Exhibitions Everything you always wanted to know about Toilets*

But were afraid to ask. A design manifestation on the design principles of our elementary need.

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Everyone must do it: use the toilet from time to time. We sit down or remain standing, do what we have to do and flush away what we left behind. We wash and dry our hands, leave the toilet and go on with what we were doing. We prefer not to think about what will happen with what we left behind. Going to the toilet is merely answering the call of nature. We have a toilet we can use and that's all there is to it. Is it really? How did our sanitary fixtures develop? Who came up with practical solutions and, especially, why were these choices made? And what about the toilets of the future?

This is what the design manifestation Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Toilets, But Were Afraid to Ask is all about. The exhibition of the same name shows how man's most elementary needs, apart from eating, drinking and breathing, are supported by diverse designs. Hygienic and environmental issues are dealt with, such as the relation between faeces and health, the use of water to flush toilet and recycling excrements. But also themes such as embarrassment, privacy and luxury are discussed and the way they affect the design of toilets and lavatories, the rooms that contain these facilities. And we reveal why we are prepared to make do with far less when travelling or when visiting a pub or restaurant.

This manifestation deals with what is essential to Cube design museum. By displaying recognisable objects we introduce our visitors to industrial and social solutions for significant problems as far as they have a bearing on sanitary fixtures. We not only create an awareness of the necessity of hygiene, but also stimulate visitors to think about past, present and future sanitary issues. We do this by asking questions and providing answers about past, present and future conditions. In our part of the world, but also elsewhere. We are in bad need of solutions for sanitary problems that scientists and designers may be able to offer as one and a half billion people worldwide must make do without proper toilet facilities.

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Themes Everything you always wanted to know about Toilets*

The story and history of our toilet is told in 11 themes, related to the customs of peeing and pooping, changing views on health and hygiene, and care for the enviroment. The focus on explaining these combined developments will by on the western world, but will be also illustrated with examples form other cultures which followed a different development.


Thema 1: Down the drain

It is a daily routine. Go to the toilet, use toilet paper, rinse your hands. Finished? Press a button and the toilet will be flushed. On an average we use between two and six litres of pure drinking to flush poo or pee down the drains. Which is why researchers and designers are looking to find different ways to get rid of excrements. For example by filling the flushing tanks with 'untreated' water.

However, this is sooner said than done. Secondary water mains and sewage systems need to be installed to supply our toilets with untreated water and clear away waste material. Homes, too, need to be fitted with new piping systems. Usable alternatives are reusing water and restricting the quantity of water used, either by means of recirculation or the installation of pipe interrupters. Meanwhile most flushing tanks come with two buttons: one for poo and one for pee.

In many parts of the world there are no alternatives to flush toilets to get rid of waste material. A large part of the world's population is still without sanitary facilities as we know them. What is even worse is that there are no sewage systems, nor fixed installations to ensure a constant supply of water. In these cases the use of drinking water to flush toilets is out of the question.

Theme 2: Human dung

Due to the lack of sewage systems it was common practice for hundreds of years to get rid of faeces in the surface water or even in the streets. Later a barrel system was used. Human excrements were collected in cesspools. The word 'cess' comes from the old French word for 'vent'. Mixed with refuse and cinders the material made an excellent fertiliser. The cesspools had to be emptied at regular intervals.

Those who had no cesspools had to use barrels. As soon as the barrel was full, it was collected in exchange for a small fee. The collection times of the barrels were announced. The French used to throw the contents of their chamber pots into the streets, accompanied by the shouted warning 'Gardez de l'eau!', from which the English 'loo' was derived. In the days when the barrel system was in operation the Dutch used to say that you'd be sooner run over by a barrel cart than by a carriage, meaning that you could sooner expect criticism than compliments.

