In the big watery scheme of things,” I wrote years ago in The Art of Doing Nothing, “your plumbing is as much part of nature as is dew on a spiderweb or a storm gathering over Miami.” Today this perspective doesn’t sound as improbable as it used to. We’re all aware that the water filling our bathtubs is as precious as that in the Colorado, Missouri, or Rio Grande. When we turn on the faucet, its bubbling sound is a reminder that what passes through our pipes is a continuous stream that flows in a never-ending cycle of reinvention.
Reinvention is also what drove a trio of European designers to dream up new ways to celebrate the trans-formative qualities of water in the domestic realm. In recent years, Jean-Marie Massaud, the Bouroullec brothers, and Patricia Urquiola have been hired by Axor to challenge old assumptions and create bathroom fixtures that reconnect emotionally with the 330 million cubic miles of water that circulate on or near the surface of the earth.
The quest began in 2002 with the first so-called AquaTektur workshop, an international get-together organized by Axor’s young brand manager, Philippe Grohe, who assembled a group of designers and architects from all over the world and asked them to explore ways to transform the bathroom into a space for being closer to nature and more mindful of its gifts.
Though Hansgrohe had always focused on faucets and showerheads, Axor, its upscale division, was ready for a rebirth. The WaterDream project, presented in 2005 at the Milan furniture fair, was a first step, showcasing conceptual designs by Massaud, Urquiola, and the Bouroullecs. The installations made clear that Axor was considering the possibility of designing entire bathrooms, sinks, tubs, and accessories. The WaterDream creative process would prove laborious, involving as many bends and meanders as a river negotiating a floodplain. “I hadn’t given my designers a precise brief,” Grohe says. “I’d eliminated marketing considerations. I was curious to find out what these talented thinkers would do if limitations and constraints didn’t exist.”
Lacking obstacles, a fluid will invariably follow a slow serpentine pattern. It took up to six years for some of the bathroom concepts to evolve out of their WaterDream phase and mature into practical collections. But just as floodplains generate rich ecosystems, so did the WaterDream projects. “It’s a miracle all three teams were able to produce actual working bathroom systems,” Grohe says.
On its way back to the sea, where does water stop? Where is it collected? Diverted? Dispersed? Flushed? For Massaud, a master of fluid design (and a scuba diver in his spare time), the bathroom is just one of many stopovers water makes on its journey downhill. “A great bathroom is not about great plumbing,” he says. “Philippe didn’t ask me how to redesign existing products but what to do with water.” The French designer envisioned a series of water cascades filling your sink and tub. His taps dispense a sheer ribbon of bouncing water as mesmerizing as a translucent rainbow. To achieve this result, he worked with a team of Axor technicians for months. The water pressure inside is carefully controlled to deliver a seamless output. Eventually, after a number of trials, a perfect waterfall of liquid mist sprang as if from some invisible ledge. “One can’t help but respect a waterfall,” Grohe says. “When we can tap into a universal human experience such as this one,
the faucet becomes more than a piece of metal. It is transformed into a wellspring of emotions.”
As it happens, Hansgrohe is headquartered in Schiltach, a picturesque Black Forest village that is less than 20 miles from the Triberg waterfalls, among the tallest in Germany. A succession of short cascades that drop vertically for more than half a mile, the falls are a natural wonder. The Axor office is on the bank of the pristine River Kinzig, one of the tributaries of the Rhine. It is also a short ride from the source of the Breg, on the other side of the European continental divide, where the Danube originates. Straddling the watershed between the Atlantic Ocean and the Black Sea, Schiltach has managed to remain an unspoiled sanctuary. “The Kinzig flows right under my window,” says Grohe, scion of the Hansgrohe bathroom fixture empire. “Every day, when I look at this immaculate river, I’m reminded of how precious clean water is. Conserving it, for me, is not a marketing strategy. It’s a philosophy.”
A true romantic, Grohe believes that the beauty of an object is as much part of the service it renders as its function. “Our products, because of the way they’re designed, enhance people’s emotional relationship with water and encourage them to use it more respectfully,” he insists. “We believe that beauty has a role to play in our quest for green living.”
The first Massaud waterfall collection came out in 2007. Today he is revisiting his original vision for a new line to be introduced in 2012. The triangular vat he designed to replace the traditional bathtub no longer satisfies him. The freestanding tub filler suddenly looks too fussy to him. He questions why we stand instead of sit in front of the sink. Though he doesn’t want to give anything away, it’s clear that his new concept will evoke natural forms: water rippling on the surface of a lake, splashing into a fountain, or running into rivulets after a rainstorm.
