Kohler designer Mark Bickerstaffe talks new products and the bathroom of the future with Ola Bednarczuk.
September 14th, 2011
“We’re surrounded by clutter. There’s so much stuff around us,” says Mark Bickerstaffe, Kohler’s Director of New Product Development, Kitchen and Bath, Europe & Asia Pacific.
“The challenge for designers now is to do things that are truly useful, truly beautiful and truly new, and not just keep churning out variations of the same thing.”
Bickerstaffe first studied engineering, followed by design at the Royal College of Art in London. After 10 years leading James Dyson’s team producing vacuum cleaners, he started his own business designing and making lights before Kohler snapped him up. He’s now been with the company for almost 8 years, creating bathroom and kitchen products that at once reflect and pre-empt the needs of modern life.
“The interesting thing about bathrooms and Kohler is it’s a business that has the means to create a whole environment,” says Bickerstaffe of his work.
“It’s about understanding what people are dreaming of and why they want it, and projecting forward so that we can deliver those things when they want them.
“We’re not like a fashion company; everything takes a minimum of 12 months (or longer) to get from the idea through to the product, so you’re trying to second guess all the time.”
One of the most exciting recent Kohler product launches, sadly not yet available in Australia, is Numi, a toilet-meets-personal-hygiene unit.
“Instead of it looking like this horrible machine, it actually looks like a really cool product,” Bickerstaffe says.
“It’s very refined; everything is integrated. You can’t really tell that it’s got all this extra functionality. It just looks like a really sculptural, minimal object.”
Numi is operated by a touchscreen remote control, has a foot warmer for colder climates and a sensor that allows the lid to be opened without being touched.
A product like Numi comes about from “talking to people and listening quite deeply and not judging,” Bickerstaffe says.
“Being Kohler, we can’t just throw a product out there – we have to lead. So we spend a lot of time researching consumers to get a deeper understanding, and use that to derive what the product actually is. Does it pass the test? Do people desire it as an object, not just a functional thing? Which is hard for a toilet!”
Kohler’s products foretell bathroom possibilities that are much closer than some might imagine. The bathroom of the future, says Bickerstaffe, won’t be about “swooping futuristic environments.”
It will be more about functionality and user interface.
“You’ll be able to use the surfaces of your bathroom to communicate, to watch TV, to listen to music without it being a hassle and without it being a huge change to your bathroom,” Bickerstaffe says.
“Smart storage is going to be huge – everyone wants really good storage like you get in your kitchen and bathroom.”
Improved lighting and, of course, re-use of water are also set to be key components of our bathrooms. Most importantly, people’s perception of what the bathroom is and does will undergo a radical shift.
“Bathrooms don’t have to be these material blocks,” Bickerstaffe explains. “All those divides and boundaries have been broken down, so there’ll be a lot more intermixing of materials and sensitivity, or sensuousness.
“People want to feel more touch. Bathrooms are a very private space, a very tactile space, and they’ve been quite cold and clinical for many years. I think that’s going to shift now, and that’s where we’re going to start to really push stylistically and bring in that emotional content through the bathroom.”
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