Barbara Sallick, Co-Founder or Waterworks Discusses the Best Bathroom Design

Barbara Sallick

Barbara Sallick, author of The Perfect Bath and co-founder of Waterworks, brings European style to the most important room in the house.

IF YOU ASK Waterworks co-founder Barbara Sallick how the company created its elegant, all-white look, be prepared for a surprising reply. You might expect her to expound on timelessness and simplicity, which exemplify the luxury kitchen and bath brand’s style. But Sallick prefers honesty. “It was because I was a horrible bookkeeper and inventory planner,” she says. “I mean, horrible.”

Sallick breaks into a laugh as she says this, to underscore how naïve she and her husband, Robert, were when they started their company in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1978. But among the handful of happy mistakes they made, they can credit at least some of their success to placing her in charge of making sure they ordered the right toilets.

It’s probably best to give some history here: Barbara never intended to get into the sink and faucet business at all. In the early ’70s, she was a young mother with a job she loved, working for the curator of American Decorative Arts at Yale University Art Gallery. The position required her to evaluate objects like 18th-century teapots for their detail, proportion and aesthetic worth. More than anything, she wanted to stay at that job.

But on their many trips abroad as a young couple, the Sallicks noticed how different European bathrooms were from those with which they’d grown up. At the time, Americans’ bathrooms were small and utilitarian, in shades of Pepto-Bismol pink or powder blue. The European bath, by contrast, was a sanctuary.

As the Sallicks grew increasingly enamored of European-style baths, they visited Villeroy & Boch’s headquarters in Germany, watching fixtures fly down a roller hearth kiln. They combed through British salvage yards, uncovering classic objects from the Edwardian era. They visited European designer bath showrooms, which told a complete story, matching sinks, faucets and tiles. They asked themselves, “Wouldn’t Americans want this too?”

But when Robert suggested they make it a business, Barbara hesitated. Robert was already in plumbing supplies, working for the company Barbara’s father started in 1925. Creating their own business, though, meant Barbara would have to leave the job she loved.

In the end, Waterworks won out. “It was going to be something Robert and I would share,” says Barbara. “Little did I know what it would be like working with your husband. I didn’t even know to ask the question, ‘Is that a good thing?’ ”

Photo: Susana Bates

The answer has been a resounding yes. After the Sallicks used up their savings and took out an expensive loan, they launched Waterworks in a building Barbara’s father lent them in Danbury. Since then, the company has grown into a multimillion-dollar operation (recently acquired by Restoration Hardware) with 14 showrooms worldwide, including one in San Francisco.

Along the way, Waterworks also established Barbara as a leading voice in the design world. “Barbara is a visionary in bathroom design,” says award-winning San Francisco architect Andrew Skurman. “She has elevated the bath to a designer experience.”

Barbara did this by combining her two great passions: family and classic, timeless style. “When I was at Yale, I would look at a teapot and decide whether it was beautiful. Does it have the right foot? Does it have the right finial? Does the handle match the spout? I spent years looking at objects and deciding whether they were good, better or best,” she says. “I took all that into how I look at a faucet.”

Originally, Barbara and Robert struggled to clarify the story they wanted to tell, and, says Barbara, “it was a number of years before I could even draw a salary of $58 a week.” They opened their first showroom in Danbury, drawing upon the European model, displaying entire bath vignettes, from tile to tub to sink to fixtures — a new concept for Americans, who usually picked items separately from a catalog.

They sold luxury fixtures from companies like Villeroy & Boch and Dornbracht and introduced Americans to whirlpool baths. Despite invitations to architects, designers and plumbers to visit, though, they barely got a bite. The plumbers would walk in, see Barbara, and ask, ‘Honey, where’s your husband?’ ” To which Barbara would reply, “He doesn’t work here and he doesn’t call me ‘honey’ and you can’t either.”

When people did place an order, they often bumped up against Barbara’s woeful bookkeeping and inventory skills, which caused enormous problems. “If I had something in blue, I would have a sink but I wouldn’t have a blue toilet,” says Barbara. “Or I’d have a blue bathtub and I wouldn’t have a blue sink.”

About five years in, Robert turned to Barbara and, exasperated, said, “This is really aggravating for both of us. What if we gave all our inventory of colored sinks and toilets to Habitat for Humanity and sold only white?”

The idea was frightening. “It was a remarkably bold statement,” she says, “but it was really the turning point for our business.” All of a sudden, Waterworks had clarity about the story it wanted to tell. “It was easy and simple and it resonated,” says Barbara. “We felt we were more authentic. It was something we understood completely ourselves, so it was much easier to talk about: the purity, hygiene and cleanliness of the all-white bath.”

Final Selects of San Francisco WaterWorks store. Matt Berman, Art Director.

After that, Waterworks drew the attention of architects and designers worldwide. The company became known for its impeccable style and artisanal quality craftsmanship, from its pedestal sinks to cross-handled faucets to luxurious white bath towels. “In the beginning, they tended to be very modern and new,” says Paul Egee, an independent Waterworks design consultant. “But then gradually Barbara applied her knowledge of antiques and classicism to the business and began to work with vendors who would produce things that had a historical reference to them.”

It was an area the Sallicks knew well, having built their own Connecticut home using an 18th-century blueprint. And as they continually clarified their aesthetic, Americans embraced it. Waterworks baths, sinks, towels and faucets now appear in luxury locations from the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles to the Cloister in Sea Island, Georgia, to yes, the homes of the Kardashian clan.

As Barbara redefined bathroom style, she also forged her way as a woman in the “boys’ club” design world. “I had to make things up as I went along,” she says. “The generation after me had many role models. I just didn’t have any, other than observing Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug.”

To keep things equitable, she and Robert took turns being president of the company. One year, he was president and got to make all the big decisions; the next year, she took the reins. In 1993, they handed the business to their son, Peter, who’s now CEO. Their other son, Dan, is the press secretary for a Florida congressman — and chairman of the board of Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum.

“I decided long ago that the only thing that mattered was not the business at all, but that our family stayed intact and that we were close and tight,” she says. “Somehow we managed to make that happen.”

Credit Sallick’s staggering energy for being able to pull it all off. Though she’s at an age when other people are perusing river cruise catalogs, she hasn’t slowed down. She still works full time as Waterworks’ senior vice-president of design. She blogs regularly and travels all over the country (taking red-eyes to save time) lecturing on bath design. And just last year, she published her second book, The Perfect Bath.

“None of us know how she keeps up her work and travel schedule,” says Paul Egee. “Sometimes I sit there and think, ‘Wait, she’s considerably older than me, and way more energetic.’ I don’t know how she does it.” Like her design style, it’s simple: Sallick is driven by a passion for timelessness and beauty. Just keep her away from the books.