In old Europe, master bathrooms are often the extension of bedrooms, separated from the conjugal bed by only a folding screen. Hygienic practices are not incompatible with congeniality. For Urquiola, a product designer and architect who now lives in Italy, what flows in bathroom pipes is the stuff of kinship and romance. In her native Spain, she says, bathrooms are where family members share secrets, laugh, gossip—and shampoo.
When Grohe asked her to design a line for Axor, he had no idea she was going to approach water as a metaphor for the currents of empathy that circulate among loved ones. The bathroom—which he had considered a private sanctuary (something most men still believe)—was recast by Urquiola as a shared fantasy, a stage where people express their feelings about living together.
Looking like large cheery patios, her bathrooms incorporate elements from her childhood memories, with visual references to Renoir, Degas, Manet, and Cassatt. They evoke a time when water didn’t come out of a tap but had to be fetched—a time when you used less water because you had to carry it. Urquiola’s modestly proportioned sinks are shaped like old-fashioned laundry baskets, complete with handles that double as towel racks. Her tubs, as deep, narrow, and curvy as sleigh beds, are as comfortable as old slippers. As if to channel all these impressionistic currents of emotions, her chrome faucets are sturdy fixtures that look hefty at first glance but turn out to be surprisingly ergonomic, with handles and rings that guide the hand and please the fingers.
“I had fun creating a decor that expresses the personality of different people,” she says, explaining the charming jumble of furniture, plants, and accessories crowding her model bathroom. “I showed two small bathtubs side by side to exemplify what I feel is the ultimate luxury: togetherness and individuality.”
The Urquiola collection was recently introduced in the United States, but she is already talking about her next Axor assignment. She’d like to develop a line of bathtubs for what she calls “public baths”: spa facilities in hotels, gyms, municipal pools, and health clubs. “The home tub is fast becoming an anachronism,” she explains. “People don’t have time to soak anymore, and when they do, filling a tub with all that water feels wasteful.” She foresees a future in which taking a bath would be something one does in fancy venues not unlike the old Roman baths.
Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec developed their concept with the same technique that the Colorado River used to carve the Grand Canyon. It took five years for them to wear down the obstacles they had encountered after presenting their initial WaterDream idea in Milan. Their desire to reduce to a minimum the amount of material necessary to build a bathroom turned out to be unrealistic. “We were much too rigid in our orig-inal approach,” Erwan now says. Philippe Grohe agrees: “We went back and forth over solutions so many times, it was daunting, even to me. Twice during the process we almost quit.”
Introduced last month in Europe, and available in the States next year, the Bouroullec concept is worth the wait. Minimalist indeed, it turns
the bathroom into a serene landscape of shallow terraces stacked two or three at a time to create a fluid succession of shelves. Clustered around unobtrusive, low-profile sinks and tubs, these ledges provide natural niches for soaps, towels, bottles, and brushes. Faucets, handles, and knobs are simple chrome rods that gleam softly against the gently eroded formations surrounding them.
“The design came from understanding the gestures one does when water is involved,” explains Erwan, “and when you have to move things around with wet, slippery hands.” The vulnerability experienced when standing in the buff in front of a mirror is offset by the sensuality of the materials and their own naked appearance. One feels less exposed in environments where sharp angles have been worn down, as if by centuries of exposure to the relentless swirl of whirlpools and eddies.
Abnoba was a Celtic goddess, revered in the Black Forest three thousand years ago as the protector of rivers and lakes. She was venerated along streams but particularly at their sources, in spots where the water surfaced and formed a reflective pool. Her name was engraved on altars in public baths in antiquity. Two such markings have been found in archaeological sites near the Axor headquarters, in Mühlenbach and Badenweiler, small bucolic resort towns known in the distant past for the healing qualities of their water. Abnoba was there, wherever people needed to be reminded that clean water is a gift that must be cherished and protected.
Philippe Grohe is more concerned with future generations than past ones, yet his philosophy is in line with the Celts, the Black Forest’s early settlers. His Axor faucets are more than elegant spigots. They’re an expression of the principle behind the cult of water, as practiced by our Iron Age forefathers. “I am convinced that the bathroom can be a little temple where we worship nature,” he says.