An ingenious example of the product-situation cycle could once be found in a Quebec waterfront hotel called L’Hotel Louis XIV, lamentably destroyed by fire in the 1980s. At the Louis XIV, the term “private bath” meant what it means in many European hotels: the bath is yours but not yours alone, for it is also the private bath of the guest on the other side of the bathroom. This creates a problem. If the problem has no inside locks, you have no privacy. But if the doors can be locked from the inside, one forgetful guest can lock the other out indefinitely and almost surely will.
Well, there were no locks on the bathroom doors of the Louis XIV, but tied to each doorknob was a three-and-a-half-foot length of leather thong to which a hook was attached. When you were in the bathroom you simply linked the two hooks together, holding both doors shut. There was no way to get back into your own room without at the same time unlocking the door for the other guest. It was memorable as the total integration of object and circumstance.
As a rule, bathrooms in themselves are notoriously ill designed, a situation that has been documented in great detail by a number of studies, most notably a massive one done at Cornell University in 1966. Bathroom fixtures may be our best illustration of the phenomenon Elizabeth Gundrey talks about—the tendency for inadequate designs to spawn product lines to make up for their inadequacy (see page 123). Bathroom boutiques and the bath departments of large department stores are all filled with conveniences that have had to be invented because the room itself was not properly designed in the first place.
Probably the worst designed feature of the bathroom is the standard toilet. As product design, it may promote disease by placing the seat too high to permit the optimal posture for complete evacuation. As situation design it is not even comfortable for reading.
The public lavatory presents special problems, most of them having to do with maintenance. Stores, restaurants, gas stations, transportation terminals—to say nothing of the planes and trains themselves—all provide public necessities that the management is unable, or unwilling, to keep clean. The pious injunction ordering all employees to wash their hands before leaving has connotations that make the whole experience less appetizing rather than reassuring.
Dirt is one problem of the public lavatory; vandalism is another. While this sometimes takes the form of stolen paper and dispensers ripped from the wall, it is more likely to be expressed as graffiti. The United States Forest Service has funded the development of improved outhouses, with both interior and exterior surfaces that resist writing and carving. In an unusually creative response to graffiti, a New York City public school at one point included in a maintenance man’s duties the transformation of the word fuck into book, with a magic marker.
While the public lavatory may be seen as a situation desperately in need of design, it is frequently also an instrument of situation design. Gas stations discourage, or even prohibit, the use of restrooms by motorists who do not buy gas. The restroom thus becomes a sort of merchandising device, just as service used to be. The withholding of relief is often incorporated into the design of service stations, stores, restaurants, and even municipal governments. In the 1960s enraged and offended by the presence of hippies, the Aspen, Colorado, City Council blocked the construction of public restroom facilities, apparently in the belief that if young people had no access to public toilets, they would go on to the next town, or even the next state. Neither nature nor rebellion works quite this way. The hippies demonstrated, in more ways than one, and eventually a public facility was built, although I could never find it.