The far more hygienic water closet was a good solution, although its introduction was not without criticism. Human dung had proved to be of economic value. And flushing it down the drains, with water no less, was considered wasteful. When fertilisers became available towards the end of the 19th century, farmers lost interest in human dung. Since the 70s the environmental movement in particular has suggested alternative solutions for getting rid of faeces by recycling the material. This development still continues.

Theme 3: Rinsing one's hands: before and/or afterwards?

Nowadays we are aware of the significance of hygiene for our health. There was a time when this was not obvious. A relation between bad smells and health aspects was suspected, malaria for example means 'bad air'. But it was only after a breakthrough in bacteriology that the true connection became clear. Contagious diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever were caused by bacteria. These diseases claimed large numbers of victims in the densely populated slums of large cities.

The result was a veritable hygiene offensive. This resulted, for instance, in clearing dung from the streets and the installation of water closets in people's homes. The water closets replaced the unhygienic and unhealthy facilities that were connected to cesspools or barrels. The introduction of water mains and sewers made our environment a much cleaner and healthier place.

The lack of hygienic sanitary installations in developing countries is one of the reasons that contagious diseases are still rife that we have successfully fought. Solutions are mainly expected from small-scale and technically simple facilities tailor-made to meet local customs, such as installing one or more stand-alone toilets. Providing information about the links between hygiene and health is also very useful.

Theme 4: Sitting down or squatting down?

As is the custom in France, squatting down is also a common practice in many Mediterranean and eastern countries. Sometimes this practice is based on religious rules of cleanliness as it prevents contact with unclean things. There is no contact between seat and body, consequently there will be no contact with the body of a previous user either. Besides, squat toilets are cheaper to produce and easier to keep clean.

According to many doctors squatting down is the most natural posture for a good bowel movement. Sitting down obstructs the passage of excrements, whereas squatting means that there will be an unblocked passage and as the buttocks are opened up the excrements more or less drop straight from the body. However, the shape of the toilet is not only connected with physical aspects. Customs and habits are also of importance.

Designers who work on the development of toilets and all other relevant objects make use of ergonomics, which studies man in his relation to his environment. Their starting point is that a lavatory is usually a restricted space where something has to be done in a comfortable way. A comfortable seat, the correct position of the washbasin, holder for toilet paper and toilet brush are just as important as the shape and height of the toilet bowl. The advantage of our toilets is that the user can choose whether he sits down, stands upright or squats down. If he opts for the latter posture, he should lift the seat, grab hold of the door handle and then squat down.

Theme 5: I am my toilet

Our toilets also reflect differences as to prosperity, background and views. This is not a modern development. In the past the rich in their castles and palaces made use of luxurious chamber toilets and pots. Nowadays we all use a modern version of the 19th century water closet. But the way it looks may differ from place to place. Water closets appear in all sorts of shapes and colours, ranging from no-nonsense white to purple or Delft blue bowls.>

The furnishings of a lavatory may also differ considerably. Lavatories may be extended bathrooms, complete with gold taps, bidets, twin washbasins, piles of fluffy towels and mirrors in gilded frames. Then again lavatories may contain nothing more than a flushing toilet, a washbasin and toilet brush. Some people have bidets installed, some have toilets with heated seats, some sit down on a steel bowl and look at bouquets of dried flowers on the wall. Some prefer soft and scented toilet paper, some prefer biodegradable paper.

Toilets and the ways lavatories are furnished are tell-tale signs of how we see life. They give something away about us and the time in which we live. In the 16th century people made use of stand-alone toilet facilities in kitchens or bedrooms, in the 20th century most homes used to have small lavatories, nowadays lavatories are seen as 'living spaces' that need to be furnished. But however elaborate or plain, they are meant to fulfil two needs: to poo and pee. Excrements will always remain just what they always have been, even in a gold toilet bowl and pee in a bright red urinal is not going to change into something totally different..

