ONCE UPON A TIME, A FAUCET WAS merely that object in the kitchen or bath that dispensed water. It still does a good job at that, of course, but it's no longer just a utilitarian wallflower. The faucet now acts as a unifying element that can enhance a room's overall appearance.

Hip Spigots The rise of open-plan kitchens and lofts is one possible explanation for the faucet's ascension in the product ranks. In these spaces, kitchens and, consequently, faucets, are much more visible to visitors, so home buyers are using the opportunity to make a design statement and are choosing their faucets accordingly.

Some buyers prefer high-arcing professional-style faucets worthy of a commercial kitchen, while others opt for elegant fixtures with clean lines. Wall-mount faucets are popular as well, says Gary Uhl, director of design for American Standard, in Piscat-away, N.J. “They take more time to install since the plumbing behind the wall has to be changed, but they are increasing in popularity,” he says.

Faucet finishes are becoming just as important. In the old days, consumers could have any finish they wanted so long as it was chrome. Though chrome is still a favorite, consumers are just as likely to match a faucet to their wrought-iron chandelier, so manufacturers have been forced to expand their options to include finishes such as brushed nickel and polished brass. Alternative finishes cost more, but buyers see their potential for customization and choose them anyway.

Caveat Emptor But there's more to faucets than style and finish; it's important they offer trouble-free performance as well. With such a crowded product category, choosing a good faucet is more difficult than ever.

“We believe people should look for ceramic-disc valves and cast-brass construction,” says Uhl. Brass is durable, heavy, and resistant to corrosion, and, manufacturers say, ceramic valves are guaranteed to never leak. As for finishes, “chrome is the most durable finish that you can buy,” Uhl adds, “but you can also look at PVD [physical vapor deposition] finishes [as] a second option after chrome.”

One of the most significant faucet developments in the past 20 years, ceramic discs became a mainstay in the industry about 12 years ago. Found mostly in mid- and high-end faucets, the discs are extremely hard and durable and perform better with age because their surfaces become smoother. Water impurities such as mineral deposits can't harm them, which is why many manufacturers offer a lifetime guarantee.

Some manufacturers offer products with washerless valves (made from rubber or metal composite materials), claiming they're just as good as ceramic. Jeff Pratt, vice president of sales for faucet manufacturer Danze, in Bollingbrook, Ill., says, however, that though washerless cartridges and compression valves are still prevalent, they often “are associated with lower price and lower quality.”

Joel Culp, director of channel marketing for Kohler Faucets, in Kohler, Wis., agrees, but he adds that all ceramic valves are not made equal, so buyers should beware. Kohler's products, he says, exceed ANSI standards two times over, and some are tested at four times the standard.

Manufacturers may disagree on valve technology, but they all agree that style and fresh design count for a lot. No wonder more manufacturers are hiring well-known designers to create high-concept products. Michael S. Smith and Barbara Barry produce lines for Kohler's high-end brands Kallista and Ann Sacks, while Indianapolis-based Delta Faucet has enlisted architect and product design doyen

Michael Graves. “Consumers want something they can't get from other places,” says Danette Goen, product development manager for Delta. “We saw it as an opportunity [to enlist Michael Graves]. We wanted to offer something others were not doing.”

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