The bathroom was a particular enthusiasm for architects and designers in the early twentieth century. The Austrian architect Adolf Loos for example was obsessed with plumbing, writing paeans to the functional advances of American bathroom design, and haranguing his native countrymen for their retrograde attitudes to ablution. He liked to display the mechanics of plumbing in the houses he designed, treating water systems as an advertisement for cleanliness and hygiene. U-Bends, brackets, taps and pipework were often on show, and in the Rufer House – designed for Viennese clients in 1922 – he even placed a hand basin in the entrance hall. Like a baptismal font, it was an instruction to anoint oneself in modern architecture.
– Entrance hall handbasin at Adolf Loos’ Rufer House, 1922 © Charles Holland
There is a contradictory quality at play in the Rufer House, a desire both for transparency and an interest in psychological games involving concealment and display. If mainstream Modernism was meant to be about structural honesty and truth to materials, it also had another foot in the subconscious explorations of the Surrealists. The bathroom, with its emphasis on private, intimate bodily functions, is only ever partly about health and cleanliness. It is also about how we think of our bodies, about social attitudes to privacy and to pleasure.
Some of these contradictions are explored in Bathroom Sweet, an installation by my former practice FAT in 2003. Originally intended for a notional celebrity couple, Bathroom Sweet offers a machine for sharing our most intimate moments. Two sets of standard bathroom equipment – bath, hand basin, shower, loo – are spliced together like Siamese twins. There are two of everything, and in this act of doubling, strange formal consequences occur: the twin baths make a heart shape in plan while the loos and hand basins naturally form deep clefts and mysterious protuberances. In case the allusion to intertwined bodies is missed, the whole ensemble is sprayed baby pink. This is a piece about the desire for intimacy, if not its realisation. It inverts the bathroom, abandoning the enclosing walls and turning equipment into the room itself. Like a Public Display of Affection, it is also oddly unconvincing. If it is about the desire for two people to do everything together, it also communicates how impossible that desire is.
- Spliced bath of FAT’s installation Bathroom Sweet
Bathroom Sweet is also a homage to the interior design trends of the 1960s and 70s. The death of Terence Conran in 2020, pioneer of Modernist domestic taste in the UK through his company Habitat, prompted a flurry of interest in his DIY books from that period. I have been collecting them for a few years now because, as well as offering a revealing slice through the changing landscape of interior fashion, they are a fantastic design resource.
The Bed and Bath Book is particularly remarkable, not least because of a surprisingly priapic lustiness that goes beyond the usual unreconstructed shots of women showering. Despite this, the designs are fabulous: baths sunk into the floor, showers incorporated into free-standing GRP ‘pods’ and all-in-one tiled island units like the deck of the Starship Enterprise; playpen and techno-fantasy rolled into one.
A House For Essex (2016) was a collaboration between FAT and the artist Grayson Perry. The house was designed around the story of Julie Cope, a fictional Essex ‘everywoman’ created by Grayson. During the period we designed the house together, we talked a lot about the kind of person Julie was and the sort of house she would have owned. An upwardly-mobile child of the 1950s, Julie would undoubtedly have had a copy of Conran’s Bed and Bath Book. The bathroom at A House For Essex might well have sprung from its pages. Its interior is almost entirely clad in two different shades of avocado green tiles. The bath is positioned directly over the entrance hall so that reclining in it affords an uninterrupted view of the approach to the house. From the shower, a one-way mirror links the space to the hallway. The reflectivity of this mirror changes depending on the respective light levels of hall and bathroom, adding an element of voyeurism (or exhibitionism) to proceedings.
– Tiled avocado green bath at A House For Essex, FAT and Grayson Perry © Jack Hobhouse
Taste in interior design comes and goes, ebbing and flowing alongside wider social trends. Bathroom design reflects these trends in a particularly intense way. Recently I visited a company that specialises in discontinued sanitaryware. Their ‘showroom’ is a remarkable testament to changing tastes: set out in a series of old, industrial greenhouses are hundreds of loos, hand basins and baths, all colour coded in a vast ceramic rainbow of yesterday’s flavours. Along with the ubiquitous baby blue and avocado are colours that time has chosen to forget: Primrose Yellow, Kashmir Beige, Penthouse Red. Most people visit here to replace a cracked sink or a chipped hand basin from a beloved matching suite. Sometimes there are set designers looking to recreate a period interior. Very few people want to fit out a whole new bathroom but I went for two new sets – an ambitious order that it appeared was unprecedented in the company’s commercial history. I settled for a Harvest Gold hand basin and a Sorrento Blue loo for the family bathroom and a matching suite in Flamingo Pink for the en-suite.
These objects evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia, at least for people of a certain age. For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, they lingered on in grandparents’ houses, signifiers of an already outmoded taste and imbued with the mysteries of old age. And they are coming back – too much ‘good taste’ it seems has provoked a return to the recherché design of previous decades. It is inevitable, really. One generation’s luxury equals another’s kitsch. In the gap between lie a lot of hopes, dreams and bathroom suites.
- Written by Charles Holland for Design Update #4
Design Update #4 focuses on the theme of Wellness, a subject that has remained top of the agenda following the outbreak of Covid-19. Contributors including Sadie Morgan OBE and Charles Holland share their thoughts on incorporating wellness into architecture and product design. Read the full publication here.
Main image © Andy Matthews, Archery Square