There are few things finer than the embrace of a warm bathtub, an everyday luxury that has been evolved and stylized by Canadian architect Michael Gottschalk.
As an entrepreneur, he saw a market opportunity arising from changing building regulations. As a designer, he envisioned creative new ways to use an unusual Japanese building material. And so, in 2006, Gottschalk founded Blu Bathworks.
He started this line of premium bathroom fixtures when he was still working as an architect on award-winning luxury resorts. He grew frustrated that the European sinks and bathtubs he wanted to use were getting harder and harder to order in North America.
How regulations can impact design
Fixtures need to be certified for installation in homes, and North American regulators don’t accept European certifications. There used to be a workaround: builders would get North American certification on-site for about $1,500. That wasn’t much to pay to be able to install a $20,000-plus luxury tub from Europe.
But regulators stopped allowing this workaround and it became more complicated and costly to get North American certification for European products.
That meant that the most fashionable fixtures were, by and large, no longer available in North America. Gottschalk realized the problem was an opportunity.
If he, a top architect working with major developers, could no longer get the kind of clean, modern fixtures he favoured, neither could others. And like him, they wouldn’t be happy about it.
In a stroke of good fortune, the man who hired Gottschalk to work on luxury resort designs also happened to run one of the largest trading companies in the world. With that connection — and an influx of cash that included $350,000 for product development and certification — Gottschalk started a brand that has set out a new standard of elegance, sophistication, and relaxation.
Blu Bathworks builds all of its products in Italy, working with some of the top companies in the world and offering European style and quality. But, unlike many European brands, it puts in the extra effort and investment to get North American certification.
Gottschalk has spent a lot of time in Europe, and particularly in Milan and Florence where the architectural details have inspired him. He says Blu Bathworks often juxtaposes clean, modern aesthetics with ornate designs inspired by the kinds of tapestries, cathedrals, and other traditional design elements he has seen in these cities.
“It definitely brings in texture, which otherwise you wouldn’t have, and warmth,” Gottschalk says. “Often modern [design] is criticized for not having warmth. It’s too cold.”
Gottschalk says the move from designing buildings to designing products was natural.
“I was always interested in design. I was always interested in product,” he says. “It didn’t really matter whether it was a watch or a car or a bathroom sink.”
His work as an architect had even helped prepare him for the move, he says.
“If you’re doing a building, it’s virtually a concept and then it [becomes] something real,” he says. “Product is very similar in the journey, in the process. Very similar.”
Blu Bathworks is European-inspired, yet has a distinct aesthetic. That could partly be because of the innovative material Gottschalk has used in many of his products.
Gottschalk’s Blu Stone line isn’t made from plastic, ceramic or fibreglass, but rather from 80 percent crushed quartz that is mixed with a resin and poured into high-pressure injection molds to form bathtubs, sinks, and shower bases.
An unusual material
It’s a material that offers a better experience to the bather, with a much lighter footprint on the environment.
Gottschalk was familiar with it from his architect days because it was used as building siding in Japan. The benefit of the material and the process is surprising.
Using Blu Stone saves an incredible amount of energy when compared to ceramic. Ceramic fixtures have to be fired in massive tunnel kilns heated to 1,800° Fahrenheit. Blu Stone only needs to be heated to 200° Fahrenheit.
The production of Blu Stone also involves less waste.
For every 100 ceramic sinks that go into that tunnel kiln for two hours, only 30 to 40 will be deemed as A-grade product, says Gottschalk.
“Everything else diminishes after that,” he says. “You have some of that that’s B; there’s some that’s C, and then some that’s completely discarded. You get about 20 percent wastage. Out of 100, 20 of them are going to a landfill. You can’t reuse that product.”
“Now you’ve used all this energy to put stuff into a landfill,” he continues. “With our product, … it’s 99.9 percent accurate. If it’s not accurate, you can pulverize it and reuse the material. But, by and large, that never happens.”
Blu Stone fixtures have another significant benefit — they can be repaired.
Unlike ceramic, which can’t be fixed if chipped, if anything happens to a Blu Stone product, such as a hammer falling on it during construction, it can be repaired.
Gottschalk says, “It’s very difficult to ding and scratch our product, but if you do it, it’s repairable.”