A vortex in bathrooms

Philippe Grohe

Mar 6, 2015
Philippe Grohe, Axor brand manager. Photo © Axor

Thomas Wagner: So who actually came up with the idea of outfitting bathrooms with a veritable vortex of water?

Philippe Grohe: It was my dad’s idea. After all, if you don’t do something special with water, then you don’t see water’s movement. It is completely transparent and calm, which is decidedly unspectacular. The vortex means we can visualize the vitality of water. Now I’m someone who feels quite at home with the calm side of water. Water has two sides, the one more placid, the other wild and white. It can imbue us with energy or calm us. So there’s meditative water, like in a well, and there’s active water, as in a vortex.

Your dad had the idea, but it was you who then realized the vortex together with Philipp Starck?

Yes, it was a long mile from the dream to the finished product. As in any design process, there was another factor, too: the topic of tranquil, visible water. For over a decade I’ve been discussing this with architects, interior designers and product designers and we’ve very often found ourselves talking about water in everyday life, asking how we can make it more present in our lives. The notion of the well kept on cropping up. Which is also why it was so important to me that water always remains present in the “Axor Starck V” mixer. That means: On the one hand, we have a calm well and, on the other, in the form of the vortex, an incredibly fascinating piece of theater. On first seeing the vortex, Philipp Starck commented “it’s a gift for modern people because in this way they can intuitively discover and grasp nature’s beauty and complexity.” If people ask me: So what does your bathroom look like? I tend to respond: I have a large window and a small bathtub (laughs). Which is great, because outside in nature there’s everything I need. In cities things are of course bit different.

The water is always present at the "Axor Starck V"mixer: As quiet well and in use as a vortex. Photo © Axor

As a rule we want both, of course, active water and calm water. How important is it to you to be able to show both states?

Immensely. Water touches us visually and haptically; we feel better if we go outside and experience a bit of nature. That’s the way we humans are. In some way we are still animals who have come a long way thanks to our culture. Jean Marie Massaud once said to me: Since coming down from the trees we’ve missed something. That may sound trite, but I’ve always had a very clear image of things. I want people to also see water when stepping into a room.

Something that is pretty rare in private homes.

Philippe Grohe: Sure, some people have a pond in the garden, but it’s harder inside the house. We’ve known for over ten years that the bathroom is a privileged space for us as people, a personal space. There are people who associate this with decadence, because today we have much more time to look after ourselves. That’s not always a good thing. But I do know we all need elements creating a good balance. Today, so much is so short-lived, things change continually, nature is becoming more remote – and the bathroom, as the water space in homes, invariably therefore has a special significance.

Water as the elixir of life?

In the depths of the oceans, there is no light, but there’s life in water. Water and life go hand in hand. Water is in fact a powerful medium as regards our relationship to ourselves and our bodies: If you’re in a bad mood and then shower, you feel better for it; if you’re tired, water revs your energy levels, if you’re agitated, it calms you.

Meaning, your work focuses not just on water, but on emotions, too?

Other cultures have not lost sight of this emotional side as strongly as have we in the West. We’re only gradually rediscovering it. Antonio Citterio once said to me: “Why do we shower for longer than three minutes? We could be clean after only a minute.” He’s right. So the focus can no longer just be on hygiene. And I must say I’m myself surprised by how long we as shower-makers have taken to grasp this. When you wash your hands you also like it to be a pleasant sensation, but...

... the main thing is getting them clean?

Yes, let me put it this way: It doesn’t change everything if you have a new feeling when washing your hands, but we are of course proud that we manage with “Axor Starck Organic”, for example, to use only half the same water throughput volume without people having the feeling they’re losing out. Often it feels different if water is saved – and we all know what it means to argue about feelings. (laughs) The fact is, it’s functionally better, too, if the water is spread out more. Less gets splashed.

When the mixer "Axor Starck Organic" the company has managed to use only half the same water throughput volume without people having the feeling they’re losing out. Photos © Axor

Do the feelings we have in conjunction with water also derive from the fact that we are always surrounded by water?

That’s a very important point. We land lubbers emerged from water not only in evolutionary terms, but are each one of us born from water, with all the attendant hopefully positive prenatal memories of warmth, protection and wellbeing. Amniotic fluid serves not only to preserve life, but is also the medium for interaction with the mother, the surroundings, sounds, noises – and for that reason alone is a highly emotional substance. We are creatures of water.

Has a bit of this original emotionality been re-injected in the bathroom’s functionality?

