Rethinking the World of Bathroom Design

March 2022

When we look at – or sit on – a toilet, we see a cold impersonal item, an object of mass production that is simply there to take care of our basic human needs. Its aseptic appearance makes us forget that it is made out of natural and organic materials. Yet this ceramic product is made out of nothing more than water, clay and kaolin and born out of the union of the four natural elements: earth and water are mixed and the resulting material is dried in air then cooked in fire.

Internationally renowned bathroom company LAUFEN knows a thing or two about ceramics as a leader in the Swiss and Austrian markets, where it holds 70% and 60% shares respectively. Founded in 1892, the company started producing sanitary ware in 1925 and in the 1950s began its international expansion. In 2007 it expanded its expertise and skills to bathroom faucets and is currently experiencing double-digit annual growth rates. Its strength, however, lies not in quantity but in quality. That’s because the recipe for making sanitary ware is simple; it’s the quality of the ingredients and the proportions used that make all the difference. As well as the ability to maintain a high standard of quality throughout the industrial production process. Ceramic pieces are tricky as they shrink during the drying and firing phases of production. Accurately predicting how an object will shrink is an art form that requires a great deal of expertise, as is controlling the transformation the objects undergo while in the kiln.

Through its R+D, LAUFEN has managed to push the boundaries of bathroom design and is now known around the world for the unique shapes, dimensions and designs it is capable of achieving. In great part this is thanks to the invention of SaphirKeramik, a material launched by LAUFEN in 2013 that achieves subtlety and defined lines while retaining strength. This has, in turn, led to a revolution in bathroom design and regular collaborations with designers, artists and brands that drive innovation within the firm. When working with a designer or brand the company doesn’t set a brief or define expectations but gives them the freedom to experiment and push the limits of what the company can do.

Designers LAUFEN has worked with in the past include the likes of Patricia Urquiola, Toan Nguyen, Marcel Wanders, Stefano Giovannoni and Konstantin Grcic, while collaborations with companies include a partnership with Italian brand Kartell that launched in 2013 and has resulted in a line of products characterized by colour and translucency. A joint project with Swiss company Noventa, on the other hand, led to the development of a new typology of shower toilets, which LAUFEN perfected by concealing all the components inside the ceramic body. The Cleanet Riva model is now one of LAUFEN's flagship products thanks to its technology that is enclosed in a minimal and elegant design.

LAUFEN is known for being a pioneer. They launched the first wall-mounted toilet in the 1960s, then a high-pressure casting system to produce sanitary ware in the 1980s and the first free-standing sink in 2002 in collaboration with Alessi. Today LAUFEN's research is driven by the pursuit of sustainability. As Cristiane Kopp, LAUFEN’s Sustainability Manager says: “It is true that the ingredients are natural, but that alone doesn’t ensure the products’ sustainablility. During production we recycle everything we can; water too is used in a loop. But there are some processes that still need to be improved. For the kilns we have to use natural gas and currently there isn't a readily available solution to transition to a renewable energy source; this is a challenge for the whole industry." In the past couple of years there has been a shift at LAUFEN in its approach to sustainability. As Kopp explains, "while in the past we acted on a site-by-site basis, in 2019 a sustainability committee was appointed to centralize efforts and accelerate change, while also incorporating the company's social impact too. In addition a group-wide partnership has been signed with Schneider Electric for the decarbonization of production. Overall, there are currently 40 ongoing projects within the company to increase its sustainability performance: from a thorough decarbonisation roadmap through to a drastic reduction of plastic consumption in logistics and communication material for internal training."

But change shouldn’t only take place at the production level, the company believes. It is necessary to reflect on the sustainability of the entire sanitation infrastructure. Today LAUFEN collaborates with organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, EOOS NEXT and the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (EAWAG is the German acronym), one of the world’s leading water research organizations that has been examining potential alternative ways to reduce pollution from wastewater since the mid-1990s. One particularly interesting direction identified by EAWAG is Source Separation Technology, which involves separating urine from the rest of the sanitary wastewater at the source. If the different types of wastewater are kept separate rather than mixed, these different streams can be sustainably processed and usable resources can be extracted. The scientists at EAWAG have developed a process for recovering nutrients from urine while removing micro-pollutants such as hormones and medical residues using small, highly efficient decentralized reactors. As a result, around 80 percent of the nitrogen found in sewage can be removed from the wastewater stream, which will in turn reduce the resources required to operate treatment plants.

Austrian design studio EOOS has worked with EAWAG and LAUFEN to develop a pioneering urine-diverting toilet that revolutionises the user interface for sustainable urban water management. Called save!, it is an evolution of the pioneering Blue Diversion Toilet, which was developed by EOOS and EAWAG and supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This WC passively separates urine from solids and flushing water so it can be treated using a fast, simple, and organic wastewater management process developed by Vuna, a spinoff of EAWAG in Zurich. The key innovation with the save! toilet is a ‘Urine Trap’ invented by EOOS Design, which directs urine towards a concealed outlet using only surface tension. LAUFEN applied this concept to a new toilet design featuring a ceramic bowl that is optimally shaped to guide water flow. Computational fluid dynamics simulations developed by ETH Zurich, one of the world's leading universities in science and technology, were used to optimize the inner geometries. No major change in user behaviour is required, though men must sit while urinating.

save! recently won the bi-annual Design Prize Switzerland in the product consumer category and is the latest example of LAUFEN's continued dedication to the subtle and intelligent combination of technology and design. Creating a contemporary bathroom is about more than just aesthetics and even functionality. It’s also about sustainability and the preservation of precious resources.

by Silvia Anna Barrilà

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Complex or very large items are glazed by hand, as are small batches in unusual colours or of rare models. This accounts for approximately 5% of production. Photo: Martino Lombezzi.
LAUFEN creates its own moulds for the production of its ceramic products. The production of each new plaster mould requires expert know-how and the mastery of a multitude of manual tools. Photo: Martino Lombezzi.
The imposing tunnel kiln is more than 100 meters long. At any one time, there will be 50 wagons in the kiln, which is heated 24 hours a day. Photo: Martino Lombezzi.
Once a new model has been cast and fired, it is examined and analysed, inside and out, with the greatest precision. Photo: Martino Lombezzi.
Faucet pieces in the initial stages of production, having just come out of the foundry. Photo: Martino Lombezzi.
This article appeared in DAM80. Order your personal copy.