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Leah McFall has a sinking feeling… about bathrooms

OPINION: “Check this out,” my husband said. He was back from Japan, a bit jet-laggy, and flipping through his phone.

He’d filmed the toilet in his hotel room. Stand down, all other countries. The Japanese convenience cannot be bettered.

Operated by keypad, it opens by itself, warms the seat lid, plays music to deter embarrassment, aims jets of water in significant directions according to your perspective, gently blow-dries your undercarriage and, for all I know, pats you on the shoulder when you lose a semi-final.

"I'm more interested in toilets than is usual," says Leah McFall.
“I’m more interested in toilets than is usual,” says Leah McFall.

I can’t tell you how impressed I was. It made me reflect on the long sweep of human history, and how much we, as a species, love trying new ways of evacuating.

I’m more interested in toilets than is usual. My Dad was a plumber before he retired, so you might say bathrooms subsidised my younger existence. There’s nothing Dad doesn’t know about pipework, heating, ventilation, drainage, wastewater treatment, and the statecraft of Winston Churchill.

Most plumbers relish the past. If you like history, then consider plumbing, because bathrooms are as good as carbon-dating for identifying the year you live in, and the cultural age as well.

You can immediately date a bathroom by its sanitaryware – an unsettling portmanteau, which basically means the toilet and sink – and its colour scheme. Nobody calls decor a colour scheme any more, mind you. They call it a visual idea.

The visual idea of the 1970s was Avocado. The 90s favoured Fame, with Hollywood lightbulbs around the mirror. And I think we’ll remember the 2010s as the Age of the Subway Tile.

Anyway, back to Dad. He helped me make a 3D model of a Roman toilet for my fourth form Latin class. I remember building the little long-drop, painting the water channel that gushed past the user’s sandalled feet, and gluing together the sponge on a stick they would’ve used to dip in the running water, before wiping themselves. I’m telling you, those were happier times.

As a plumber’s daughter, bathrooms are a special interest topic for Leah McFall – because they say more about us than we might suspect.
As a plumber’s daughter, bathrooms are a special interest topic for Leah McFall – because they say more about us than we might suspect.

I rang Dad yesterday and said: “I’ve been reading about trends in bathrooms. Can I run some past you?” Because I won’t fib. I didn’t love any of them. In fact, history tells us that trends in bathrooms are to be avoided.

For example, let’s take the vessel sink. When vessel sinks started popping up – I think I saw my first one around 2003, at the James Cook Hotel in Wellington – they were the height of sophistication. Everyone wanted one in their bathrooms; by 2010, everybody wanted two.

The point of the vessel sink was to be seen. They were usually a frosted glass bowl, sitting on top of the vanity unit. They implied symmetry and mindfulness. They suggested you appreciated meditative reflection as you stood there, flossing, as if your spit was a votive offering.

We’ve since learned that these sinks aren’t terrific at keeping the water inside the bowl. You can’t comfortably rest your hand or wrist on them. The cheap ones tended to crack and leak – Dad replaced a gazillion. See what I mean? Avoid fads.

Your 2020 bathroom is going to be very easy to date. It will have black matte taps and a matching sink. The toilet too may eventually come in black, making it harder to find in the room. Your on-trend bathroom appears depressed about late consumer capitalism and doesn’t have time for your crap.

Your bath will have severe edges and stand freely in the room. It won’t have any ledges for your wine glass, your Jackie Collins, or the back of your head. In fact, there should be very few shelves in your bathroom at all and you must regularly “edit your amenities”, which means decluttering anything that doesn’t flatter you, or suit the look of the room.

This means you may be ill-groomed, smell less fresh and perhaps present less attractively in 2020. You won’t get a date, or may even ruin your marriage. And it’s all because of the contemporary bathroom, whose visual idea is existential crisis.


The foot shower
A low-level jet in the shower. Nope. “Get a bowl, put your feet in it.”

Minimalist freestanding bath
“A show pony. It’s something to wash your poodle in.”

Double sinks
“It’s overkill. Who wants to clean their teeth at the same time as their husband? ‘Darling, let’s clean our teeth together! Why don’t we sit on our dual toilets?'”

Black taps
“One diamond ring and they’re scratched to bits.”

Deluge showers
Multiple jets aimed at various parts of the body. Evidence of a designer losing their mind and leaving the engineer to sort out drainage and supply. A wrongly aimed jet might cause surprise. “If you’re a woman, God help you. You’d be full of water before you’d know about it.”


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