Definitely. This goes beyond the relationship to water and involves many needs. For such a time as people were still tied down finding a place for hygiene, emotional needs took a backseat. The emphasis was instead on health, illness, epidemics, life or death...

... hygiene regulations and preventing disease...

Yes, that all happens at the same time: disease, hygiene, drinking water and wastewater systems. First there was that functional democratization and at some point, when say 90 percent or more had a hygiene room, people started to ask: So what else can a bathroom be?

How I feel in a bathroom is surely not some add-on. Emotions are not the icing on the hygiene cake. Feelings have always been involved, haven’t they? Don’t we feel unhappy if the hygienic side comes up short, too?

Sure. But if I think back to the 1980s, people weren’t really aware of that.

When families owned their first coal-heated bathtubs, and everyone met up on Saturday evening for a turn in the tub, didn’t they realize how marvelous it was?

So when was that?

From the mid-1950s to the early 1960s.

Family bathtubs?

Yes, the family bathtub was not a merely hygienic matter. It had an emotional side, too. The kids had fun and the adults stood around the tub and chatted, dined, ...

Yes, you’re right, but that is social emotionality. There was less of an awareness of the emotionality of water.

Philippe Grohe in conversation with Thomas Wagner. Photo © Axor

Yes, you may be right. Even if the hot water from the pipe was most definitely perceived as a real benefit.

Without doubt!

Which helped generate the social emotionality.

Yes, I fully agree with you. But, how conscious were people of that? Swimming is about swimming, bathing about cleaning.

Bathing was about warmth and cleaning, true. But I think that to my mind you can’t really separate the two. We never really lost our emotional bond to eater, but it perhaps now takes a more prominent place again.

Indeed. And I’m also sure that there were very many people who experienced that consciously. But looking back on things with the benefit of hindsight, we can safely say: For a few centuries the Western world was simply less aware of the emotional side of water.

Any idea what in Japan, for example, there’s always been that close bond with water?

Philippe Grohe: A Japanese architect once told me that water in Japan has a special quality. It is often alkaline, and the Japanese believe alkaline water interacts with the body in a manner quite unlike acidic water. There’s greater interaction, and the Japanese have always been aware of this. Seen thus, you can distinguish between washing and bathing. Only once you’re clean can you interact with the water. Meaning that the Japanese see water as a medium that permeates the body. That very strongly influenced their relationship to water.

The Japanese separated hygiene from the experience of water, while the two get bundled together in the West.

Yes, that’s it.

Japanese see water as a medium that permeates the body - they distinguish between washing and bathing. And bathing is often associated with social interaction. Photo ©© Wikipedia, Tsurunoyu Onsen in Japan

Hygiene here, experience there – did we simply forget the difference?

And are now returning to it with each new “wellness spa”. I think that today a lot of people are lighting candles and relaxing when taking a bath, or simply enjoy a deep breath before wallowing. You can wash your hands quickly and think of your next meeting, or you can take a deep breath and then “clean” your hands slowly. Essentially it’s a matter of how we see things, how we approach things.

Surely there are two sides to that, the one technical, the other aesthetic? What does technology set as the default and how does design intervene to enable us to experience perception and emotions? Let’s start with the technology.

For the relaunch of “Axor Steel” in 2002 was said quite pragmatically: We’ll simply insert a laminar aerator. Hardly existed any longer back then. Was somehow frowned on, had a taste of the 1950s about it. Because at some point people had started mixing air with the ray of water. And we simply said: Water, transparent, Nature, let’s try it out. That was a first step. At the same time, we also started exploring “waterfalls”. Technically speaking, they’re quite complicated. You notice immediately that there’s a natural way the water falls. The problem is the open spout. But, if you then want to create a pressured jet of water, as in “Axor Massaud”, you need some really good technology as the water precisely does not fall the way it would naturally.

What is the greatest challenge technology currently poses? What does technology favor when it comes to experiencing water? And what does design favor?

We can talk about the visually emotional side to water, but we can also talk about water’s tactile properties.

Inspired by nature: The designer Jean-Marie Massaud Axor designed with the collection "Axor Massaud" the first waterfall for the bathroom. Photo © Axor

Both involve technology and design.

Yes, of course, you can’t separate the two. If you take the air out of the water, something happens; if you re-inject the air into the water, something happens. There’s a huge difference if the water flows through a large hole or through 90 small ones. That’s what makes it so incredibly exciting, and is why technology repeatedly stimulates things strongly. Our company has numerous fascinating individuals on the staff, some of them are now the third generation to be with us. Meaning we’ve quite a few miles in the business behind us.

