Fit for purpose

Our lust for the latest in hi-tech products is driving the planet to destruction – why can’t we be content with simple, functional designs? argues Jim Davies
There’s an exchange in a classic episode of Blackadder which not only undercuts estate agent-speak, but also touches on the design of one of the most fundamental and regularly used household objects.
‘What we’re talking about in privy terms is the very latest in front-wall, fresh-air orifices, combined with a wide-capacity gutter installation below.’
‘You mean you crap out of the window.’
‘Yes.’
Of course, things have come on a bit since Elizabethan times, but little has changed since Alexander Cummings’ 1775 flush toilet, widely regarded as the first of the modern line. It’s just a myth that Thomas Crapper came up with the idea, although he certainly did much to popularise the now ubiquitous WC.
The reason we haven’t really moved on in more than 200 years is because this is a piece of design that so perfectly
and unpretentiously fulfils its function. Product designers are no doubt looking at ways to reduce the water consumption of each flush, and we’ve seen more streamlined sanitary ware come into vogue recently, but basically there’s no need to mess with a winning formula.
Or, so I thought. Then I came across the very latest in Japanese toiletry – the Lord High Admiral of water closets, taking the whole experience of relieving oneself to a higher level. This £3000 loo features a lid that opens, closes and flushes automatically. It plays you relaxing music. It has a thermostatically controlled seat warmer and a power deodoriser. There’s even an oscillating nozzle that extends from the back of the pan which will give your bottom a quick wash and dry.
To me, this is design gone mad. Gilding the lily. OK, it’s the product of a different culture to my own, but I find the whole concept intellectually wasteful. You just don’t need such an over-complicated device to accommodate such a basic function. It’s the equivalent of buying a Formula One car for the school run, or a super-
computer for a little light admin and Internet shopping. And it’s not even as if a toilet remotely qualifies as a status symbol.
Good design is about restraint, the simple done well. Slapping more and more functions on to a product detracts from its integrity, devalues its core purpose. You’d have thought the country that invented the haiku would appreciate this. But we’re just as culpable over here. How many of us own ovens with timers and dough provers and steamers we’ve never even figured out how to use? Vacuum cleaners that could cope with a medium-sized hotel? Mobile phones that work in four different continents even though we only ever get as far as a summer break in Corfu? It’s not so much punching above our weight as buying above our weight.
Most of these items are overblown, over the top and unnecessary. They feed into our subconscious lust for souped-up, fast-lane living and a sad desperation for more bells and whistles, even if we are never going to use them. So, of course, when the next, latest super-turbo-charged version comes out, you’ll want one of those too, complete with more must-have functions you’ll never use. Until we realise that simple, single-purpose products tend to work better, last longer and are more energy efficient, we’ll never truly go Green.
And will hi-tech Japanese toilets ever catch on in the UK? I have my doubts. Fortunately, there’s still a bit of the Blackadder in all of us. And that’s the bottom line.

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