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Out of the Water Closet From the Outhouse to the Gallery, Bathroom Fixtures Are Now Works of Art

AMONG THE ADJECTIVES least often used by my friends to describe me are “tidy” and “fastidious.” I share this with you not in any spirit of ugly self-revelation but merely to acknowledge that what follows is not intended as a critique of anyone else’s lifestyle. The pot, having called itself black, moves on.

I had a chance recently to get a fresh perspective on an aspect of modern life that, if we’re lucky and our personal plumbing doesn’t obsess us, escapes much notice. In a Westside community filled with galleries, tucked away among the art spaces is a gallery of another sort, a continuing exhibition of what can only be called world-class bathroom fixtures.

To walk through this wonderland of golden faucets, onyx bathtubs and commodes whose seats are more commodious than most couches is to understand how close the bathroom is to the American soul.

A good number of us, after all, still rate the foreign places we visit on the basis of how closely their toilet paper resembles our own. And yet, many of us are no more than a generation away from an outhouse. Some of us are only a phone call away. So the grandeur of the fixtures, the incredible luxuries one can lavish upon oneself while taking care of personal business may be the most poignant way of telling ourselves how far we have truly come.

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It may also be a way of erecting a wall of marble against the possibility of slipping back.

When you see this stuff one bathroom at a time, the idea of water pouring out of a silver eagle’s mouth into a basin rimmed with Broadway marquee lights can seem at least marginally sensible. There is a hotel in Washington, D.C., for example, in which CBS occasionally puts me up for a night, where the bellperson always reassures the visitor that he has made the proper choice of accommodations: “You know, sir, we have the best bathrooms in Washington.”

And I can say, without having conducted a scientific survey of the porcelain palaces of our nation’s capital, that it could be true. A shower stall built for two; a tub long enough for Manute Bol to stretch out in; a phone beside the toilet, which has been thoughtfully tucked away in a separate chamber, and enough marble to choke a bank lobby.

As a visitor to Washington, you can somehow convince yourself that all this is desirable and appropriate. After all, emissaries from a variety of foreign lands might be staying here, and they are sophisticated enough that it takes more than whisper-soft toilet paper to impress them.

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But when you see hundreds of elaborate objets de bain lovingly displayed together in a showroom, like art pieces, you get the idea that we are building monumental shrines to our most basic needs. Parents should be taking their 2-year-olds to gaze at such a collection, promising, “If you learn potty well, one day some of this will be yours.”

For here is the Plaza Toilet (shown in bone), the Pompei Lav sink, the Galleria Pedestal sink, the faucet handles with faux granite rings, the Windsor faucet in satin gold (the handles look like gilded capitol domes, gold tassels flying off the tops) and the Georgia sink in raspberry puree.

I’ve always thought people who named stuff had the great jobs of the world. Someone gives wallpaper, carpeting, shoes, towels and sheets the fanciful nomenclature that summons up images of the Riviera, or the South Seas, or the heavens. But the folks who are paid to name the shapes and shades of sinks and toilets must be laughing all the way to the cash machine.

Showrooms such as the one I roamed through don’t raise to absurd heights the bathroom alone. The kitchen is widely predicted, by those wide predictors I’ve admired earlier in this space, to be the most important room of the ‘90s home, and so kitchen design is running similarly amok. But kitchens have a professional standard against which their equipment and decor can be measured and to which they can aspire. In the salles de bains , all bets are off; there, we are all professionals, and, sadly, we are all amateurs.

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The ultrafine fixtures seem part of an elaborate spectacle to convince someone (ourselves? our visitors? our cleaning personnel?) that something grand and magnificent and imperial goes on in the bathroom. Somebody else is spending all his time in there flossing and peering at hairlines and poking at pimples and performing similarly grubby but necessary tasks.

The hauteur of certain outposts of the individual waste-disposal business is especially piquant in light of the squalor that attends our communal attempts to do the same job. Our landfills, full to bursting, are not lined in marble. Our storm drains, dumping old motor oil into the ocean, do not boast golden gratings. Old Styrofoam, our gift to the ages, is not gift-wrapped in raspberry puree.

But, one bathroom at a time, we are making this planet a more exalted place to be. Hey, I’ll see you at the Plaza. Toilet, that is.


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