“If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred.”
— Walt Whitman, quoted in Unsafe at Any Speed
In 1965, Ralph Nader wrote the manifesto Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. “For over half a century,” Nader charged, “the automobile has brought death, injury, and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.” As U.S. traffic deaths surpassed 50,000 annually, Nader contended that “doctors, lawyers, engineers and other specialists have failed in their primary professional duty: to dedicate themselves to the prevention of accident-injuries.” He saved his most fervent anger for automobile manufacturers, whose indifference to life-saving design features he viewed as an “assault” on the human body. “Body rights,” he claimed, deserved “the precise, authoritative articulation and front-rank support which is being devoted to civil rights.” 1 Even if the book did not send citizens pouring into the streets, it made a powerful impact: President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Highway Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act the next year. More important, Unsafe challenged the dominant culture of American business. By insisting that consumer safety was a corporate duty and a civil right, Nader applied “full moral pressure” on manufacturers to produce designs that prioritized safety over style. 2
Although Nader’s work is not regularly discussed in an architectural context, it illuminates how debates about the user were transforming American design discourse between the 1950s and 1970s, and how industrial designers and architects were navigating those changes. For it should not be forgotten that Unsafe was not only a general indictment of corporations but also a very specific attack on designers whose neglect of safety, in Nader’s view, resulted in thousands of injuries and deaths. The same tail fins and hood ornaments that were being lovingly captured in pop art (think of Richard Hamilton’s 1964 Glorious Techniculture) were proving to be lethal on impact.
Actually design attitudes towards users and consumers had been in flux for some time. In a 1961 article for The Architectural Review, the sharpest of all design critics, Reyner Banham, surveyed recent developments in industrial design and argued that the rise of the consumer was the most significant change of the 1950s. 3 Industries were beginning to solicit the “consumer viewpoint” through consultative bodies, while advertisers — much more controversially — were investigating consumer preferences through market research. Most notorious was motivation research, a “pseudo-science,” Banham said, that sought to discover the real, often subconscious reasons why consumers chose one product over another. Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957) and other “alarmist literature” held that these techniques were used to manipulate consumers. Consumer associations, meanwhile, tried to protect citizen-consumers from such corporate trickery through a combination of independent product testing, education and campaigns. 4
Caught between various bodies and types of research, the consumer emerged as a schizophrenic figure. On the one side was the “rational” consumer, the figure consulted by industry bodies and represented by associations, who held coherent views and acted in his or her best interests given impartial information. On the other was the “irrational” consumer, targeted by manufacturers and advertisers, who was in thrall to unconscious desires (“image lovers given to impulsive and compulsive acts,” in Packard’s words). 5
Banham’s primary concern was that industrial designers had lost their autonomy and were increasingly required to respond to the results of consumer research rather than design for the public as they saw fit. Certainly, they were no longer to consult any “objective” criterion such as “good taste”; consumer preferences and motivations were king. For Banham, as for most designers and critics, the trend was exemplified by the rise of the car stylists of Detroit. The Motor City’s automobiles were the most potent and most polarizing symbol of commercial design: some found their designs hateful, others found them bold, and still others sought to objectively assess their moral implications. Banham claimed they represented the “absolute subjection [i.e. of design] to market research statistics.”
Nader took up this theme in Chapter 6 of Unsafe at any Speed, which traced how Detroit stylists had come to wield greater influence over automotive design than engineers. His star witness was the Ford Mustang, the great success story of the day. The Mustang design process had actually begun with a market research exercise which established the desirability of certain design features: for instance, 42 percent of college students wanted bucket seats for “first dates.” Next, stylists were brought in, and then — and only then — engineers. Nader noted, “The product planning committee, working closely with the stylists, had chosen the prototype and had approved the basic sheet metal and two body styles — before it informed the development engineers at Ford.” Then the advertisers did their magic. The result was a wildly popular but shoddy car, which favored old components over improved ones that could save lives, from dual braking systems to seat belts. 6
Not only was Detroit privileging style over safety, but the stylistic details themselves were dangerous. Nader pointed to the Cadillac’s iconic tail fins which, after being introduced in the 1940s, grew more blade-like each year until they were phased out in 1966; for two decades stylists cheerfully ignored evidence that the sharp edges of automobiles were a major cause of injury to pedestrians. Whereas Banham refrained from moralizing about stylists, Nader had no hesitations. He made perfectly clear that he saw them as unethical and negligent, especially in his outraged analysis of a 1962 paper by General Motors stylist Charles Jordan which made no mention of pedestrian safety. 7
Nader’s demand that stylists be held responsible for safety was a notable intervention into design debates. The arguments that Detroit had provoked in European design circles, in the 1950s, were all essentially concerned with aesthetics and the role of the designer; when morality was invoked, it was usually to defend high design from popular taste, not to promote user safety. Even automotive-industry critics attacked styling mostly on the grounds that manufacturers used it to manipulate consumers (e.g., by infusing products with sexual symbolism). As designer Patricia Conway asserted, “Until the appearance of Unsafe at any Speed … it never occurred to anyone — the public, the design critics, or, least of all, designers themselves — that tailfins might not only be ugly, but dangerous.” 8