Theme 6: The toilet bowl and its extras

A lavatory is not complete without decorative elements and accessories. There may be magazines or books. A birthday calendar or tear-off calendar is bound to be tacked to the inside of the lavatory door. There are pictures to show where we travelled, sometimes a poster of our favourite band is pinned to the wall. There are lots of different ways to do away with bad smells, such as toilet blocks and air fresheners that are available in lots of different shapes and packages.

Toilet blocks release smells of lavender or wild flowers when the toilet is flushed. That's why the chemicals mostly come in green, purple or yellow, the colours of plants, fruits and flowers. But shades of blue and red are also fairly common. They suggest that the blocks are powerful detergents. The labels of spray cans sport pictures of extravagant flower arrangements. Yet many people do not appreciate the smells air-fresheners release and do not think they environment-friendly. Incense and electrical air-fresheners are good alternatives to aerosols.

Whether accessories such as posters, pin-boards and other things contribute to hygiene remains to be seen. Or take, for example, toilet mats. They tend to be covered in drops and people stand on them in their outdoor shoes. Although nobody is aware of it, books or tablets taken to the toilet or left there will be rife with bacteria. And because of the ‘toilet furnishings’ cleaning is less thorough than it should be. A lavatory that supplies the bare essential may look less interesting, but is definitely more hygienic. At least, it should be...

Theme 7: Smells, noise and embarrassment

Making use of the toilet together with other people is out of the question. Modern man uses the toilet on his own. In earlier times things were different. The Romans got together in a lavatrina, Latin for lavatory. AChinese expression for 'making use of the toilet' is qu kaihui, which means so much as 'getting together for a meeting'. In the Netherlands there used to be latrines or outhouses in courtyards, at night people used chamber pots. But the embarrassment felt for one's own smells and those left by other people, together with the growing need for hygiene gave rise to the development of the water closet and private toilet facilities.

Ensconced in a private lavatory there is no need to feel embarrassed about noises and smells and afterwards there is ample opportunity for an admiring glance at the art work left behind in the china bowl. The sanitary fixtures in the home are designed to minimise embarrassment. We do our business behind a closed, and preferably soundproofed, door. As our private lavatory is also bound to be used by outsiders, relatives, friends or other guests, we also thought of lots of ways to fight evil smells, such as toilet blocks, air-fresheners or scented candles.

But the doors of the cubicles in many public conveniences do not reach all the way to floor or ceiling. You can hear strangers on the other side of the flimsy partitioning, and they can hear you. Going to the toilet in peace and quiet is impossible. And things are often not better at the work place. Colleagues can hear, smell and see you, it is clear who is responsible for noises and smells. But on the other hand, all of us must use the toilet from time to time. In fact, there is no cause for embarrassment. Or is there?

Theme 8: Gents - Ladies

Public conveniences or lavatories at the work place are usually distinguished as to gender. Men go to Gents, women to Ladies. Ending up in the wrong lavatory spells trouble. A mistake that can be easily avoided as a toilet for men is quite different from a toilet for women. A row of urinals? Lockable toilet cubicles? It is obvious where to sit down. Or remain standing.

For some time sanitary work has been carried out to create equality between men and women when it comes to making use of the toilet. The 17th bourdalou, for example, was portable urinal for women to be used in public places. Nowadays there are pee-pouches and funnels and gender-neutral toilets.

And there is still room for improvement. It is not safe for women to make use of toilets in countries such as South Africa and India. They run the risk of assault or even rape. Women in these countries would be better off with safe toilets than with gender-neutral lavatories.

Theme 9: Malodorous places

Public conveniences not only reflect changing concepts as to hygiene and health, but also how we see making use of the toilet away from home. Public conveniences first appeared in the 19th century, ranging from simple urinals to the 'double-sided conveniences' put up in Amsterdam. In those days public conveniences were considered to be great improvements. But the urinals were difficult to keep clean and gave off bad smells. They gradually disappeared and people in urgent need of a toilet were forced to go to cafes or restaurants and public buildings.

