When you’ve gotta go…

I wasn’t planning on writing this today. I was planning on writing something about packaging design. But that’s been bumped to tomorrow, because last night my good friend Marianne wrote this post on her blog about public restrooms. And though I am sure I’d have gotten to writing about this topic *eventually*, suddenly it popped to the top of my schedule.

Now, I am not here to discuss this issue from the angle of body politics. This isn’t a blog *about* body politics. I’ve guest blogged over at The Rotund (Marianne’s site) before, talking about one of my biggest peeves in the entire design world- when the tables are too close together in restaurants (really, this drives me utterly batshit.) and how that affects body politics in three dimensional space. But since my blog is coming at this from a different angle, this post will too.

Ok, first of all, I want to address this, since it was written (probably largely in jest, but I have heard other, similar things said in all seriousness) in comments over there- there is no conspiracy as to why public bathrooms suck. It’s not a matter of gender politics. It’s not a matter of men designing things and not understanding the needs of women. It’s not a tinfoil hat scenario. The reason why public bathrooms suck (and in this context, I’m using public to mean “any space not in a private residence”, not truly public space) can be summed up in ONE word:


Folks, no one ever made any real money out of people needing a place to pee unless we’re talking about a pay toilet. The truth is that the rest rooms in almost all of the public spaces you encounter are designed with very few considerations:

  • using the least amount of floor space possible, in order to save square footage for money generating activities.
  • using the least amount of money possible, in order to save design and construction funds for things that will generate income on the far end.
  • fulfilling the legal requirements in terms of building code (and in the US, the ADA) *and that’s it.* (why? see the two points above this.)

The rest room setups that most of us are familiar with are *standardized* and because they are standardized they are *CHEAP* to produce. They are designed to use the least amount of space *legally allowable* in order to leave more room for the things that are needed to generate revenue. That’s IT. Period. There’s nothing more to “read into it.” I promise.

That being said, I have been waging (what often feels like single-handed) war on the standardized design of restrooms since I started my design career. Because I think they SUCK, and we can do much better. It genuinely bothers me that in a space like the Time-Warner Center at Columbus Circle here in NYC, designed by SOM, who by any accounting you could consider have both more money and talent than any firm needs to know what to do with STILL HAS LOUSY BATHROOMS(though I have to thank them for providing a convenient and free place to pee on the west side. Thanks, guys!). The space is so carefully crafted- so thoughtfully planned out… and then you walk down this long corridor towards the rest rooms and it suddenly feels like an afterthought. Plain white walls, standardized stalls.. you name a cliché here and it’s there. And there’s no *reason* for it. Because if what you’re selling, ultimately, is an *experience* (and boy howdy that’s what retail is selling you, as well as product and don’t you forget it), as much as people are grateful (really! I’m grateful) for a free place to pee on the west side, the illusion you’re creating is BLOWN when the bathrooms suck.

I love to design restaurants, retail spaces, hospitality, nightclubs, bars… all those kinds of places that you find the kind of bathrooms we’re talking about here. And I know for sure that *it can be done*. It’s BEEN done. It’s been done at Bar89. It’s been done in the (now gone.. *snif*) lobby of The Royalton, in the men’s room(don’t ask me how I know that). It’s been done (and still my favorite in all of NYC) at Peep. I know it’s been done all over my damned portfolio. It’s been done in a whole lot of places, actually, all over the world. So it *is* doable. The question is for designers, why aren’t we fighting to do it more often? It’s a fantastic design opportunity and if you do it well it becomes a serious talking point and something people will go to see. Why is the design of a restroom so often an afterthought (and it looks it- you aren’t fooling anyone, you know.)

And if you question whether or not people *WANT* that; whether or not they want changes in how rest rooms are designed, even if it means paying a buck or two extra for their meal or whatever, go read the comments over at the post I linked to at the start of this. Work from there.