was a set made by Price Pfister ($235), available at big box stores.

For my money, the winner was a set by the Chicago Faucet Company, at $528. (According to plumbing lore, Frank Sinatra carried a Chicago Faucet set on tour and had it installed in every hotel room.)

Here is what I learned: Weight is the quickest gauge of value.

"If you want to know what is good, pick it up," said John Christou, an owner of George Taylor Specialties, one of New York's best regarded plumbing suppliers.

At four pounds, the Barber Wilsons is chunky.

Of course, its weight is not apparent once it is installed, but the consequences of that extra heft are significant.

The Barber Wilsons' sturdy nickel-size throat allows a generous water supply.

By contrast, the lightweight Price Pfister has a mere pinhole to protect its plastic innards from cracking under pressure.

As a result water gushes from one and trickles from the other, though both use the same pipes and have similar-size spouts.

The lift test is particularly critical in big box stores where the shelves can be stocked with lower-quality versions of well-known brands.

The Speakman showerhead, a sturdy American brand, which George Taylor sells for $125, is $29 at home-improvement chains.

If you pick them up, the difference is clear: the expensive version is chrome-plated brass, while its economy double is chrome-plated plastic.

These bargain fixtures drive plumbers crazy because the parts fit together poorly, and they tend to break during installation.

"I tell my customers that I'll give you the money you save if you don't make me put in this junk," said Michael Esposito, a plumber based in Brooklyn.

With its surfeit of chunky metal, the Barwil begs to be touched.

Compared with the articulated balls that cap the ends of the English taps, the Price Pfisters handles look like blobs.

Of course, to make the alluring shapes requires fine casting, laborious hand polishing and a fat price tag.

Barwil may be the real English thing.

But I wonder: Is it a pose to make the same product virtually the same way for 100 years, in defiance of technological advances?

Is Barber Wilsons more nostalgic than authentic, like those British carmakers who stuck to their notoriously unreliable 6-volt batteries long after better versions came along?

"One of the markers of true authenticity," said Dave Glassman, director of marketing for Restoration Hardware, "is a sense of timelessness."

Turns out that the middleman was the real heavyweight. At 9.3 pounds, Chicago's solid brass castings outweigh Barber Wilsons'.

The muscular spouts and bases are single-forged pieces rather than the junky amalgams of washers and tubes that characterize the cheaper stuff.

Chicago does not offer polished nickel, the fashionable finish for the design set over the last couple of years.

Nor does it make matte nickel, which some homeowners have turned to because of nickel's tendency to tarnish.

What Chicago does sell is that overlooked standby: chrome.

With good chrome plating, you do not have to worry about tarnish, and you can easily match products from one brand to another.

I feel like a Honda salesman for bringing this up, but reliability is an important component of value.

Barwils break infrequently, but when they do, you have to wait three weeks for a potentially costly part.

By contrast, Chicago supplies inexpensive replacement pieces in a matter of days, and new parts will work on a 60-year-old model.

Chalk up another one for the man in the middle.

The result is a product with the sturdiness and solidity of a great American design.

Costs are minimized by keeping to simple interchangeable shapes, which are authentically all-American rather than dumbed-down versions of English ones.

"They don't have silly plastic trims and doodads that will make you want to rip them out when you get sick of them," said Randy Polumbo, a contractor whose clients include Santiago Calatrava, the architect and engineer.

To go for the middle is not to be indiscriminate.

Despite their uniform quality, not every Chicago design is a winner.

Dig past those models reminiscent of elementary-school bathrooms to discover the real gems.

When mining value from the overlooked, it pays to have a little patience.

Value does not require blind lust for luxury or bargain fever.

The faucet that will make you happiest is the one that does not leak.

The same applies to architectural hardware.

At first glance, the French Bull's-Eye ($70) by Nanz Custom Hardware, the Barwil of cabinet pulls, bears more than a passing resemblance to Restoration Hardware's Gilmore pull ($5.95).

Both are relatively flat on top with lines on the sides.

But up close you can see that the Nanz version, modeled after turn-of-the-century drum-shape knobs, is an astounding combination of ogees, steps, astragals and coves compared with the Gilmore's simpler profile.

Carl Sorenson, an owner of Nanz Custom Hardware, estimates that more than 50 percent of the manufacturing cost is in the handiwork required in the final finishing to get into all those crevices.

More straightforward shapes can be finished by tossing them in a tumbler overnight.

Is it worth the extra $64 a knob?

Side by side, there is no denying that the Nanz looks almost jewel-like while the Restoration Hardware model looks, well, like a cabinet pull.

Do you need it? Nope.

Then again, I do not need an old Ferrari, either.

Neither pull is historically correct. On the other hand, both work in traditional and modern rooms.

Where Nanz hardware is about refinement, Urban Archaeology aims for "big, boastful and made to last," said Gil Shapiro, its founder.

And you can see it in products like the 13 1/2-inch diameter Berkeley Semi-Dome light made from a huge casting with dramatic venting to handle the heat from two 100-watt bulbs.

At $2,040, it is definitely out of my price range for a light meant for a bathroom.

In my own home, I opted for a $17.50 Sea-Dog Line light designed for use on boats.

Granted, it is only five inches wide, stamped out of stainless steel and uses a low-voltage bulb.

Designed for marine use, it feels more authentic than the overbuilt version.

The saving allowed me to line a hallway with them and still have $1,970 leftover to spend (perhaps for a boat).

The point is, sometimes good is good enough.

Do you really need the top-of-the-line Viking range blistering your walls with its 35,000 B.T.U.'s?

Or is a less expensive G.E. Profile adequate for roasting a duck?

As with blood pressure and Oreo cookies, the sweet spot often lies in the middle.

October 15, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink


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