This shortage of conveniences inspired designers to think of cleaner facilities. In the last century the so-called 'sanisettes' appeared in French towns. Each time it has been used, this toilet facility is thoroughly cleaned, disinfected, blown dry and sprayed with a fresh smell.

Occasionally one may still come across a public urinal. Some were kept for cultural or architectural reasons, some were based on the pattern of the old double-sided conveniences. Public conveniences may be found in places with a bustling nigh life, they may be made of synthetic materials and put up temporarily. But the times that there were toilets in public places are long gone, apart from lavatories at railway stations or in restaurants. Though public conveniences may have a fishy reputation in our part of the world, considerable progress was made in African and Asian countries.

Thema 10: Going to the toilet when travelling

We think nothing of taking a plane, train or the car to travel anywhere. Sometimes there is no getting away from it: we badly need to use a toilet. If you are lucky there is toilet paper. You are in even greater luck when the previous user only had to pee. Although the development took some time, it is nowadays possible to find a toilet when travelling.

In the course of the 19th century the first toilets appeared in a number of first class railway carriages, but it was only after World War II that they became commonplace in all classes. Nowadays toilets can be found in all Dutch trains, apart from a small number of fast local or regional trains. Alternatives such as pee-pouches were no success. Travellers, after all, need the privacy offered by a cubicle with a door that they can lock behind them.

It took some specialist chemical expertise to design a toilet suitable for use in planes. The waste material is flushed away and pulverised, after filtration the water can be used once more to flush the toilet. Astronauts used to wear diapers under their spacesuits. And it is not hard to imagine the working of the modern 'vacuum toilet' that makes use of suction to remove faeces and urine. The waste material is broken down into the various biological elements and stored in plastic bags.

Theme 11: Healthy bowel movement

Now and again we may suffer from diarrhoea. Or constipation. Sometimes we must break wind more than is usual. But most of them everything is just fine. The poo lands effortlessly in the china bowl, the pee rains down. Breaking wind is no cause for concern. But many people suffer from chronical and awkward problems when they have to perform these bodily functions.

But there are scores of aids to alleviate the discomfort. Think of the urinals and bedpans of earlier days and today's incontinence diapers and stomas. Think of the ancient enema syringes and laxatives, think of modern faecal transplantations and diets tuned to a patient's needs.

The way poo or pee smells, looks or the way they leave the body are so many indications as to the state of a person's health. So take a look at what you left behind in the bowl and note the colour of your pee before you flush it all away. All sorts of complaints can be tracked down by taking a close look at faeces or urine. Traditionally this is done in laboratories, but development work is carried out on toilets that monitor faeces and analyse urine to check the state of your health.

Cube in Residence programma: Cube Call 'Think Shit!

The future of our toilets. How will we design our loos in the future? How can we use technical and social designs to improve hygiëne in partner countries? How can we reduce the enviromental effects and develop a circulair proces? How will the toilet of the future look? For the new exhibition Cube design museum has asked a group of enthousiastic students to look into those questions and more. Read more on this subject at the Cube Calls. The current students of the Cube In Residence program are now more than a month busy with these cases. On 16 march 2017 they presented their first findings on the call: Think Shit. 

Cube call: Think Shit!

What will our future toilet look like? Gina Hooiveld (TU/e), Nono Leermakers (TU/e), Raoul Smeets (IPO) and Imke van de Weijer (IPO) have been on a quest to find the wishes, needs and challenges of visitors of Cube design museum regarding the toilet. They found three important themes: Health, experience and enviroment.

Karolina Thakker has a different approach. For her thesis Industrial Design Engineering (Haagse Hogeschool) she's researching the possibilties for a toilet as ‘home health device’. Can we analyse our feces at home - before the flush - to improve our personal health?

This exhibition has been developed thanks to:

Onze partners: Design Indaba, Sulabh International Social Service Organisation and the World Toilet Organisation, and support of:



Everything you always wanted to know about Toilets*