Features

The power behind the throne

April 13, 2011

Pomp, pageantry, Philippe Starck and a 10m toilet: David Neustein journeys to the annual product launch of one of the world’s most established bathroomware manufacturers.

A giant toilet, conceived by famous designer Philippe Starck, in the middle of Germany’s Black Forest. This is what I am promised when I sign up for a four-day trip to Duravit’s headquarters. It is, naturally, an opportunity too good to resist.

Duravit HQ is situated in the centre of the town of Hornberg. On arrival at the facility, I had expected to see an edifice shaped like an immense loo, windows staring out from its curved flanks, sitting alone in a woodland setting. Instead, a carpark and a conventional steel and glass office building confront me. Inset into the building’s facade is a 12-metre tall by 9-metre wide niche in which a 10-metre tall toilet cistern is displayed.

Before becoming a leading supplier of bathroom fittings, furniture and “wellness ideas”, Duravit began life in 1817 as a maker of traditional earthernware crockery. In 1842, chamberpots were added to the product range and the company has never looked back. Today, the factory complex is a mishmash of buildings from various periods, squeezed into the narrow floor of the Gutach River valley. The relationship of factory to river is not incidental. Sponging, flooding, the ceramic mixture and the makeup of the glazes are all water dependent. Accordingly, working buildings are strung along the river like beads. As space is scarce, production is stacked vertically over five levels. Obviously, a factory divided by lifts, stairs and gangways is not the most efficient working environment. With the advent of ceramic toilet bowls in the mid-twentieth century came the realisation that expansion was impossible within this constrained site. Duravit’s owners opted to stay and plan for specialisation rather than ubiquity, aiming for the high end of the market.

Today, the quirky factory survives mainly as an educational device and a destination for tour groups. Hornberg’s 600 workers are a combination of old hands and trainees being readied for Duravit’s worldwide operations. Starck’s trapezoidal logistics and visitor centre, which includes a small museum, event spaces, and – of course – the oversized toilet, was opened in 2004. There are now two other German factories, along with facilities in France, Egypt, Turkey, China, Tunisia and India that dwarf little Hornberg. Walking through the factory, watching as plaster and water are mixed like batter in huge vats, it is fascinating to reflect on how the geography of the valley has shaped the output of this global company.

On the factory floor, the value of Hornberg to Duravit becomes evident. The slow pace, calm, and gentle warmth in these rooms is reassuring, surely a world away from the heat and rush of Cairo or Chongqing. Kindly looking, middle-aged men slowly sponge away imperfections in the wet clay. Every speck of oxide is fussed over, the imperfection marked, removed, and the object sent back to be re-fired. Workers are more than happy to down tools and answer questions relayed by our guide. Arranged in lines, the ceramic toilet bowls and sinks are surprisingly beautiful in abstract. Much of the work here is done by hand. It seems as if little has changed in fifty years.

While continuity is the theme of our daytime factory tour, the media spectacular that evening emphasises the exact opposite. Stylish Europeans of all persuasions sidle down a red carpet and into a blue-lit event space. The purpose of this event, and the catalyst for my visit, is the launch of Duravit’s new range in advance of the biannual ISH bathroom trade fair in Cologne. Having presided over a doubling of both staff and sales, in the years leading up to the global financial crisis, Duravit CEO Franz Kook has launched an audacious final assault on the market before his imminent retirement. The 2011 range is the company’s largest, with seven new lines featuring designers EOOS, Matteo Thun, Sergei Tchoban, Sieger Design, and, of course, Philippe Starck. Duravit engaged Starck in the nineties, and he has in turn transformed the company’s image. Irreverent, raffish and romantic, the French designer has a genius for form-creation and branding. In a stroke of outrageous luck, he has also decided to grace tonight’s launch (there are launches running day and night all week, entertaining 7000 international guests).

Designed by Russian Sergei Tchoban, the first range we are shown is ‘Esplanade’. Tchoban is the architect of Federation Tower in Moscow, which is set to be Europe’s tallest building. Featuring leather handled bathroom cabinetry and a freestanding bath clad in timber veneer, these products are described as “the new opulence” but are more transparently an attempt to entice Russia’s nouveau riche. By contrast, Italian Matteo Thun’s ‘Onto’ series emphasises simple and quick assembly, with moulded plywood countertops mounted on to existing Duravit ceramic washbasins. Thun cleverly positions ‘Onto’ in response to a timber surplus in central Europe, before veering off course into abstraction, citing Italo Calvino and a “post-9/11 world”. Finally Starck appears, resplendent in black, red and yellow harem pants and orange leather gloves, the collar of his black jacket upturned, clutching a toilet brush like a conjuror’s wand. Fool and philosopher in one, he makes no attempt to explain his new products. The descriptions Starck offers are nonsensical: “First miracle; infinity comes as a bonus with your shower… Second miracle; brush your teeth in front of a triangle of water… Third miracle; with this stool your bathroom becomes a gallery of modern art!” In summary, “this collection is so interesting because there’s nothing to see, nothing to say.”

“I have not eaten in 11 days,” Starck announces, explaining that he is trying to be less fat for his wife. He then pulls wife Jasmine onstage to demonstrate her visible baby bump. “My wife is pregnant,” he exclaims. “I need royalties!” After all this tomfoolery, he finally mentions the product that defines Duravit’s 2011 range, a device that can only be referred to euphemistically as ‘SensoWash’. “This product will change your life,” promises Starck, without going into detail. SensoWash is a Japanese invention repackaged for the European market. It is a jet that sits within the toilet rim and uses water to wash the anus or vagina. There, I’ve said it. Was that so hard?

Surrounded by snowy countryside and elegant Europeans, distracted by media perks and designer hype, the subject of bodily functions introduces a welcome squirt of reality, a plop of truth. Addressing a reverent crowd of journalists after the launch, Starck describes himself as “a professional dreamer”. “What will be the new aesthetic of poverty?” he asks, while speculating on a “post-plastic era” and a global famine in 2022. He then goes on to imagine the state of the world after 200 years and then in 4 billion years time, when the sun has exploded. Starck, after mesmerising us with his metaphysical ideas, makes a quick getaway before we can ask him about basins, showers and bidets.

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