Mark Bickerstaffe, director of New Product Development at Kohler talks about bathroom innovation.
Tell us about your dream bathroom
I want to have an indoor-outdoor space where I can slide back glass into the walls to reveal a private patio with lush vegetation and an outdoor shower and a small stone hot tub set into the ground – a calm hot pool not a bubbly tub though. The indoor part is wooden-decked and clad, but vintage, textured rich and rough with a 2×2 metre shower with a bench area and built-in functional and experience showering. There’s a seated bench in between a pair of generous basins, dark stone with brushed black fittings. Natural light is complemented by soft and sophisticated artificial light.
That’s my imaginary bathroom, but there are luxurious hotels offering almost that. The Aman hotel in Jackson Hole has wonderful guest bathrooms using local stone, dark slate showers, baths that overlook the Teton mountains and a patina-rich finish on all the fittings. Being close to nature and the weather, good or bad, is something I love.
What are the latest trends in bathrooms?
We are all talking about bathrooms having more of a living-room feel. It’s such an important place: sometimes very private and intimate and at other times where you and your partner and family meet, converse and interact. So I feel the strongest trends are the use of materials, colour and finish to furnish and decorate it as a room whilst integrating the bathroom functions and durability. Furniture is less and less a bathroom storage box. We are integrating display areas so that we can express our individuality through art, the found objects that describe our lives, photos and so on. Where you have space, the boundaries between rooms are breaking down with elements of the bathroom transitioning into bedrooms, balconies and decks, but I still believe most people want to preserve the ability to choose privacy when they feel like it.
As a bathroom brand how do you respond to this change?
This gives us the opportunity to design differently, which we love, and creates opportunities to innovate as we can challenge the conventional boundaries between products and the different areas of the bathroom.
Are consumers spending their money differently?
Showering continues to be placed higher and higher in importance with more space being dedicated to it. People are prepared to invest to make it a place to both be invigorated and refreshed and relax. No one really wants to ‘step into’ a small box to have a shower. We want to walk into a tropical waterfall!
What technological innovation are you most proud of?
The ones we are working on now and can’t tell you about yet!
Anything else that you can tell us about?
Our new Terrace suite is a great example of meaningful innovation. It contains technology that allows us to give you more usable storage space to hand, where you really need it. Everyone now wants to use a variety of personal care products, but you don’t want to have them cluttering up the bathroom. The storage all around you as you stand in front of the basin and mirror is critical. It needs to be easy and quick to access and plentiful.
How did you maximise the storage?
Up to now the area under the basin has been somewhat of a ‘black hole’ with pipes and water connections cutting through the area underneath. So we have tended to use it more for cleaning products than personal care. We took on the challenge of solving this problem and invented a basin with a system called Freedrain which puts the drain at the back of the basin next to the wall rather than in the front. This immediately liberates all the space directly beneath the basin. So we have given you a shallow drawer directly beneath, which is the full length and width of the basin and a deep drawer below that for the larger things. This storage unit is totally uncompromised and separated from the piping, water connection and spiders’ webs that accumulate around these things. It’s a great example of innovation that provides a real benefit.
Is anything really new?
We are doing things with materials and technology that have never been done before. The science of materials is allowing us to understand how to use the best material in the best place and mix materials to optimise function, feel and aesthetics – the whole experience. We are able to create forms that we could only dream of before and make them affordable through new rapid manufacturing technologies.
Digital technology, an area we lead in the bathroom, is also allowing us to create totally new experiences with water without simply using more of it. Look at our new DTV+ system. We can create spa therapies with hot and cold water, in different streams and zones combined with steam, music and light. It really can be bathroom theatre if that’s what you want, or it can be the most relaxing immersive experience. All at the touch of a screen.
Can there ever be too much technology?
Yes absolutely. We are firm believers that the technology doesn’t matter, it’s the experience that you are able to create that matters. It is a means to an end. So that’s how we approach it. If something’s so complex you don’t know how to get the benefit of it, it’s a waste of time and money which in today’s world none of us can afford. I like to describe our design approach as inherent intuitive intelligence. Numi, our integrated toilet demonstrates this. It is deeply functional as a toilet and bidet and does its utmost to make your stay as pleasurable as possible…but it doesn’t shout this at you when you see it. It’s a beautifully simple product with a familiar control that exudes quiet refined luxury.
Does design matter when creating functional products?
Design is not just about styling. Design is a synthetic process of optimisation focused on satisfying the intended need as well as is possible. If you are designing for a person to use something, then every person is emotional and rational. If you take a purely rational approach and ignore the emotional you end up with the worst sort of functional design. Look at so much of the accessible, universal or special needs products that are on the market. It stigmatises the people it is intended for by saying they don’t deserve beautiful products. Design matters.
What makes a bathroom special?
Sensitivity. I always feel that a bathroom that makes you reach out and touch, that engages all your emotions, is best. So the use of texture, colour, material to enrich and connect a bathroom to you is special.
Do you have a favourite ‘designer’ lavatory in a public space?
The Aman hotel in Jackson Hole has wonderful guest bathrooms using local stone, dark slate showers, baths that overlook the Teton mountains and a patina-rich finish on all the fittings.
But I will also pass on an anecdote overheard in a hotel this week. A group of gents were propping up the bar gathering for post-golf pre-dinner drinks. One of their party arriving late when explaining his tardiness emotes, “sorry guys, but I just couldn’t get out of that goddamn shower…I turned it on and it was so wonderful, then I started playing with the controls and you get these water tiles massaging your back…that was it, time just ran away with me”. Where’s that hotel? The American Club in Kohler, Wisconsin.