What a Way to Go: Architects
Get Lavish With Public Lavatories
July 20, 2000

Call it a new form of bathroom humor.

When visitors to Town, a restaurant opening this fall at a new hotel in Manhattan, need to heed nature's call, they will be greeted by a wall decorated with hundreds of small plastic snow globes, each featuring a tiny Statue of Liberty suspended in a puddle of glittery, blue-colored water. "Bathrooms create a slightly awkward situation," says David Rockwell, the architect who designed the restaurant and its lavatories, "so you want something that makes people smile."

Public restrooms -- those usually nondescript cubicles of tile, formica and gray metal doors -- are going far out and upscale. Architects and interior designers are flush with new ideas to make restrooms as stylish as the restaurants, museums and libraries where they are located. With their increasingly quirky features, bathrooms can even be a venue's main draw.

"Don't miss the public restrooms!" Feedback, a travel guide for artists, designers and architects, declares about the main library in downtown Phoenix. The entryways to the lavatories are partitions made of translucent glass that change color every five seconds as tiny fiber-optic wires emit sparks of light.

"Bathrooms are for more than just relieving the kidneys," says Ian Schrager, owner of 16 boutique hotels in New York, Los Angeles, London and elsewhere. "It's about someone coming out with a smile on their face and wanting to tell their friends about it because it's fun."

Stylin' Restrooms: China Grill in Las Vegas (left) has translucent cabanas with small TVs, while Statue of Liberty snow globes (right) will grace bathroom walls at Town restaurant in New York Indeed, the men's room in the lobby of Mr. Schrager's Royalton Hotel in Manhattan is so popular that busloads of design students stop by just to see it, he says. It features a waterfall that pours into a recessed communal urinal made of brushed steel; the waterfall is triggered by infrared lights when a user steps into the room.

Downtown from the Royalton, the lavatories at Soho watering hole Bar 89 have their own following. Users of the bathrooms there -- a series of stalls lined in a hall -- must be careful to shut the door completely, because if they don't, the liquid-crystal glass doors stay clear.

"Anybody who gets off a plane, picks up a Zagat's [restaurant survey] and wants to see unique architecture comes over here," says Thomas McCormack, Bar 89's assistant general manager. "Sometimes I have to turn people away."

Jeffrey Beers, the New York-based architect and interior designer behind five restaurants for China Grill Management LLC, calls funky restrooms "a signature." His designs for the operator of flashy eateries include a large lounge area in the Miami China Grill's unisex restroom where guests can order drinks. There's also a series of 11 glass cabanas -- each with a small television playing music videos -- at the chain's Mandalay Bay casino site in Las Vegas. Bathroom users appear as fuzzy shadows through the cabanas' translucent glass, but it is difficult to make out specific forms. The restrooms were recently dubbed "Most Interesting Throne" in Las Vegas by the city's edition of tourist magazine Where.

Architects can be a bit more fanciful with restrooms than the main public space, where patrons spend most of their time, some designers say. Geoffrey Zakarian, Town's owner and chef, says he wouldn't want to try funkier design elements like Town's bathroom snow globes in a hotel lobby or restaurant dining room. "You can get away with a little more edginess" in the bathroom, he says.

For many architects, a restroom's design is as much about function as form. When architects at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill redesigned the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's building, they paid particular attention to practical features, such as installing shelves above stand-alone sinks so visitors wouldn't have to put programs and coats on wet countertops. The architects also extended the building's motif of musical notes and staffs to the restrooms, sandblasting notes into the glass shelves and using black-and-white tiles to evoke a piano keyboard.

In other cases, the bathroom's function can lead to experiments in form. In Los Angeles, architect Eric Owen Moss has taken inspiration from the federal requirement that all public restrooms accommodate the turning radius of a wheelchair. Instead of building a conventional square or rectangular restroom to comply with the code, Mr. Moss is installing two steel cylindrical towers into a new office building. Each of the towers, two stories high and topped with a skylight, will contain two restrooms with a toilet cubicle projecting off the cylinder.

"The circular design actually saves space," says Laurie Samitaur Smith, the building's developer along with her husband, Frederick. With square or rectangular restrooms, she says, architects have to design much larger facilities to accommodate wheelchairs.

Not everyone appreciates some of the more adventurous bathroom motifs. When home-style queen Martha Stewart had lunch with architect Mr. Rockwell at Nobu, an upscale sushi restaurant in Manhattan, she failed to recognize the gentle sounds of a waterfall trickling from the speakers mounted on the bathroom wall. Mr. Rockwell, who designed the lavatories, recalls that when she returned to the table, she told him that he'd better ask someone to check into the leak in the bathroom.

Some funky restroom designs should come with warning signs. At the BluePointe restaurant in Atlanta, a huge mirror divides the men's and women's rooms and is surrounded by a three-inch opening that permits users to hear conversations on the other side. First-time diner Steve Dimitrious says he witnessed the downside of the restroom's sound-permeable divider when a man washing his hands beside him overheard his date tell her friend, "This guy is a real deadbeat. Don't ever fix me up with a guy like this again!"