A brush with better design

Nanjing Night Net

At last the toilet brush is out there as a fashionable signifier of rebellion. Earlier this year in Hamburg, Germany, protesters – largely members of the Pirate Party – began taunting police by brandishing toilet brushes, like warriors rattling sabres. The Hamburghers’ objection? Random police searches in the city’s danger zones. And they didn’t mean its bathrooms.

Online, cheeky German culturejammers tweeted mock-heroic posters: Harry Potter casting a bristled wand. A doctored Banksy bandito hurling an incendiary brush. And Braveheart’s Mel Gibson screaming out that what’s at stake is FREEDOM.

Not since Philippe Starck redesigned the Excalibur toilet brush in the mid-’90s has the quotidian product had such bad-boy cachet.

Perhaps it’s time to make it a poster boy of product design – to stand up and say ”I’m glad as hell”.

Toilet brushes rarely if ever win awards. Yet they are further confirmation that everything is designed. They are the utilitarian tool. The epitome of functionality.

Ironically while they are the product we love to hate – a begrudging purchase for a loathsome task – millions of brushes are sold each year. Surprisingly, sales spike at Christmas. Not for reasons of gift giving. People want to make sure they have pristine porcelain when guests arrive, says industrial designer Paul Charlwood.

The award-winning designer of the Commonwealth Games torch, among dozens of other products, Charlwood’s consultancy has for the past nine years designed brushes of every stripe for venerable Australian manufacturer Oates. His brooms recently featured in Melbourne Now’s design wall – but you can view them on any supermarket rack.

Charlwood modestly downplays the attention. ”It’s not rocket science,” he says. Maybe. Nevertheless, failure is not an option. Consider for a fleeting moment the full horror of a product malfunction. Bristles that fold, flick or fail to release residue. A handle that isn’t long enough or snaps because it’s too thin. A receptacle bowl that doesn’t air and retains smelly run off.

It’s a tough job, but someone with a cool head has to consider it.

When Charlwood and the Oates poobahs test their products in a disabled toilet the Kenny jokes are kept to a minimum. It’s a ”deadly serious” business, says Charlwood.

Just what sort of bristles work the right magic? As it happens it’s the same material our food containers are made from, polypropylene. It’s a long way from pig and horse hair stuck into a block of wood.

The biggest factor in the evolution of the toilet brush is that toilets themselves have changed over the past decade. Modish commodes that adopt squarer geometries make it difficult to delve into tight corners. More significantly, sustainable toilets use less water, but narrower ”throats” create problems for cleaning. With this in mind the ball of bristles undergoes some topiary. ”It’s like doing hair cuts,” says Charlwood.

While there is an appreciable difference in quality between the budget ball brush and the Oates stainless steel petal canister, people don’t tend to spend time looking for it. ”It’s an impulse buy,” says Charlwood. ”It’s not something people do a lot of research on.”

And yet, every so often, toilet brushes become fashionable; the de rigueur item for designers to fiddle with.

”It’s one of those funny things – a bit like with dildos,” Charlwood muses. ”You’re surprised how many big-name designers have done vibrators. It was one of those must-do type things.”

Alongside Starck, star designers to turn their hand to the brush include Ross Lovegrove’s exotic Istanbul range from 2006 and Michael Graves’ offering for Target. Marc Newson has also entered the bathroom arena with a colourful Caroma product, which Charlwood hopes will ignite the industry and see a return to colour. ”It’s been white and stainless steel for years,” he says.

Today bathroom palettes are more reminiscent of day spas, says Kim Chadwick, managing consultant at Colourways, Australia’s leading forecaster. ”Grey and charcoal will continue to be popular in floor tiles. The ideal or obvious thing is to mimic the floor tile. The more camouflaged they could be, the better.


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