The bathroom as a functional landscape
May 26, 2011
Philippe Grohe, all photos: Dimitrios Tsatsas, Stylepark

Thomas Wagner: Mr. Grohe, you live on an old farm in the Black Forest; you appreciate nature, go diving and surfing. How can a bathroom be transformed into a bathroom landscape?

Philippe Grohe: Of course, not every bathroom can be a form of "landscape". For this reason, I prefer to use the term "functional landscapes" in relation to "integrated storage". Not only is it challenging for the designer to create; it also means that companies like Hansgrohe must work more intensively with architects and interior designers than hitherto. By this I mean we must talk to everyone dealing with bathroom design and furnishing on a daily basis and ask the question: What expectations do we have of a bathroom these days? All of this is implicit in the key phrase "functional landscape".

What exactly do you consider to be a "functional landscape"?

Philippe Grohe: The washstand as a miniature landscape forms one level, the bathtub another and the shower yet another – and further levels can be found in the storage units. Together, these elements create something of a designed landscape. Just think of terraced rice paddies. What is important is harmonizing design and functionality.

What kind of product enables the development of such a "landscape"?

Philippe Grohe: Together with Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, we developed the "Axor Bouroullec" range as a convincing solution for a "functional landscape", one of which we are proud. Be it soap, lotion or a toothbrush holder, every object can be presented according to users' individual tastes on various storage units and levels. But that is not all – not by far. This is an open system, open in many senses, where even the position of the faucet plays a key role. Essentially the possibility of being able to "play" with different fixtures is truly an innovation. However, first we need to understand the freedoms this system offers.

What possibilities does this system offer?

Philippe Grohe: Being able to play with a variety of kinds of fixtures and their arrangement signifies a great step forward for us as manufacturers, in our way of thinking, too. It sets many things in motion, including in the market. The most important thing for the end user is of course the many storage areas, as the fixtures – once you have decided on a model – are fixed in position. This means that we no longer try to sell a soap dispenser or soap dish that has to be screwed to the wall. Instead we give the architects, building developers and users the option to put their own stamp on the design – both functionally and aesthetically. After all, we're talking about products that have to last for 15 or 20 years. For this reason too we invite the users to set the tone themselves. If they don't like their pale green soap dish anymore, for instance, they can simply replace it with another.

How important are the fixtures in all this?

Philippe Grohe: It is the fixtures in "Axor Bouroullec" that enable a better response to the architecture. If you have a window behind your washbasin, you simply position the faucet to the side. If you prefer an upright faucet, that's not a problem. The system enables the development of individual solutions, regardless of whether the end user has a leaning towards functionality or aesthetics, whether they prefer a more conventional solution or are bold enough to come up with an extravagant alternative.

Does "Axor Bouroullec" make bathroom design more democratic?

Philippe Grohe: Certainly. We mustn't forget that today's building developers and users are well-informed and competent. So we say: Feel free to compose. Nonetheless, "Axor Bouroullec" is also a perfect collection for architects. You can say to a planner: With this collection, you can create something completely your own. So this isn't about shoveling numerous versions of basins or storage units onto the market, but about respecting the creativity of the planner and the user. So one element is respect, another is innovation – true innovation, and a third is the long-term perspective that this system opens up. Someone who merely offers a variety of different products can only be successful in the lower price tier. Nonetheless, it is not easy to communicate the long-term value of an object, even if something that initially seems expensive proves to be good value in the long run. Yet the most important aspect in all of this is the dialog. The fact that this is becoming more intensive can be seen as democratization. Above all, though, it forces everyone involved to be clear about their ideas and to coordinate them.

So this is about talking with one another on the same wavelength. Discussions and decisions, too, are fun.

Philippe Grohe: Above all, the user sees the result, the architect knows the possibilities and can advise him. The workmen, too, are happy when the customer appears informed. In the end, the whole solution must be well-tuned. Therein lies the common interest. Fortunately, the bathroom is becoming less and less a purely functional space for a quick wash.

Are you really sure on that point? Don't you find that the modern-age spirit of functional, standardized bathrooms still haunts the hardware store?

Philippe Grohe: I think we're headed in the right direction. In fact, I'm surprised at how dynamic the development is. After all, we're talking here about a rather conservative industry. Furthermore, in the house, the bathroom is a very technically-complex room. In the planning stages there is a lot that can go wrong in terms of the plumbing; if it does, you've got a real problem. The other thing is that a lot of people in Germany build houses without using the services of an architect and entrust everything solely to a technical planner. And what do they do? They copy their parents' house and only change a few details to bring it up to date. There's still a lot to be done here. Architects and interior designers are addressing this issue and we've also done a lot. We haven't said, "Wow, that looks great" to every novelty. Instead, using our sample rooms, we've demonstrated how a new bathroom could look. When it comes to questions of taste, there isn't one perfect bathroom for everyone. Personally I think that anyone planning a bathroom should examine their own personal ideas! We see "Axor Bouroullec" as a catalyst in this process.

