Beauty and Purpose

Beauty….. I began thinking about this word a lot over the last few months in preparation for today. I don’t think I had ever used the word BEAUTY in the context of what I do. I tend to use more precise words to validate a product I work on, and beauty is not a precise indicator. But, I became more conscious of the absence of that word in the everyday steps my team and I take to design a product. In fact, as head of design for American Standard and DXV, I work with an international team of designers who I believe are exceptional talents and together we design objects of luxurious necessity. Through the metrics of a prescribed design vocabulary and brand id, and other phrases that we all over use, my team and I aspire to capture the attention of, and persuade consumers at the retail level with our DESIGNs.

As strange as it sounds, I looked for BEAUTY at work, but the word itself, felt too old fashioned in our design studio off fifth avenue. Beauty seemed too arcane, a term that came with an avalanche of classical imagery. It was a word I associated with fashion or cosmetics….but not with what I do, not in the 21st century world of brand culture!

What I realized, over this bit of time, was that I had to remove the industrial designer lens I had been wearing for so long. I was trained like many industrial designers to follow a Modernist approach: form follows function. From Le Corbusier whose work fascinated me as a child, to Henry Dreyfuss in whose office I worked and cut my teeth during my early years, I, like many Modernist acolytes followed in the giant feet of Eliot Noyes, Dieter Rams, and the breakthrough Johnson era, Modernist architects whose philosophy promoted the mantra that ornament is superfluous and only function and truth to material should remain. This was often translated in a way that pitched beauty against function, and beauty, this esoteric, obscure and mysterious word was not so much used, as much as DESIGN; Good Design.

Jean-Jacques L’Hénaff
Jean-Jacques L’Hénaff

And, the authenticity of the DESIGN is what made it Beautiful. Seminal….perhaps even a work of art. So beauty, in my mind, had no place in my everyday work. Or did it?

If I ask you: would you prefer to own an average, or an ugly faucet or would you prefer a beautiful one, I would imagine you would most certainly choose the latter. Beauty, this elusive and inexplicable descriptor of form — is the thing that we can all agree we want. So what does Beauty look like? To you? To me?

When the world was small, beauty could be one thing: it could be that perfect human body that was revered by the Greeks, or the Mona Lisa – the standard of female beauty for Renaissance Europe or the strict mathematical proportion and sameness of Hausmanian architecture in modern Paris.

The visual landscape of each of these societies had a highly developed yet simplified formula and the maker provided beauty within the parameters of that formula. And it was understood/ and emotionally accepted by all as the canon of beauty in the society it reflected.

But in the big world of today, beauty is represented in many ways and it is experienced in equally many forms. We live in an intensely visual culture, and we are bombarded by visual references all the time and they touch us and manipulate us and remind us in nanoseconds. Our connectivity gives us access to the most remote corners of the world and the elimination of these distances has multiplied our beauty references and expanded our imagination with it.

So, if we can agree that beauty is many things…and we might not know what it is yet, how does this discussion about BEAUTY translate into the corporation and that of the design department?

Henry Dreyfuss, in his book “Designing for People” published in 1955 (and please remember it was 1955), likened the designer to an Indian Chief, juggling the needs and wants of departments whose notion of a beautiful product was not always in alignment with each other or perhaps that of the consumer.

In the corporation I work for, the Beauty salvo for Engineering is in the mechanical challenge: the delivery of cost-effective solutions to highly technical problems, and the form is generally a by-product, an irritating one that gets in the way of the more exciting aspect of just making the darn thing work.

Marketing goals are derived from the successful implementation of a strategy that increases market share, builds brand loyalty through continuity, creates higher volumes and even bigger margins…and the beauty of the product is whatever can successfully make that happen.

Operations seeks its comfort in numbers and through sets of rationalized decision making, creates streamlined processes to increase control over the unknown and to align expectations over all else….

And then there is Sales What can beauty look like for Sales….it is actually more a like a sound: catching…. Beautiful, right?!

So, who in a corporation owns Beauty?

Beyond all these tongue in cheek interpretations is my area of the corporate structure, where I witness an ever-increasing demand for predictable design results, for reduced risks at retail and in our showroom. I call this the tyranny of the number’s game. Design has been widdled down to a set of statistical analysis that comes from testing “concepts.” How many of us have been subject to it? We are asked to test our concepts — on the web, through focus groups – we ask people what they want, we survey, we co- design, we partner with our customer and so on. In order to make a creative process acceptable and palatable, we break it down, and we make it quantifiable, easily understood by those who do not do it professionally, but who hold the spreadsheets…and the proverbial p&l.

So has beauty become a quantifiable and calculable part of design success?

