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The Aesthetics of the Urinal

The urinal at the Scott-Amundsen South Pole Station, located about 350 metres from the true South Pole, but drifting towards it at 10 metres a year. Photo: Curtis B., courtesy urinal.net

From a very young age, men learn that there are specific rules about using a row of urinals in a public restroom. If you somehow missed being adequately socialized in your school restroom, you can learn these rules from any one of the 98 videos about “Urinal Etiquette” on youtube.com.  The trickiest part of the code of conduct is the choosing of one urinal from the row. Unfortunately, once the choice is made, the code also mandates silent concentration upon the task at hand. Certainly no time is to be wasted in appreciating the design of the urinal.

As an industrial design student, however, I spent six weeks interning with one of India’s major sanitaryware manufacturers. The brief of my first professional design project – to design a urinal with an integrated electronic flushing system – was an education in itself, staking out as it did the major components that differentiate one white ceramic blob from the other.

The urinal I designed in 2005, currently being sold at eparryware.com

“Integrated” implied that the inlet and the flushing mechanism would be discreetly hidden within the clay body, not shine in all their stainless steel glory on top of the urinal. Nor would there be a metal lever to operate the electronic sensor-driven flush. Another defining factor in most urinals is whether the outlet pipe goes vertically into the floor, or horizontally into the wall behind. American urinals invariably have piping concealed in the wall, but Indian builders tend not to be as thoughtful. When my rather complicated design finally began to sell in stores, I realized what all the fuss was about. The price difference between a premium urinal and a basic one can be as much as $400.

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain was voted the most influential piece of modern art in a 2004 BBC survey.

That is nothing compared to the $1.7 million that a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain fetched in a Southeby’s auction in 1999. But essential to the irony of the artwork is the fact that it was a cheap, generic urinal sold by the manufacturer Mott Works in 1917. The flat back and simple pipe hole suggest that it was designed to be flushed with an overhead cistern operated by a pull-chain. The manufacturing processes of the time meant that urinals with generous curves were more easily and cheaply mass produced.

Today’s urinals have few such limitations, thanks to a superior ceramic material that doesn’t distort as much when it dries.  And given the fact that most of the functional differentiators such as flushers, sensors, and plumbing tend to be concealed, the form possibilities for the visible part are potentially limitless. The recently developed waterless urinals have even fewer limits on their shape, since they don’t need a flushing system at all. Duravit’s Modern waterless urinal is ironically shaped like a drop of water.

Duravit's waterless urinal. Photo courtesy duravit.com

Such an innovative shape, however, is still the exception among urinals. In practice, they usually don’t stray very far from basic geometric shapes for their openings. The urinals in the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole, manufactured by Kohler, have a rectangular opening. American Standard, which makes over 25% of the plumbing fixtures sold in the United States, always uses defined edges and square shapes to differentiate itself in a market dominated by curvy shapes. My own urinal design had a triangular opening.

A square American Standard urinal, a triangular urinal designed by Japanese group Toto, and Phillipe Starck's cone designed for Duravit.

As in many other products, minimal geometry commands higher prices, because of its connotations of precision and, more importantly in this case, cleanliness. The first urinal that Philip Starck designed for Duravit in 2004 was not much more than a cone attached to a wall. For $750, men can buy into its promise to swiftly funnel away its contents. But of course, they will have to learn to aim carefully at its rather small circular opening.

The size and shape of a urinal’s opening give it character, influencing its use to greater or lesser extents. A small, angled opening like Starck’s require the user to stand close to the unit, but its circular shape must feel a bit intrusive. American Standard’s square urinals have a completely open face with an extended lip at the bottom. And this lip is generally triangular, naturally suggesting the position of the user’s legs. The most open and welcoming of all urinals is the old-fashioned full stall, with an opening that extends all the way to the floor. The urinal of choice for public restrooms in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the full stall nonetheless had its own subtle ways of encouraging good behavior – like footrests which suggested that users fully face the urinal while using it, minimizing the inevitable splattering.

19th Century full stall urinals from Rothesay, Scotland. Note the mosaic footrests. Photo courtesy urinal.net

It isn’t especially far-fetched to see the urinal not as a neutral receptacle, but as a device primarily designed to control how men urinate. The history of the object is rooted in mechanisms of control. The earliest public urinals were installed by the Roman emperor Vespasien in 70 AD, who used them to enforce a Urine Tax originally dreamed up by his predecessor Nero. The use of the urinals themselves was free, the tax being levied on those who collected the urine and used it in tanneries. Citizens were thus encouraged to use the public urinals, not just for sanitary reasons, but because it ultimately enriched the State.

The good citizens of pre-revolutionary Paris were apparently given to answering the call of nature by dark street sides, or along any available shrubbery, until Louis XV put a stop to that by royal decree. Instead, the commissioner of police had barrels placed at street corners. It was not until 1841 that proper public restrooms were built along the streets of Paris. These green metal enclosures, each containing two full stall urinals, were nicknamed Vespasiennes, after the enterprising Roman emperor. They remained a distinctive fixture of Parisian streets until the 1980s, when they were replaced with slick stainless steel restrooms called Sanisettes.

The last surviving Vespasienne, on the boulevard Arago in Paris. Photo: Anthony Atkielski.

Public men’s restrooms are governed by unspoken rules precisely because they are such masculine spaces. The urinals in those spaces become symbols of regulated behavior, because any appearance of unsanitariness can condemn you in the eyes of strangers. This might be why urinals haven’t yet found a place in the bathroom at home. Some models, like the compact Oblic manufactured by Villeroy & Boch, are specially designed to fit snugly into odd corners in small domestic bathrooms; but the urinal can’t seem to shake off the aura of the men’s room.

We have always uneasily sensed the taboos surrounding men’s urinals, so they have been easy targets for subversion, Marcel Duchamp onwards. The Vespasiennes of Paris, as enclosed spaces that accommodated two men, were also very popular as a cruising spot for gay men. In the past few years, it became quite the rage for bars and pubs to have outrageous urinals – steel troughs, holes in a box, water fountains, even life-size pictures of women staring at you while you use little steel funnels. San Francisco-based artist Clark Sorensen created urinals shaped like calla lilies and orchids for a show called Nature’s Call. Virgin Atlantic’s restrooms at New York’s JFK airport nearly ended up with urinals shaped like open female mouths with red lipstick, designed by Dutch designer Meike van Schijndel. Luckily, enough outraged female customers complained to dissuade Virgin Atlantic from its plans.

Clark Sorensen's orchid urinal and Meike van Schijndel's open-mouthed urinals. Photo courtesy urinal.net

The most daring subversion of a urinal—even greater than Duchamp’s—was by the artist Pierre Pinoncelli. In 1983, when Duchamp’s Fountain was on display in Nimes, France, 64 year-old Pinoncelli walked up to it, and finally put it to the use it was originally designed for.



One Comment

  1. Aditya wrote:

    Speaking of aesthetics I couldn’t help chuckling at the “available in all colours” option on the eparryware site, just in case someone fancies themselves as the next Duchamp and orders the one in orange (or is that tangerine sunset).

    On another note the fake-fly-in-the-urinal has become pretty popular. The most famous of which is in Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport according to this enlightening post
    http://www.cromwell-intl.com/toilet/netherlands.html

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