Are you sure that your average developer doesn't just want a functional bathroom after all? Even if it is subsequently individually decorated?

Philippe Grohe: I don't think you can put it like that. Of course, functionality is important, because in the end you have to be able to wash in your bathroom. But everything beyond that becomes very personal. What we want to convey is: A bathroom is more than just a place where we wash ourselves. Let me give you an example: When we started collaborating with Patricia Urquiola, I asked her, "What does a bathroom mean for you?" – that's my standard question whenever I meet a designer for the first time. She looked at me and said, "The bathroom is the room in which I must look at myself in the mirror each morning." That would never have occurred to a man. She doesn't want to look at herself in a mirror directly above the washstand, so we developed alternatives with her. Moreover, she questioned the position of washstands. Do they have to be next to each other, when the woman sets countless bottles on them and the man somehow has to ease out his razor? So, there's a washstand for her and a washstand for him. In my opinion the majority of bathrooms being built today in Germany are outdated. That has nothing to do with budget or space. There's still a lot to be done in this area.

How would you answer the question yourself? What is for you the perfect bathroom?

Philippe Grohe: Water is a fantastic medium in itself, not just in terms of emotions, or even hygiene and health. For me personally, showering is the most important thing. A good shower is the spa of even a very small bathroom. Light also plays an important role. Both of course of good quality and appealing design.

Kitchen manufacturers say that the kitchen has always been the heart of a home. Bathroom manufacturers say: Actually, the bathroom is central in a house. What's your take on this?

Philippe Grohe: The kitchen and the bathroom are two very central areas in a house. If I am honest, first I must eat and drink; bathing comes afterward. In any case, we're seeing the bathroom gain increasing importance and attention in residential architecture. It is still not at the center, but neither is it on the sidelines anymore.

We've already seen bed-bathrooms, but den-bathrooms are rather unusual, aren't they?

Philippe Grohe: In the 1990s we had a shower called "Cocoon" in our range that was designed for open living solutions, such as lofts. Still, it's not usually that open! I think the bathroom is an important space for family communication. Here you meet one another in the morning and at night, here you can relax and recharge, here you can experience how refreshing and energizing water is. In the kitchen at mealtimes, you not only meet your family but also friends and acquaintances. For this reason, the kitchen is definitely the most social space, but when it comes to the private sphere, the bathroom is the focal point.

Of course, the bathroom is more of a private space. But haven't bathrooms been becoming increasingly grand in recent years? What prestigious functions must a bathroom have today? Is it the housewife's or the developer's pride? Do you take a visitor to your bathroom? Does it have to have a prestige factor at all, or is it a place where you pamper yourself, relax, forget your everyday worries?

Philippe Grohe: For me, the aspect of prestige is not really relevant. I'd rather believe that people want to do something for themselves in the bathroom, treat themselves, rather than wanting to show it off to others. Perhaps for someone between 30 and 40 it's more important to show off a new bathroom – I don't know. For me, it's about quality of life and not prestige.

How do you think the bathroom will continue to develop as a landscape or as topography?

Philippe Grohe: There's more than one path that we could follow. Above all, there are two factors that influence what we do. The first is the need to feel comfortable. In the past 30 or 40 years this has grown enormously in importance. And because life is changing ever more quickly and doesn't appear to be slowing down, this will continue to become more important. Everybody wants to feel comfortable and they will do something about it – not just on the weekend or on holiday. The second factor is the necessity of saving water. You can have "wellness" without employing elaborate technology, but then you usually need a lot of water. The more efficient these technologies become at conserving water, the more their role will increase. The same can be said of energy. Cold water can be very refreshing, but it won't always be a pleasure. The "bathroom system" must provide a convincing answer to all this.

Where are the biggest technological and aesthetic changes being made? What does a successful combination of intelligent technology and effective design look like?

Philippe Grohe: The keyword that unites the two is comfort. The desire for comfort has always motivated people to change something. In the run-up to cantonal elections in Zurich, there was an initiative that sought to forbid parents from driving their children to school. This doesn't score top marks in terms of comfort, but in a world characterized by its exhaust fumes and congestion and in which an increasing number of children are obese, being comfortable is not necessarily the best thing. The borders are shifting permanently. We've been discussing this in the company. At the moment, I think that technology is going to become increasingly important again. Design, on the other hand, will maintain its current importance. A good mix of the two helps both the environment and those who want to feel comfortable in their bathroom.

Philippe Grohe, all photos: Dimitrios Tsatsas, Stylepark
Armatures and accessoires by Patricia Urquiola for Axor/Hansgrohe
Several products by Patricia Urquiola for Axor/Hansgrohe
Axor Bouroullec basin mixer