As designers we are then asked to take this “helpful” data and within our corporate walls, we harness the output through a tightly controlled visual brand language, with an established design vocabulary, with visual signature elements. We do this to differentiate our corporation from yours and to build a following. A following that is attracted to product compilations that we distill into one beauty….. the canonical beauty of our own corporate making….and yes we go back to the Greeks. We go back to a cannon of beauty that we have solidified through our brand language that reflects our corporate beliefs.

How do we design professionals, approach this within our respective companies? As I said, I began thinking about beauty recently and it made me uncomfortable because I’m not a beauty guy, I’m a perfect plastic injection part line guy…when done well, it is art!

So… where does beauty exist…

A few years back we received a lot of attention at DXV for a line of 3D printed faucets that we developed. We won quite a few awards that year, and the year after as well, and we found ourselves attracting an audience that had never thought to look at us for design innovation. But what interested us at first in the discussions we were having internally around a small table of executives, was really how to harness this new buzzword, Addive Manufacturing, to produce on demand products and to achieve zero- inventory. It wasn’t to create Beauty. Imagine, zero warehousing. Imagine zero
waste, imagine producing on demand with zero resources up front. All of a sudden the departments identified in Henry Dreyfuss’s caricature of the designer as Indian Chief seemed aligned in one goal. It was beautiful but it wasn’t about beauty.

The process began with a problem to solve and our problem was space and untying dollars in product that sat in a warehouse waiting to be wanted. But designing faucets for printing that the consumer could choose or personalize just did not feel like the right answer…it felt too gimmicky. I gave my team a simple design brief: design something that we can’t produce using traditional manufacturing techniques as we know them today, and see where it leads us. And so they did, because as I mentioned, I have and international team of exceptional design talent!

At the end of the investigative process, we did not even spend that much time on the design itself: instead, we looked at the way we wanted to deliver water to the user. And in doing so we designed the experience of water in a new way.

When you turn the handles of the first two products, the water path is activated and water travels stealthily through the thin, inner mesh structure of the see through body / to the spout / and water appears magically at the apex where it then descends into the bowl below; water arrives as if called from the mind. It is not visually congruent, meaning, we know intellectually that there is a pipe in the wall that connects to the faucet and forces water to the spout, but in this image, or physical interaction we don’t see how?; reason is interrupted … what is left can only be … magic. Our sense of wonder at this unique experience provides a momentary tickle because we have enjoyed the magic show and the thrill of the trick. Can beauty therefore, be found in the surprise of being surprised?

For our third product, our approach was opposite: we designed the look of the water stream first, inspired by the movement that water makes as it travels over a rocky stream. The result was a series of 19 hidden, tubular waterways delivering water and sound over a metal landscape of sculpted forms. The water flow was calculated and finely tuned with the help of Computational Fluid Dynamics software, and the hand of an individual artisan completed the sensorial process by burnishing the metal in order to highlight its exterior appearance….touch sight sound . Here the beauty was not in tricking the mind’s eye, but the beauty rested in the sentimentality of memory and personal experience walking through nature, listening to water trickle over brooks and streams. Each of these designs caught one’s attention, but the cost to own a faucet was extreme.

We sold more than we anticipated (the first one in Canada BTW!). But what was unforeseen was the incredible response we received for our brand within the first hour of launch, we had over 60,000 hits in that hour. It was followed up with requests for interviews, editorial articles, features in interior design magazines, blogs, architectural
journals and all sorts of social media outlets. Clearly, we hit upon something. But was it Beauty?

The 3d printed faucets came from left field, from an investigative process of a problem to solve that was aligned by all departments but not supported by anyone of these departments. The project could not be quantified. It could not be calculated. It had no precedent and – rational business thinking was cautious at best. Out of left field it garnered a momentum for our brand that actually had no place in its brand vocabulary language etc etc. But what we hoped to communicate to our retail partners and consumers was that we might be a young brand but we were thinking and innovating and mostly looking at the future and its problems. Incidentally, it didn’t solve our inventory problem across the company but we continue to take what we’ve learned to inform our next step in that direction.

A year later, we started on a project that began in my little black book. I’m old school so I carry a black sketch book and I sketch all the time because I travel all the time, and jet lag is a problem and I solve it with my little black book.

At the same time I was building a modular home and the interest of this build for me was the concept of modularity…. Putting boxes together to form a shape to create your own space. From this thread of thinking the Modulus line by DXV was born. Our approach was to develop something different than the usual American Standard process and to put DXV, its luxury brand, at the forefront of people’s mind when it came to well-designed contemporary products for the bathroom. The investigation included ease of functionality, the simplicity of modularity and like Legos or wood building blocks, the independence of creating furniture of personal expression for any size bathroom.

