Morlan makes it modern

Portland company debuts state-of-the-art showroom for baths

Portland's self-styled Water Heater King has gone uptown.

George Morlan Plumbing, a Portland fixture since 1927, has opened a ritzy new store and showroom for the carriage trade.

The place, at Northwest Raleigh Street and 22nd Avenue, bears little resemblance to the brisk, businesslike blue-collar bustle of Morlan's other stores.

Sitting not far from the trendy Pearl District, the store will cater to what Rick Kramien, Morlan's president, describes as a growing number of people who spend as much on their bathrooms as their kitchens.

With virtual art objects on display such as the $1,200 wash basin sitting on a $3,500 base, the store has a Tiffany's-like ambience.

Expensive kitchen and bathroom fixtures ranging in styles from Tuscan and English country house to sleek modern Italian design compete for attention with a grand piano and a mahogany bar Ñ patterned after the one in Francis Ford Coppola's wine bar in Palo Alto, Calif. Ñ where patrons can sip fruit juice or soda water. Nearby a well-appointed conference room stands ready for meetings between clients and their designers or builders.

There's a kids' play area, a cutting-edge sound, lighting and special effects system ÑÊvirtual mist or snowfall on command! Ñ as well as roll-up doors that open the showroom to the street for special events, including First Thursdays.

And then there's the restroom. It's tiled with custom-laid granite and marble and equipped with top-level fixtures, from a toilet and a lavatory to a urinal and a bidet.

There's also a shower, featuring one of the popular, large-diameter rain shower heads.

Try before you buy

Kramien, whose 75-year-old company was founded by, and bears the name of, his stepgrandfather, hopes it's 'the most elaborate public bathroom in Portland.'

It's there for a purpose, of course ÑÊbesides the obvious one. 'If someone says, I want to try the shower out, they're welcome to do that,' Kramien says. There will be fresh towels on hand, and 'there's another bathroom in case someone's in the shower.'

The capacious showroom Ñ located in an 18,000-square-foot former industrial building that cost nearly $500,000 to renovate ÑÊ

represents a conscious effort to make shopping for plumbing a less-jangly experience, Kramien says.

'Plumbing is scary at best,' he says, acknowledging that ordering fixtures can be even more difficult if the decisions have to be made in the midst of contractors picking up orders, people buying spare parts or arranging for water heater installations ÑÊGeorge Morlan advertises that it installs water heaters seven days a week.

The scene 'can be a little rugged,' Kramien says, for a customer who is trying to decide between a soaking tub or a whirlpool tub, for example, or pondering whether to spring for a lavatory made of bronze or hand-painted porcelain.

Kramien owns a 50 percent share of the company, which also has stores in Southeast Portland and in Tigard, Salem, Warrenton and Lincoln City. Morlan will have some 105 year-round employees all told when the new store is running at full tilt. Kramien's stepcousin, Jay Morlan, owns the other half of the business and runs the original store, at 5529 S.E. Foster Road.

Kramien, 46, has been part of the family-owned business since age 10, when his mother married George Morlan's son, Gary. When he was 12, his after-school job was helping to disassemble used water heaters ÑÊtaking them apart so their various components could be recycled or sold for scrap.

There were a number of Morlan brothers who had their own plumbing businesses in Portland, including Martin and Andy, when George Morlan got his start in the 1920s. 'But George took it to the next level,' Kramien says.

In the late 1960s, Kramien's stepfather ran the water heater department at the Foster Road store. His mother, Leone Morlan, walked into a business crowded with plumbing fixtures and started creating some order from the vast assortment of goods.

'She put sets together, matched by color, learned what was a right-hand bathtub, what was a left-hand tub, cleaned the place up a little bit, put some signs in the windows. Lo and behold, people started coming,' her son says.

Kramien's goal is to stock the new store with the largest assortment of plumbing wares on the West Coast, but he says the firm's reach already is well established. 'Just about anybody who needs plumbing ends up sometime or another at George Morlan,' he says matter-of-factly.

European influence

Kramien travels to Europe frequently to scope out the latest in plumbing fixtures. Traditional English styles remain popular, but he predicts that Italian design will flash onto the scene sometime soon. Recalling the vivid colors featured more than a decade ago by the U.S. firm Kohler, he also says 'color's coming back.'

Bidets, a bathroom fixture long popular in Europe, are starting to show up more and more in U.S. homes; so are urinals.

Among the special items the showroom will feature: a $15,000 suite designed by architect Michael Graves ÑÊof Portland Building fame Ñ that includes a toilet, lavatory and a pedestal bathtub. Also on the way is a suite designed by avant-garde Paris designer Phillipe Starck.

But the upmarket goods are only the top end of an inventory that features plenty of items at the lower end of the price scale. Kramien says that the showroom is more about having a pleasant place to make plumbing decisions than it is about high-priced wares.

The showroom features Toto toilets, for example, which he says is a well-engineered line made in Japan that put to rest the idea that low-water toilets don't work well. The most expensive Toto water closets sell for several hundred dollars; the least expensive ones cost about $80.

Another specialty range includes what Kramien calls 'larger products for larger guys' ÑÊlarger, wider bathtubs and taller toilets.

Contact Jeanie Senior at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..