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The ultimate fixture for high-end bathrooms: a luxury toilet

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The $12,182 Dagobert "throne" is in a class of toilets marketed toward high-end bathrooms. The toilet was inspired by King Dagobert I who is depicted as meeting his ministers with his pants inside out by a French nursery rhyme. When the lid of the toilet lifts, a built-in music box plays the nursery rhyme. (Courtesy of Herbeau Creations of America)

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The Toto Neorest 500, "personal hygiene system," anticipates whether a user plans to use it standing up and lifts the seat accordingly, among other functions. As the bathroom morphs from a functional space into a "personal haven," luxury toilets are catching on in high-end bathrooms. (Jaramay Aref/Courtesy of Toto USA)

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The remote control for the Toto Neorest 600, a high-end toilet, governs the direction, pressure and temperature of the built-in bidet function. As the bathroom morphs from a functional space into a "personal haven," luxury toilets are catching on in high-end bathrooms. (Barbara Karant/ Courtesy of Toto USA)

Since the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of toilets, men and women have fought over how best to deal with the seat. Men leave it up. Women want it down.

Today, modern technology has provided a solution: It is the Toto Neorest, a "personal hygiene system," says the company's literature, that is the space shuttle of toilets. It has a built-in deodorizer, a remote-controlled bidet and yes, a seat that lifts up and down automatically.

Depending on whether you buy the compact powder room model or the taller model for master bedrooms, it costs between $3,200 and $5,980.

In the luxury bathroom world, there are plenty of high-end toilets like the Neorest. Some offer solutions to questions like, "What toilet would go well with my castle?" Answer: the Dagobert, a faux 18th-century French throne that costs $12,182. (Sorry, shipping's not included.)

Though these ritzy toilets represent a small segment of the overall market, 40,000 bathrooms built last year qualified as “luxury,” which means they were part of a house that cost about $2 million, according to Michael J. Silverstein, who tracks the luxury market as a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group.

But high-end toilets are not just for the superrich. As disposable income has grown over the last 20 years, members of the middle class can buy things based on their passions, and not just their pocketbooks, Silverstein said. "The middle and upper-middle class can actually afford to buy anything they want within reason," he said. "They spend their money in the categories of merchandise they care about. They scrimp and save elsewhere."

And some people care deeply about their toilets.

In the public consciousness, bathrooms have morphed from a utilitarian, functional space into a refuge, said Tom Cohn, executive director of the Decorative Plumbing and Hardware Association. "It's a place where you can lock out the world, your wife, your kids and have time and space that is all your own,” he said. “You can not only create this space as a personal haven, but make a unique design statement."

The Dagobert toilet, for instance, not only makes a royal statement, it makes music as well. When the seat is lifted, a music box plays the tune to the French nursery rhyme "Good King Dagobert," which, in case you missed that one growing up, is about a French king who greets his ministers with his pants on inside out.

With a high back made of polyurethane-coated ash, it stands 5 1/2-feet tall, includes a hand-painted porcelain bowl, two full arm rests, a built-in ashtray and an old-fashioned pull chain mechanism that rings a bell when it flushes.

Manufactured in Lille, France, by Herbeau Creations and distributed by its North American subsidiary in Naples, Fla., the Dagobert is for people who have medieval-themed decor. There's something regal and macho about it, some say, that appeals especially to men.

"One guy said that he would put this at his dining room table if he could," said Marion Hendricks, marketing director of the company. "Guys go for it because it is very macho. It's big, it's wood, it's majestic."

The professional tennis player Boris Becker bought one. But then so did singer Tina Turner.

On the futuristic side, there's the gadget-packed Neorest. It doesn't just flush, it uses a water jet called a "flushing engine" built into the inside of the bowl. It’s also got a heated seat with variable temperature settings as well as a motion sensor that anticipates the user's intention. When an individual--a man, say--approaches the unit and stands in front for a moment, the seat automatically lifts up. When he leaves the vicinity, the toilet flushes itself, and down comes the lid.

The Neorest is also a toilet and a bidet in one, a feature that renders the entire encounter "completely hands-free," said Mitchell Weissberg, who owns Krups Kitchen and Bath in the posh Gramercy Park section of Manhattan. "It's not just for the person who has everything, it's for people who enjoy cleanliness."

Inside the bowl, a retractable rod, called a washlet, extends into position and shoots water upward at a rate of 9 to 15 ounces a minute. Buttons on the toilet's remote control, which can be wall-mounted or handheld, govern the direction, pressure and temperature of the washlet's "gentle front-and-back aerated warm water spray." Afterward, it dries the posterior with a blast of warm air.

“I’ve used it,” Weissberg said. "It's quite the experience."

And far from keeping the toilets to themselves, people often install them in the powder room rather than the master bath so that guests can enjoy them.

"Yes, people are displaying it," said Marilyn Hermance, of Westheimer Plumbing and Hardware in Houston, where an estimated dozen of the Neorests have sold this year.

Among the modern-looking toilets on the market are several minimalist creations by the well-known French designer and architect Philippe Starck. The Starck 2 model, for example, looks like a white porcelain flower pot with a tall, narrow back and push-button flushing mechanism. Another, the Starck X, has no rounded edges and resembles a simple white porcelain box.

"We have products in very simplistic geometric shapes, and you want to be as minimal as possible," said Victor Medina, a salesman at Specialty Hardware & Plumbing in Beverly Hills, Calif. "In a contemporary house, you want to carry that through to the bathroom."

But aside from their price, luxury loos will probably never be for everyone, and the under-$100 toilet is, of course, still alive and well at the local Home Depot.

“Most Americans just want to do their business,” said Larry Kaluzna, proprietor of Waterware Luxury Plumbing in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. "They aren't squirting, spraying or vibrating themselves."

E-mail: jmg2167@columbia.edu