INTERIORS / Orders of the bath: Clinical white once reflected aversion to germs, now it's a reaction to avocado suites. A look at why bathroom design reveals so much more than people's washing habits

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NEXT TIME you are squatting over a ceramic hole in the ground in Crete, staring at the used lavatory paper in the plastic open-weave basket next to it, you might like to reflect that more than 3,500 years ago the Minoans were renowned hydraulic and sanitary engineers: the palace of Knossos was equipped with baths and running water. But progress in design never follows a straight line, interrupted as it is by different sociological trends - and nowhere is this more true than in the bathroom.

If bathing were simply a matter of getting clean, bathrooms would be clinical cubicles. But bathing has had different meanings for different cultures throughout history. The idea that cleanliness is next to Godliness must have been a Victorian invention because the early Church condemned bathing. St Francis of Assisi looked upon dirtiness as one of the insignia of holiness, and St Agnes is said never to have washed - perhaps as a way of identifying with the poor. Later on, however, Pope Gregory the Great recommended baths so long as they did not become a 'time-wasting luxury'; which is precisely what we require of them today.

In early Victorian times, baths were sold as cures for physical ailments, and came in many different shapes and sizes to suit different conditions. But from about the 1880s many middle-class homes had proper plumbed-in baths, which were treated as pieces of furniture, often cased in mahogany; the bathroom itself was usually converted from a bedroom and so had generous floor-space as well as carpets and curtains. It was only at the turn of the century that an excessive concern with hygiene, and a paranoia about germs lying in wait behind the panelling, led to clinical-looking rooms with white, free-standing baths.

But the social status of bathrooms was possibly more important to the middle and upper classes. So when in the 1920s state-subsidised housing started supplying the 'great unwashed' with free-standing white-enamelled, cast-iron baths - 'virtually the same objects of symbolic hygiene and purity that graced middle-class homes' as Adrian Forty describes them in Objects of Desire (Thames & Hudson pounds 9.95), the middle classes had to distance themselves from the clinical look. Thus, Forty points out, myths about the working classes using baths to keep the coal in were propagated; the middle classes also started spurning white in favour of coloured tiles and suites.

Today these rules of colour are inverted - the all-white bathroom which represented purity and hygiene in the 1920s, is a clear statement of superior taste. Even estate agents now talk disparagingly of the 'avocado bath suite', which has replaced garden gnomes as a symbol of social ridicule.

Paranoia about the bathroom harbouring germs and disease has given way to paranoia about harbouring bad taste. The list of 'don'ts' which David Hicks listed in his book on bathrooms in 1970 have changed surprisingly little: 'Do not use marblised plastic floor covering, three-quarter height tiling, woollen lavatory seat covers . . . 'engaged' signs on lavatory doors, old cracked cork mats, baths with jazzy sculpted sides, black basins or fish-patterned plastic curtains and wallpapers.' Loftily he declares that 'there must, of course, be a hook for your dressing gown or other clothing, but need it be on the back of the door?' Now there's one for the stylish to worry about - one could understand if it was one of those ceramic hooks on a plaque with a painting of a Spanish dancer on it, but surely people in the know haven't been sniggering at my innocuous brass hook all these years?

A satisfactory bathroom, continues the guru, 'cannot be made merely by ensuring that it contains, randomly placed, the bare essentials, a bath, a basin and a lavatory.' No, certainly not - what about the bidet? Washing bottoms is not a modern phenomenon (in fact, it may be a sadly declining practice according to architect John Pawson, who reports with lifted eyebrow that most of his clients - representing many different religions and cultures - don't require a bidet). Hermann Muthesius, a German commentator on English design at the turn of the century, believed that the bidet belonged in the lavatory, that 'in a house of any standing at all it is desirable and, indeed, essential to have one there and one may take it as certain that a later culture will regard it as an inescapable necessity in the water closet.'

But what Muthesius really got worked up about was the idea of putting lavatories in bathrooms, a practice which was apparently more common in his native land, for in England it would be considered 'barbarous and is, we repeat, totally inadmissible'. He tries to explain his objections on aesthetic grounds - 'Even in its most splendid form, a lavatory is an appliance that one would prefer to keep out of sight as far as possible, primarily for aesthetic reasons.' But then he gets down to the bottom line, declaring that its presence in the bathroom 'evokes unpleasant associations of ideas, even assuming that the closet is entirely odourless, which can never be taken for granted . . . ' Muthesius would be horrified to see that the lavatory has become a permanent fixture in the bathroom. Somehow bathrooms look lonely without them. And throughout history people have liked a sociable crap.