Quite specifically: You have the idea of creating a gush of water and start trying to develop it technically speaking. What happens next? When do designers get included in the process?

In the present case we did actually present Philippe Starck with the finished technological solution. He’s extremely open-minded and just. And even if we weren’t involved he says: “Hey, I didn’t really have to do anything.” And then tells a joke and says: “That was still transparent, that is now even less.” It’s often important to hear outside ideas when we start exploring a new field. But at the end of the day we are the water specialists. Since in today’s world, and it is becoming ever more complex, you need large investments to succeed, the experience and expertise the company has is as crucial as a long-standing relationship to a designer. Suddenly having a vision is something that is becoming pretty rare, I feel.

What aspects came together in the case of “Axor Starck V”?

Well the vortex is certainly the most spectacular element. But it was very important to us to make a well, i.e., present calm water. Which is why I tend, when talking about “Axor Starck V”, to call it a well mixer. That’s a new dimension.

Philippe Grohe and designer Philippe Starck presented "Starck V" at the Salone in Milan 2014. Photo © Axor

Meaning the calm water has no function?

I said earlier than even if the mixer is not in action you still have the emotional side of the tranquil water. Using a small key you can turn the vortex off.

Still: Does that not go a whole lot further, thinking about a mixer with tranquil water? That’s a pretty radical idea, surely?

The one starting point was the well, as in wells the water is so tranquil. The other aspect was the vortex. For me, the two topics are immensely important, and we combined them to make a product. It would all have remained pie in the sky if we hadn’t made the spout detachable, an idea the Axor team came up with. Only later did we see how radical this step was. Because if you have a detachable spout then this offers a whole series of new possibilities to which we can now all look forward.

Had you opted for glass as the material from the very outset?

We’d gone for glass because of its transparency. It is more scratchproof and more resistant to cleaning agents than chrome, and it has hygienic qualities that you don’t get with plastic. Not to forget that it is sustainable, all of which were good reasons to try out glass.

What do you learn from collaborating with designers, irrespective of their different temperaments?

Design processes can easily take years, so often a very personal relationship arises. You no longer just talk about faucets or baths, but about happiness or misfortune in life. I feel that it’s a great privilege to be able to work together with so many so different people. But of course you first consider which designer is best for what theme.

Was it clear that the vortex was something for Starck?

Pretty much so. As Philippe Starck tackles each new project with the fresh innocence of a child. He doesn’t worry about what he has already done. It’s one of his strengths. I’m not able to simply ignore the past completely. Maybe because I’m German. But Philippe simply says “so what?” and focuses firmly on the future.

Product development is a form-changing process: the first sketch of Starck (left) and the final product (right). Photo © Axor

Does it interest you how people behave in bathrooms? Can habits be changed, and to return to the vortex, does it play a role here how water is presented and experienced?

Most definitely, even if it is difficult to talk about it. Back when we were using the first laminar aerators, if you talked to our staff they said: Completely pointless, splashes more. But you can go a little further and say: Yes, but what consequence does this have? The consequence is that I let less water through the faucet. Which can’t be too bad, surely?

It’s simply a new experience for me?

Philippe Grohe: That’s the first response to the splashes. And if people, instead of turning the faucet on full then only turn it half-way on, habits changes. For “Axor Massaud” we reduced the default for the flow rate from seven to five liters. But it’s never just about the water volume, what’s more important is the feeling the jet of water conveys. Often it is less about whether it splashes and more about the tactile side to things, about how the water feels.

As a kid, did you ever read Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelström”?

Of course.

Axor in showroom in Milan. Photo © Axor

And did you wonder how they’d get back out of the vortex?

I’m pretty much a diehard here: I’ve only ever had favorable experiences with water. Swimming, sailing, diving, surfing – I had the great fortune as a kid to live for several months on an island. Not only was water always close at hand, there were also cisterns from which you had to pump up the water by hand. I still know today that you need 50 strokes of the pump to make certain there was enough water for a shower – and my parents always thought I was under the showerhead for too long. Experiences with water was something we experienced from the cradle onwards, as it were. That is part of our family history.

Were there any objections to the vortex? Poe’s story is not one of misfortune, after all.

Well, there’ll always be some negative associations. From tsunamis through to tornados out at sea. And “Axor Starck V” was no exception – we debated how people would view vortexes in the bathroom. And if you immediately think of a storm in a teacup, well, that’s your choice.

Many thanks for your time.