Michael Evamy discovers that when it comes to bathrooms, designers take few risks. The ‘no shock’ approach is the norm in creating something so idiosyncratic

No one’s got it quite right yet. Going to the lavatory, that is. According to a 30-year-old study into the ergonomics of the bathroom by Professor Alexander Kira of Cornell University, the most efficient, wholesome position for sitting-type toilet operations is with our bottoms a mere nine inches from the floor. This represents a squat somewhere midway between that of the standard loo and the hole in the ground.

The book that emerged from Kira’s probings into the dark and hitherto unexplored world of bathroom habits made countless suggestions for design criteria. Sanitaryware designers always keep a copy close to hand. You could say it’s great toilet-time reading. But bathroom manufacturers have ignored the low loo and Kira’s other radical proposals. Our digestive tracts may have suffered as a result, but we can only blame ourselves. Manufacturers react to market forces, and our resistance to change in bathroom fixtures and fittings – anything of a very personal nature – is not to be under estimated. Besides which, no one with a bad back or knees will ever relish the prospect of rising from so low a throne.

Ideal Standard, the Hull-based sanitaryware manufacturer which commissioned Kira, is 100 years old this year. In that time, the shapes of baths, basins and toilets have remained, to all intents and purposes, the same. Edwardian taps, pipes, flushes, cisterns, plugholes and drains have the same positions today as they did then. Leading modern manufacturers employ the same materials and processes and make products to virtually identical quality levels. Design, therefore, offers them a means of creating individuality in their products at different points in the market. Ideal Standard has mastered the art of commissioning external designers to revitalise what are probably the most familiar objects – along with cups, knives and forks – we use on a day-to-day basis.

To ask a designer to do anything more fundamental to bathroom products than restyle them is asking for trouble. People like to keep things regular in the bathroom. No shocks. White is still the most popular colour for sanitaryware. But Ideal Standard’s post-war history is – for the most part – a catalogue of successful oscillations within these traditional confines.

In the late Sixties the company launched a range based on Kira’s recommendations and designed by Doug Scott – he of the Route master bus. The reaction was less than lukewarm. It included a plaster model of an easy-to-clean domestic urinal. It never reached production: no one had room for one, or wanted something that would make their bathroom feel like a public convenience. Centre stage at the launch was a bath with “lumbar support”. Many wondered why anyone would need a lumbar support when water did the job well enough. Terence Conran was heard to say it was no good to him because he always bathed on his front.

The Kira exercise may sound like Viz magazine’s the Bottom Inspectors, but it was part of a serious fad in the Sixties to systematise, test and measure the design performance of everyday objects. This stretched from cars to typefaces. Choice in consumer products was multiplying, and so, for a while, manufacturers, designers and design councils continued to try to pin down criteria for what constituted good design and what the public should buy.

Bathrooms were no different. In the Fifties, the main market for sanitaryware was local government. British Standards provided the main design guidelines for manufacturers, which were working at full capacity, and design was done in-house. However, when competition appeared in the Sixties, Ideal Standard took the step of inviting a design consultant, Norman Westwater, to design a range. More than a decade earlier, its sister company in Italy – Ideal Standard consists of autonomous European businesses – had commissioned a suite from the father figure of modern Italian design, Gio Ponti. It set the trend for forceful, modern, sculptural forms and was popular with architects, who could now specify bathroom furniture designed by one of their heroes. The logic of using name designers – the Italians later also used Achille Castiglione and Mario Bellini – spread to the British company.

The decision to go outside for design was a great success – the range, Brasilia, is still in production. Ideal Standard toyed with the idea of using Michael Farr, the brilliant former editor of Design magazine, to act as a design management consultant and line up designers to handle the fast-growing workload of literature and exhibitions design. They went instead to a single consultancy, Conran Design Group, which overhauled the company’s communications and put it into a position of design leadership. At a time when the retail market was beginning to boom, this was crucial.

Thus emboldened, Ideal Standard commissioned the experimental range from Doug Scott and in the following decade led the way in the fashion for dark, rich hues and gold-coloured taps. Up to the time when they realised they were spending more time scrubbing them than lying in them, consumers saw baths in Burgundy, Wild Sage and Barley Brown as a mark of the upmarket Seventies lifestyle. For a while, these colours were massively popular. Ideal Standard even produced washbasins with marbled finishes.

Through times tacky and tasteful, the company has continued to outsource its major product design work. The Studio range of 1987 offered, for the first time, contemporary design across an entire suite to a mass market, and forced the rest of the industry to follow suit. Successes like that have vindicated the company’s policy of commissioning external designers to work with gifted in-house technical specialists in ceramics and plastic moulding. Using designers with exposure to a number of different industries imbues products with a freshness, says new-product development manager, John Hardy. “If we had a designer here we kept going to, then after a short time there may well be a sameness coming out in the work. Because those people are trying to answer similar problems all the time, they perhaps try to build those same solutions into all their creative work.

“The level of technological innovation is not great, and a lot of the characteristics of each design come through its aesthetic. All major manufacturers use very similar materials and processes. It’s possible to develop the speed of processes, or reduce losses. But for the appeal of the product, we need to go outside.”

That includes going abroad, and importing designs produced for sister companies in Italy and Germany. Ideal Standard UK sells bathroom suites designed by Paolo Tilche and BCF Studios in Milan, Axel Enthoven in Brussels and Wolfgang Muller-Deisig in Berlin. Although Hull is a long way in many respects from Milan, the company feels close to European design culture. But for 12 years it has developed major products with London consultancy Queensberry Hunt Levien. QHL designed the Studio suite and has just seen through to launch a new set, called Kyomi, to rejuvenate Ideal Standard’s range at the luxury end of its market.

Satisfying the British market is QHL’s first priority. This is because exporting bathroom fittings is a laborious process. Different cultural and technical conventions exist in almost every country and require designs to be heavily adapted before they can be sold overseas. “Bathrooms are not like Levi’s,” says Robin Levien. “There are always things about foreign toilets, basins and so on which seem alien to the UK. That goes from practical aspects through to style. So globalisation is very hard to make happen. It would be like getting up one day and switching from knives and forks to chopsticks. What we eat and how we eat it is also quite fixed in a society. We should know: I always tell people QHL works at either end of the alimentary canal: dishes and toilets.”

Levien has come to occupy an approximate design manager’s position for his client. Their relationship, he says, has developed to the point where it ought to be the envy of other designers. “It’s incredibly unconventional. We have this tremendous trust and also a very specialised knowledge of their products.

“There’s an understanding to the point where we don’t need much of a brief. In fact, there isn’t ever really much of a brief. The whole thing about signing up for projects simply doesn’t exist. A brief to me may only be a call from a mobile phone on the motorway. We never quote for the work. We invoice them every month for whatever work we do and there’s never been a dispute about money in 12 years.”

There are real benefits to this, says Levien. “Design briefs evolve. I quite often do bits of work they’re not expecting, such as on the strategic aspects. I just come up with an idea and do it. They never say, ‘We didn’t ask you to do that’. I know when it’s appropriate to do that and when they’ll be glad I did. We’re so close to them we know what they want.”

Keeping design projects this fluid would result in confusion at a company less confident of its ability to manage the process and extract from it what is most valuable. “It’s always been order out of chaos,” declares Levien. “Nothing ever goes too far without being checked or talked about. We always progress with small changes. If we head off in the wrong direction, it’s never for long.”

That’s a relief, then. The nine-inch-high toilet seat is still a long way off.

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