Muthesius also disapproved, on hygiene grounds, of 'the growing tendency to furnish the bathroom handsomely, as a room'. Which was precisely the aim of interior designer Anthony Collett, when he converted his large first-floor kitchen into a bathroom (shown overleaf). In terms of resale value it would probably have been more sensible to turn it back into a bedroom when the kitchen moved down to the basement, but his bathroom has emotional value. 'It's not exactly a living-room but it's very much a family room, and primarily a place to relax. For me particularly, with a fairly hectic life, morning bath-time is very much my time. It's nice to be in a room that you can loll about in - I take half an hour to lie in the bath and shave. Then maybe I will sit down in one of the campaign chairs and cut my toenails.' It's surprising what a personal level one gets down to in bathroom talk, but then as Collett points out it is a room that sees a lot of inhibitions cast off with the clothes.

White is the only colour he ever uses for sanitary fittings, even though he generally likes dark bathrooms - 'How can you face avocado green in the morning?' The basin and lavatory are new (Palladio by Sbordoni, available from Original Bathrooms, see page 73), but the Edwardian cast-iron bath, originally saved from a skip, has followed him around and made its home in three different bathrooms. Otherwise he is less dogmatic than David Hicks: 'I think one can relax about toilet-roll holders - you don't need those triple flap things to hide them. Personally I like them best in a basket on the floor.' As long as they are white, that is - David Hicks probably thought it so obvious as not to be worth mentioning, but coloured lavatory paper is an absolute no-no.

Japanese-influenced architect John Pawson would agree about the loo paper, but he belongs to the Muthesius school of thought on lavatories. 'They are very ugly things, both architecturally and physically. It's much nicer to have a bath on its own in a room.'

Helen Fearnley, a financial journalist, clearly agrees as she bought his flat and the minimalist philosophy that went with it - including the cedarwood bath (available through Pawson for pounds 700 or so, see Directory). The fact that it leaked when filled for photography suggests that it is not in daily use - they have to be kept damp. Not that this is any reflection on her hygiene - she has other bathrooms; it's just that she likes to use soap, and the wooden tub is only for soaking in after you've cleaned yourself in the shower, a lengthy procedure probably better suited to the lifestyle of a geisha than a working woman. 'I do like everything to be on clean lines and not cluttered,' she says, but stresses that she has 'not led a cloistered bathroom existence. I've had ones with little Regency lights and gilt mirrors. I've even had a sunken circular bath.' Though not, she hastens to add, of her own volition; it came with a house she once bought.

Circular baths, of course, belong to the Sixties and Seventies when people didn't worry about conserving water. They are, needless to say, considered grossly vulgar today - about on a par with water-beds and black satin sheets. The English also tend to view too much self-indulgence via new technology with puritanical alarm. Jacuzzis for example. Secretly most people would like one, but would never admit to buying one - they always seem to have been inherited from the previous owner. As for whirlpool baths and hydro massage - well, Muthesius understood our problem. 'It is alien to the nature of an Englishman of standing to envelope himself in luxury,' he pontificated, 'it is a role that would be painful to him, for he is a man of sensibility and his simple character would make it quite impossible for him to maintain the posture of a nouveau riche of imperial Rome . . . '

No, it must be someone else who's buying all those glitter baths.

BATHROOM DIRECTORY

SUPPLIERS AND DESIGNERS

Czech & Speake, 39C Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6DN; tel 081-980 4567 for stockists outside London. Status baths, showers and taps in two styles - Art Deco and Edwardian; fittings in brass, chrome or nickel.

The Water Monopoly, 16-18 Lonsdale Road, London NW6 6RD; tel 071-624 2636. English and French antique baths and showers; will track down and restore antique sanitary ware.

Bathshield Supplies, Blenheim Studio, Lewes Road, Forest Row, East Sussex RH18 5EZ; tel 0342 823243. Largest selection of original Victorian and Edwardian baths and showers in country; also antique and reproduction taps and fittings. Offer complete re-enamelling service either in situ or at their workshops.

Robinson and Cornish, The Old Tannery, Swimbridge, North Devon EX32 0PL; tel 0271 830732. Hand-made bathrooms; complete design service offered.

Design Workshop, 150 Penistone Road, Shelley, Huddersfield HD8 8JQ; tel 0484 602996. Makers of Japanese baths in Cedar of Lebanon, for about pounds 1,500. Requires waterproof floor.

The Complete Bathroom, 61-63 Ber Street, Norwich NR1 3AD; tel 0603 662716. Very full of itself - as well as products from the top European manufacturers - the shop is staffed by 'bathroom addicts'.

