Best Seat in the House

At long last I located a working unit down in the basement of an eighteenth-century building on rue Saint Honoré. I’d convinced one of my visiting American girlfriends to come with me, but at the last minute she chickened out. Truth be told, I had misgivings, too. What if the thing malfunctioned? I could be soused, poked, prodded, or even singed before rescue. But curiosity prevailed. So after checking to see that no one was watching, I pushed the door open and bravely walked in.

The only publicly accessible “washing toilet” in Paris happens to be in the unisex restroom of the Water Bar of Colette—downstairs from the most vaunted high-concept boutique in the French capital. Recently, the legendary retail destination was refurbished and the restrooms were upgraded with the latest, top-of-the-line Japanese robotic toilets, part of the prestigious Toto Neorest Series/SE. Popular in Japan, where 70 percent of homes are equipped with them, the high-tech contraptions are shunned in Europe, where old-fashioned bidets are still regarded as the most civilized personal hygiene solution. But Colette caters to Asian shoppers and could not afford to miss an opportunity to be the first Parisian emporium to flaunt the finest example of Japanese clean technology.

This was my chance: I was on a mission to test the fancy bathroom gadgets. I had to find out how it feels to subject one’s bare bottom to the equivalent of a full-service automatic car wash, one that, I had been told, included “detailing” services such as spraying, misting, squirting, and blow-drying.

I am accustomed to sitting on the toilet in a pose not unlike that of Rodin’s Thinker, perched on a pedestal, leaning slightly forward as if to plumb the depths of my destiny. Responding to the call of nature is for me an opportunity to brood, ponder, or reflect on the events of the day ahead. Nothing of the sort can possibly take place when you sit on a washing toilet with its remote control panel in your hand. Your bodily functions have become the pretext for a series of elaborate touch-screen options. If you need reading glasses, too bad: you might blast your butt with hot air instead of douching it with a gentle stream of warm water.

Once you have figured out how to decipher the various hieroglyphic buttons on the handheld remote to adjust the temperature of the seat and direction and intensity of the sprinklers, or to choose the type of water-massaging action that’s most comfortable, only then can you relax and begin to enjoy the various sensations. You find your-self swaying imperceptibly on your seat to improve the cleaning performance of the minijets. And when it’s all done, you don’t have to twist uncomfortably around to locate the roll of toilet paper. You don’t even have to wash your hands before leaving the premises. You haven’t touched anything unsanitary.

The most surprising part of the experience is how pleasant it is. I suspect that, in terms of marketing, this may be the hardest thing to explain to a bashful audience unfamiliar with old-world nuances. Last spring two major manufacturers of bathroom fixtures, Kohler and Duravit, entered the washing toilet market and are in the process of introducing their new wares in the United States. However, American attitudes toward hygiene could be the main hurdle they encounter. My girlfriend’s demurrals—when it came time to actually test it—were the expression of a deep-rooted reluctance to challenge prevailing standards of cleanliness and venture on uncharted waters of sensuality.

The Wisconsin-based Kohler just came out with Numi, a handsome white porcelain pedestal whose sensors are activated the minute you walk into the room. Thanks to motion detectors at floor level, it knows to lift both the lid and the seat if you approach feet for-ward. (Guys will no longer be accused of leaving the seat down!) The operation is hands-free. Turn around—or approach the unit sideways—and the sensors get the message. A preprogrammed protocol can warm up the lowered seat. Within easy reach, a magnetic docking station stores and charges a touch-screen remote that allows you to preset and recall saved preferences, while a default setup ensures basic functionality for befuddled visitors or family members who don’t want to bother with the technology.

Like all washing toilets, the unit comes with a fully automated retractable spray wand. On the showroom floor, this feature, when demonstrated, looks downright threatening. Yet, in practice, you never see it in action. This space-age appendage only extends when you’re ready to proceed with the clean-up phase of the process and, while comfortably seated, have activated the sprinkle function. Water-spray patterns include “pulsate,” “oscillate,” and “wave.” Sterilized daily by ultraviolet rays, the wand destroys all bacteria. The interior of the bowl remains immaculate as well: a two-step flush mechanism washes the porcelain clean. It conserves water by making a second flush unnecessary.