We kept the colours clean and peaceful. We kept the materials useful and functional. We gave it some luxury to the touch, the suede cabinet pulls and the smoothness of lav trays that could hold precious items, like contact lenses, earrings, make up, your Apple watch, your perfume. The tray could sit perfectly in the drawer or when brought to the surface placed firmly and intimately in the indented layer where it looked like it belonged all along. The pieces could be configured to your liking (not mine), giving you the opportunity to make the line match your lifestyle, your vision of beauty.

And lastly, we designed the fittings to be the eye candy or jewelry dazzle in the bathroom. We created accessories that personalized the faucet. By adding this small part at the base, we gave our customers the opportunity to accent their environment that, BTW, did not break the bank. You could put “a ring on it”, forging a union between you and DXV that was respectful of your decision to be yourself in this intimate consumer relationship.

And so, was this Beauty? Was independence to be your own creator of sorts Beautiful?

The last project I’m going to share is not as well known by industrialized nations where most of our customer base lives, consumes and eliminates. You won’t buy this product, you won’t want to use it, and you definitely won’t consider it beautiful, but beauty as I mentioned at the beginning can take many different forms and as I hope I’ve shown so far can be experienced without a set formula but can become a thing of beauty none the less.

At American Standard, we design products that no one wants to really talk about, but due to our human biology, everyone must have…and not just one or two but sometimes too many! We are a luxurious necessity. (you’ll see what I mean in a minute).

Toilets, vanities, bathing systems: the bathroom is where we wash, and we eliminate what our bodies no longer find useful. It is the most private of spaces; we lock ourselves in willingly; and we ventilate desperately; we try to encourage our children to use the space frequently. And as wordly human beings, we tend to put the greatest distance, physical and psychological, between ourselves and our waste matter. We go in, it’s a blur of sensations and we leave ready to continue life having all ready forgotten the minutes before.

We spend more per square foot, on our bathrooms that on any other room in the house. Even though bathrooms stay empty and unused for a greater part of our day in comparison to other spaces in our home, we make bathrooms an indulgence at great effort and cost. And beauty is the caveat by which I believe, we feel free to luxuriate in our primal bodily functions; psychologically beauty ultimately blinds us to what we absolutely must do in bathroom spaces.

But what if you’re poor? What if you live in the 3rd world where washing and eliminating waste from the body has the potential to also kill you? What then? What is beauty to you in the most elemental of circumstances?

About 2.4 billion people have no access to proper sanitation facilities around the world. And about 800 children under 5 die of diarrhea daily, caused by the transmission of disease through lack of proper hygiene methods. Its absolutely crazy to think and heartbreaking to know that these numbers exist. So, a few years ago, a team of engineers from American Standard took the challenge offered by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and travelled to Bangladesh to find a solution to a very human problem. There they spent time observing, talking, exchanging ideas, and trying to find local economical solutions that could improve the lives of people who were born into so little comfort.

In 2013, AS engineers rolled out the SaTo pan (SaTo stands for Safe Toilet), a very simple 2 pc. plastic system encapsulated in cement. The counterweighted piece filled from the same cement used to create the latrine, seals the latrine opening. And this little action of articulated plastic, was all that was needed to prevent flies and mosquitos from coming in and out of the pit – and therefore preventing the spread of diseases. In the process, it suppressed odors, bringing a little more dignity to the experience of expelling waste. The last part to this solution was the use of less than half a litre of water to flush the bowl and the water was an additional sealant in keeping things in and smells out. It was a rudimentary yet brilliant mechanical solution that used local sourcing and brought the cost of a toilet like the one I’m about to show you to less than $2.00 to build. Over a million were installed so far!

Less than $2.00 to provide safety and dignity to a community of people. Beautiful!

This is project is truly beautiful to me – so please indulge me and let’s spend a moment with Jim McHale, the man behind SaTo.

The goal is to have over 100 million of these first and second gen toilets in place by 2020, in parts of the world like Kenya, Haiti, India, Rwanda, Nigeria and Ethiopia. And it is a commitment that our parent company has taken seriously. Lixl water technology committed a core group of engineers and product designers under Jim McHale, to finding solutions to human problems like these, all around the globe, even in the United States of America.
So, in the end, what is beauty in design?

For me…..the perfect plastic part injection guy……Beauty is a problem well solved. What is it too you?


Jean-Jacques L’Hénaff has served as Vice President – Design for American Standard Brands since October 2013.

Prior to joining the company, L’Hénaff had been a design executive for Kohler Asia, Audiovox, and Terk Technologies, and held various design management positions for consulting firms such as Henry Dreyfuss Associates and The Arnell Group in New York City. His experience ranges from designing private aircraft and subway train interiors, medical devices, consumer electronics, and for the past 7 years, kitchen and bath products. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Product and Transportation Design from L’Ecole supérieure de design industriel in Paris.

This address was originally presented at Montreal’s World Design Summit on October 18, 2017.