Sleek, sexy, even regal thrones - er, toilets

Crafted in materials from stainless steel to leather and ash, toilets can be art objects too.

There are loos. And then there are lulus.

The humble toilet isn't necessarily a plain-Jane - or should we say plain-John? - fixture anymore. It's gone upscale, fashioned in stainless steel, clad in leather, and pimped out with heated seats, water-jet cleansing systems, and all manner of gadgetry designed to make your stay more satisfying.

It's all in keeping with the increasing emphasis placed on kitchens and bathrooms, says Lenora Campos, public relations manager for the U.S. arm of high-tech Japanese toilet-maker Toto.

Those are the two most popular rooms for renovation, and many people are treating their bathrooms less as utilitarian places than as spalike refuges, she says.

What's more, the extras on high-end toilets appeal to consumers who are wowed by the latest technology.

"In today's world, we're not satisfied with products that just do their utilitarian job," Campo says.

After all, if your home is your castle, shouldn't it have a proper throne?

No one takes that idea more literally - and with more amusement - than the folks at Herbeau, a 150-year-old French manufacturer of bathroom fixtures. It sells the Dagobert, an imposing solid-ash commode that's a replica of an authentic 16th-century throne.

The Dagobert, named for a seventh-century French king, was designed for a 1970 Paris trade show by the company's then-owner, who just thought it was funny, says Marion Hendricks, director of marketing for Herbeau Creations of America, the U.S. distributor.

The toilet was introduced in the United States in 2005, and for something "so over the top," it's been a surprisingly good seller, Hendricks says.

It has all the features you might expect from a royal flush: armrests, a hand-painted coat of arms, and even a chime that plays "The Song of Dagobert," a standard among French schoolchildren, when the lid is lifted.

At a suggested retail price of $14,123, it's a little rich for the typical bathroom. But it has made its way into the homes of celebrities, including Tina Turner, former tennis star Boris Becker, and the late George Harrison.

That's not to say we common folk can't have uncommon toilets. Even the fairly utilitarian Kohler Co. has the Hatbox, an oval cylinder of a toilet that's sleek and sexy - well, for a toilet, anyway.

The minimalist Hatbox was introduced during New York City's Fashion Week in 2005, says Paul Nick, a senior project manager at Kohler.

"A lot of people have commented that it is more like a work of art," Nick says. And at $3,200, it's definitely less pricey than a Picasso.

For sheer flash, though, it's hard to beat the stainless-steel toilets from a Southern California company, Neo-Metro. They include the European-inspired miniLoo and a toilet with a tank that can be custom-covered in the material of your choice.

If stainless-steel toilets conjure up visions of prisons rather than penthouses, that's no surprise. Neo-Metro's parent company, Acorn Engineering Co., specializes in industrial and institutional fixtures, but Neo-Metro founder Kristin Kahle saw more fashionable possibilities by thinking outside the water closet.

The miniLoo is a compact, conical toilet that hangs on the wall, making it not only hip-looking but easier to clean. Its tank, like that of Kohler's Hatbox, is hidden - in this case, in the wall. It retails for $1,210 to $1,794, depending on the finish.

It's more than just a looker, though. The miniLoo, like a number of other upscale toilets, has a dual-flush system that uses less water (0.8 gallons) for liquid waste and saves the big flush (1.6 gallons) for when it's needed.

And stainless steel is practically indestructible, Kahle says. "You can put a cherry bomb down our toilet, and nothing will happen to it."

Maybe that's not a big issue in a residential setting, but it's a plus in the bars, restaurants and nightclubs that are some of Neo-Metro's biggest customers.

Its Custom Exteriors and Leather Accents toilets are more traditional-looking than the miniLoo, but with a nontraditional twist: For $3,394, the Leather Accents toilet comes with a tank covered in one of seven colors of leather; the tank of the $2,432 Customer Exteriors toilet can be clad in any three-quarter-inch-thick material - tile, resin, even exotic wood, Kahle says.

But for the toilet owner who wants everything, there may be only one choice: Toto's Neorest 600, a technological marvel that does pretty much everything. It cleans you. It cleans the toilet bowl. It even senses when you're approaching and raises the lid.

Among the features of the Neorest 600, which retails from about $5,200 to $5,900, are a bidet that not only washes but air-dries and deodorizes, a seat that warms to an adjustable temperature, and an automatic flusher that knows how much water is needed for the job.

It's even green: Besides doing away with the need for toilet paper, it's able to recognize periods when it's used infrequently, so it can go into an energy-saving sleep mode, Campos says.