When bathroom manufacturer Ideal-Standard decided to introduce a space-saving range of bathroom furniture, it invited architect Isobel Coomber to join the development team. Coomber had worked with housing associations and local councils, and also had a portfolio of private projects involving small-scale domestic bathrooms and wcs.
The team included representatives from Ideal-Standard's marketing, manufacturing and technical departments, and product designer Robin Levien of Queensberry Hunt Levien (see page 18). Levien had already designed several products for Ideal-Standard, including the Studio range which appeared in the early 1980s. Coomber was familiar with the Studio range and admired it greatly; the new Space range was conceived as an evolution of Studio and would be fully compatible with it. Unusually, the working title has stuck.
At one of the first team meetings at Ideal-Standard headquarters in Kingston upon Hull, Coomber was presented with a mass of information. Ideal-Standard had called in drawings of typical bathrooms and wcs from the major uk house builders. It had also contacted previous customers and invited them to send in plans of their bathrooms. These came complete with snapshots of fluffy pink seat covers but they provided invaluable data for Coomber, enabling her to produce plans that represented realistic spaces.
Although the brochures produced by manufacturers commonly show ballroom- sized bathrooms, with floor to ceiling villaesque windows, these are the stuff of dreams: the average uk bathroom measures 3.5m2, the size of a king-sized bed. Yet early on the team decided that Space fittings should not be miniature versions of the real thing. For example, a wash basin has to hold 6 litres of useable water; anything smaller is technically only a hand-rinse basin.
At Ideal-Standard's factory, the team created a 'Space Lab' containing mock-ups of typical bathroom/ wc spaces - under-stairs cubby-holes, en- suite units carved out of master bedrooms, spaces that dominate the bathroom refurbishment market.
'We looked at existing situations,' says Coomber, 'typical sizes and shapes and tried to work out how appliances could be arranged and how the shape and size of fittings could be altered.' This open-minded approach produced the revolutionary idea of a wc seat which could be installed on a 45degrees angle where walls or radiators were too close for a comfortable front-facing position.
Coomber was responsible for making sure that the mock-up spaces in the lab represented real situations, that three-dimensional aspects such as head height were being considered and that solutions were tested against standard space data. 'I had to keep these spaces practical,' she says. 'And I was constantly producing drawings showing different products in a wealth of different spaces.'
A recent television programme, Designs on Your Loo, portrayed an antagonistic relationship between designer and manufacturer. Coomber's experience with Ideal-Standard was very different. 'They were incredibly refreshing and very exciting to work with. Everything was being pushed and pulled to its limits. The team was quite passionate about the project. We wanted to see what we could offer that would excite people and encourage the market.'
From the beginning the project was thoughtfully handled - pr people at Ideal-Standard were brought in at an early stage so that they would be thoroughly familiar with Space by the time it came on the market this August; graphic designers were interviewed and the selected company, Broadbase, has produced exemplary brochures with detailed drawings as well as concept sketches and photographs, one for the professional market, one for domestic customers.
Ideal-Standard has a long-standing working relationship with Robin Levien. The decision to employ an architect is a further step forward. Coomber believes that architectural involvement in such projects is an obvious move for manufacturers. 'Because of the way sanitaryware is used, the feedback from an architect, as well as the designer and manufacturer, has to be reflected in the product. It seems very sensible and it should apply to other areas of product design.'