The room of the body
reading time: 7 minutes
Over the last sixty years, one place within the home has undergone an amazing transformation: in its meaning, image and role. The bathroom.
From a technical utility (a reductive but appropriate term) merely providing hygiene, to a place for wellbeing and for expressing the individual lifestyle.
The journey between these two extremes has been shaped by changes in behaviours, cultural acquisitions, developments in taste, aesthetic paradigms and semantic codes.
In fact, the history of Italian society and our way of life has evolved in parallel with that of industry and design. It is worth taking a brief look back over this history to enhance our understanding of the present, from the original viewpoint of changes in the world of the bathroom and its main raw material: ceramics.
Starting from the Sixties, the bathroom gradually shed its 'utility' status to acquire a new position within the home's hierarchy of spaces: a private room, still dedicated to hygiene, but worth proudly displaying to visiting guests.
In this period, the (new) role of the architect-designer was fundamental. We need only remember Gio Ponti, and his importance in the ceramic sanitary ware and coverings industry.
Suddenly, sanitary fixtures could be viewed as sculptures, and tiles as interior design items in their own right.
The Seventies brought major technical innovations (Marazzi patented the single-fired tile process and launched the first 'large' size, 60x60 cm) and experimentation with aesthetic effects, especially colours, which verged on the psychedelic.
Haute couture also began to migrate onto ceramic surfaces, in a trend consolidated in the following decade, when the bathroom became a space specifically dedicated to health and beauty, a location for fulfilling the individual's narcissistic expectations.
The growing importance of the image also transformed the way products were marketed: top photographers produced advertising campaigns for the industry's leading brands, which also drew on creative inputs from artists.
Aided and abetted by the Starck revolution, bathroom design underwent a period of destructuring, with the first free-standing washbasins, which broke down the functions of the traditional vanity unit and marked a turn away from mass production to the one-off piece.
Technology at the service of wellbeing swept the board, making a status symbol of the hydromassage tub, while plastics, metals and resin began to undermine the monopoly of ceramics.
In the Nineties, there was another conceptual revolution.
The principle of cleansing the mind as well as the body emerged: use of the bathroom acquired psychological implications, alongside a new focus on protecting the environment, natural materials and minimalism of form.
With the new millennium the hierarchical relationship between the rooms in the home was transformed again.
The bathroom began to interact with the rest of the house in a different, more fluid way, in a blend of individualism and micro-socialisation: it became not only a gym or a private beauty centre but also a library or a lounge, perhaps with a sculpture-like tub standing in the middle of the room as a metaphoric substitute for the sofa. In other words, the bathroom became a place to be lived in.
The amazing acceleration in technological research and innovation in the last twenty years means that now every architectural ambition can be realised.
Porcelain stoneware enhances the performances of ceramics in sustainability and other areas, exploring minimal thicknesses and daring to adopt extra-large sizes; decoration is no longer merely a factor of surface design but involves three-dimensional expression and textures; and digital printing enables ceramics to take on the appearance of almost any other material, in a form of hyper-realism, or (re)invention of nature itself.
So today's bathroom embraces all the trends of past decades as just described, while also expressing cultural references, social behaviours, and widely differing attitudes to home life. Liberation from technical constraints (concerning production, sizes, mechanical strength, durability and care) has gone hand-in-hand with the acceptance of multiple aesthetic codes, viewed as the mirror of the individual lifestyle, with the utmost personalisation the main objective. The result is the co-existence of even conflicting trends. Coordinated design scheme or destructuring, ostentation or intimacy, decorative exuberance or minimalism, a Mediterranean mood (majolica or cement tiles) or Nordic purity (wood, neutral colours), natural or man-made, high-tech or craftsmanship, nostalgia or avant-garde.
Another contemporary trend is a fresh, experiential vision of the bathroom. While in past times the design benchmark was the archetypal bourgeois salle de bain, nowadays there are other templates, such as spas (hedonistic places of physical and mental regeneration), or design/boutique hotels (a relaxation experience of original luxury, in a complete break with daily life). New public images of wellbeing, to be transported into the home. All firmly centred on the individual.