A built-in, deodorizing charcoal-filter fan, standard on all Japanese washing toilets, is also integrated into the Numi. In an attempt to outdo its competitors with otherworldly indulgences, Numi also offers a preprogrammed foot warmer, an MP3 music system with FM radio, and a disco-style night light—the final touch to attract the one-percenters for whom this extravagant toilet is sure to become the latest must-have. But for Joe Six-Pack, this over-the-top display of technology directed at his private parts may be a turnoff. The aspirational target consumer for Kohler is probably Carrie Bradshaw. Chances are, the women who grew up watching Sex and the City will soon consider the washing toilet another lifestyle essential, like valet parking, shopping-by-appointment, titanium baby strollers, and Fresh Direct.

Duravit, a German company, is betting on design rather than technology. Recently it launched SensoWash Starck, a line of washing toilets whose top model has all the seductive high-tech features of Numi—the motion-activated lid; the rear, front, and oscillating washes; the nozzle with adjustable positioning and jet strength—plus the extra cachet of the Starck signature. Using SensoWash is “as natural as washing one’s hands,” asserts Tim Schroeder, Duravit USA’s president. “Philippe Starck always makes us feel smart. He doesn’t create products that look like an amalgam of add-on contraptions.”

Duravit’s other agenda is to offer options that make its products competitive with some of the less expensive Japanese and Korean lines. SensoWash includes two different toilet seats that incorporate basic bidet functions and can easily be mounted on existing bowls. But like the economy models by Toto, Inax, and Daewon, these cumbersome retrofits tend to look like disguised bedpans. Even the “softer silhouette” and “sweeping lines” of the European-looking Toto model, by the Italian designer Stefano Giovannoni, fail to dispel the feeling that the toilet was purchased from a catalog specializing in nursing-home equipment.

Transporting the Japanese bathroom aesthetic outside of Southeast Asia
may be a tough sell. Toto’s Washlet, introduced in Japan in 1980, makes sense in a culture obsessed with cleanliness and privacy—two major challenges in traditional homes, where lack of space, semitransparent partitions, and shoji-style sliding doors long provided little intimacy or soundproofing. Previously, the toilet often would be in a separate building, at the end of a long walkway. Junichiro Tanizaki, the author of the now classic 1933 essay “In Praise of Shadows,” extolled the serene atmosphere of traditional Japanese privies. “The Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose,” he wrote. “It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden.”

What design- and technology-conscious toilet makers propose today is the opposite of what Tanizaki recommended three-quarters of a century ago. Instead of promoting the kind of atmosphere where “one can hear the hum of a mosquito…and listen to the sound of softly falling rain,” the porcelain manufacturers spare no expense to create sci-fi pedestals that equate cleanliness with bright light, white tiles, gleaming chrome, high-definition sound, and sleek design.

But cultural shifts often come from unexpected directions. A year ago, early signs of economic recovery in the United States were spotted by RISI, which tracks developments in the global forest industry. According to MSN.com, company researchers had noticed a significant increase in the sale of higher-priced, two-ply Charmin Ultra toilet paper and concluded that “people are feeling confident enough to open their wallets and upgrade their bathroom experiences.” If true, this may be another case of what’s good for the economy is bad for the environment.

Drastic reduction of toilet paper consumption is one of the most interesting angles that washing toilet manufacturers are beginning to explore, and it could turn out to be their best selling point. Today the Internet is abuzz with carbon-footprint figures computing the environmental legacy of Mr. Whipple. For more than two decades the fictional grocer, played by Dick Wilson, pleaded with customers, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin!” Wilson died in 2007, marking the end of an era. But even his most loyal fans, this writer among them, may now wish that the British-born actor hadn’t been so popular for so long. According to industry sources, Americans flush down the drain on average about 23.6 rolls of toilet paper per person per year—each roll is about 340 feet long—or the equivalent of a mile and a half. Do the math: multiply this figure by the population of the United States and you’ve got enough mileage for five trips to the sun.

Anatomy is destiny. Women, who use far more toilet paper than men, will probably play a major role in the transformation of our bathroom habits, and it may happen fast. When I came out of the Water Bar restroom and told my girlfriend about my experience, she decided to give it a try. She emerged two minutes later from her visit to the paperless water closet with a broad smile. “In your article, are you going to mention the fact that squeaky clean and slightly naughty are not mutually exclusive concepts?” she asked. “No,” I replied, “Metropolis is not that kind of magazine.”

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