Smallbone of Devizes, 105-109 Fulham Road, London SW3 6RL; tel 071-581 9989. Also at Tunbridge Wells, St Albans, Leamington Spa, Knutsford, Harrogate and Devizes. The grand country kitchen look transposed to the bathroom. Hand-made, with lots of marbling - the classic 'London posh' look.

B C Sanitan (above), Unit 12, Nimrod Way, Elgar Road, Reading RG2 0EB; tel 0734 868900 for stockists. Contemporary and classic styles, including reproductions of originals in the Savoy Hotel.

Jacob Delafon (above), Britannia House, 9 Glenthorne Road, London W6 0LF; tel 081-748 4606 for stockists. Huge range of French sanitary ware from classic and simple to unfortunate - 'Fleur', with its indented line down the middle of all the fittings, looks just like a bottom. And how about a limited edition copper bath at pounds 13,000?

Aston & Matthews, 143-147a Essex Road, London Nl 2SN; tel 071-226 7220. Huge stock of sanitary ware, including largest selection of roll top baths and such delights as a pounds 2,000 lavatory that plays a tune - no doubt to muffle those embarrassing noises.

Power, Jet, Whirlpool & Steam, 2 Bensham Lane, Croydon, Surrey CR0 2RQ; tel 081-689 6883 for stockists. All the latest in hydrotherapy; can convert shower cubicles to steam rooms.

Alternative Plans, 9 Hester Road, London SW11 4AM; tel 071-228 6460. Uncompromisingly modern bathrooms designed using granite and marble, and contemporary Italian sanitary ware by Boffi.

Woodstock Furniture, 23 Pakenham Street, London WC1X 0LB; tel 071-837 1818. Full design service for handmade bathrooms.

Triton, tel 0203 344441 for stockists. Hi-tech electronically controlled showers.

C P Hart, Newham Terrace, Hercules Road, London SE1 7DR; tel 071-928 5866. One of the more design-conscious bathroom suppliers; stock European lines as well as their own clean-cut designs.

AquaWare, tel 081-311 2145 for stockists. Classic styles to suit both traditional and modern settings.

Pipe Dreams, 72 Gloucester Road, London SW7 4QT; tel 071-225 3978. Stock 70 per cent traditional, 30 per cent modern - no doubt a fair reflection of British taste.

Drummonds of Bramley, Birtley Farm, Horsham Road, Bramley, Guildford GU5 0LA; tel 0483 898766. Expensive but authentic method of re-enamelling old baths by hand. Also refurbished period bathrooms.

John Pawson, 27-29 Whitfield Street, London W1P 5RB; tel 071-495 1212. Designer of inimalist bathrooms in the Japanese style.

Ideal Standard, tel 0482 46461 for stockists. Leading middle- market, design-conscious bathroom manufacturers.

Rhode Design, 86 Stoke Newington Church Street, London N16 0AP; tel 071-275 8261. Exquisitely simple early American Crafts-look cabinets, available painted or raw; different sizes made to order. Infinitely preferable to the 'London posh' fitted look which now dominates.

Original Bathrooms, 143-145 Kew Road, Richmond, Surrey TW9 2PN; tel 081-940 7554. Suppliers of Sbordoni fittings, one of the oldest Italian manufacturers. Telephone for stockists outside London.

Max Pike Bathrooms (below), 4 Eccleston Street, London SW1W 9LN; tel 071-730 7216. All the latest - and most expensive - of bathroom design and technology.

ACCESSORIES

Barber & Wilson, tel 081-888 3461 for stockists. Makers of traditional taps in chrome, nickel-plate and natural polished brass.

Brass & Traditional Sinks, Devauden Green, near Chepstow, Gwent NP6 6PL; tel 0291 5738. Brass sinks, Belfast sinks, as well as French farmhouse sinks and period taps.

Ipswich Marble, 6-8 Tuddenham Avenue, Ipswich IP4 2HE; tel 0473 281202. Granite and marble specialists - vanity tops, bath surrounds, flooring all made to specification.

B & P Wynn, tel 081-575 2266 for stockists. Importers of unusual grille plugholes etched with lotus designs.

Bisque, 244 Belsize Road, London NW6 4BT; tel 071- 328 2225. Also in Bath; tel 0225 469244. Designer radiators.

Oggetti, 133 Fulham Road, London SW3 6RT; tel 071-581 8088. Designer accessories; ultra-smart imported glass basins to order if you happen to have a spare pounds 4,500 knocking around.

Oblique, Stamford Works, Gillett Street, London N16 8JH; tel 071-249 7363. Elegant bathroom cabinets in sycamore and glass.

Research by Beverley Scott

(Photographs omitted)

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