While his rights-based argument was radical, Nader’s ethical challenge to designers was not without precedent. 9 Given the power that Detroit wielded economically and symbolically in American life, its practices inevitably cast a long shadow over the adolescent industrial design profession and pushed designers to define their own methods and values against it. A decade earlier, Henry Dreyfuss, a founding member of the American Society of Industrial Designers and one of the country’s most eminent practitioners, had openly criticized Detroit in his bestselling Designing for People (1955), which blamed automobile deaths and injuries on cars that were faster and more powerful than necessary. 10 Dreyfuss advanced “UTILITY” and “SAFETY” as his own criteria for evaluating a good design. “Is the automobile easy to handle?” he asked, pointedly, knowing well that for most popular Detroit models the answer would be “no.” 11 And Dreyfuss thought he had the answer: ergonomics research. Five years after Designing for People, he published The Measure of Man, which became a standard anthropometric reference (today known, in a revised version, as The Measure of Man and Woman). Dreyfuss deployed multidisciplinary teams, including medical experts, psychologists and engineers, to study design problems. He believed that psychology was a key “human factor” in what ergonomists termed “man–machine relations,” and that one of the main tasks of designers was to “lessen the mental strains of this pressure age.” He stressed, “It is not enough to seat [people] comfortably at their work. There is a responsibility also to remove the factors that impair digestions, cause headaches, backaches, fatigue, and give them a feeling of insecurity.” 12
With this statement, Dreyfuss established that it was proper for designers to delve deeply into human psychology insofar as it affected user comfort. So, if designing an airplane, it was sensible — indeed necessary — to understand the sometimes irrational factors that contributed to people’s fear of flying in order to mitigate them through design. 13 An essential, albeit fine, ethical boundary was thus drawn between ergonomics and motivation research: even though psychological research done in the name of ergonomics was quite likely to improve product sales (for instance, by making people happier to fly), its primary aim was not to get consumers to buy products but to enhance users’ sense of security and wellbeing in a particular environment, which was now considered part of the designer’s “responsibility” in the same way as protecting users from bodily harm. Thanks to its precise humanistic remit, ergonomics avoided what Banham wryly called the “anti-social perversions” of motivation research even as it also began to probe the human psyche. 14
From Ergonomics to Squat Closets
The principle that corporations and designers had a duty to care for users made inroads into design thinking. One of the most memorable works of this new era was architect Alexander Kira’s groundbreaking study, The Bathroom (1966), based on research carried out between 1958 and 1965 at Cornell University’s Center for Housing and Environmental Studies and financially supported by American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Corporation (soon to be American Standard). Now acknowledged as a “classic of user-centered design research,” the book is an important attempt to establish an alternative both to hard-core functionalists and to industrial stylists and also to accommodate human factors in all their complexity. 15
Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Unsafe at any Speed, Kira’s ambitious project aimed to establish fresh design criteria for bathroom facilities, which were decried as “ARCHAIC, INADEQUATE, UNHEALTHY, AND UNSAFE!” on the back cover of the book’s paperback edition. 16 Kira was concerned with the piecemeal and unscientific way in which bathroom equipment components were designed, relying on antiquated trade practices, obsolete recommendations in architectural handbooks, and the inward-looking market research of manufacturers, rather than on studies of actual bathroom use, behaviors and attitudes. Kira proposed to close this gap with a more integrated approach.
While the project’s aims were straightforward enough, the resulting book was perplexing and complex, owing as much to psychology and even sexology as to anthropometry. The study was based on the proposition that, in order to create effective new design criteria, both objective factors (anatomical and physiological) and subjective ones (psychological and cultural) needed to be understood, with the latter acting as constraints on what particular design would work in any given time or place. 17 In other words, Kira was working within the expansive tradition of ergonomics research that Dreyfuss advocated, and he adhered to an iterative and multidisciplinary mode of working. Due to the taboo nature of certain bathroom functions, however, Kira’s research would push the psychological boundaries of design much further than Dreyfuss was ever required to do.
To study both objective and subjective factors, Kira divided his research activity into three parts: an extensive multidisciplinary literature search; a field survey of “current attitudes, practices and problems” among 1,000 middle-class households; and laboratory research to identify practical issues associated with personal hygiene activities. In the laboratory, the performance of each task or hygiene activity was analyzed and described in detail, drawing on data from anthropometric handbooks (including Measure of Man), ergonomic studies and the field survey, with the goal of establishing design considerations for different groups — men, women, children, the aged and the infirm. Researchers then filmed live subjects as they performed various functions, both with and without equipment, and the constituent motions of each activity were identified. On this basis, Kira suggested basic parameters for hygiene activities, developed hypotheses about how best to meet them and designed experimental equipment.
Although Kira authored The Bathroom, the study required the help of a large team of researchers from other fields, including many drawn from Cornell’s pioneering College of Home Economics, which had the necessary expertise in surveying, testing and analysis. In fact, most of the research methods had been honed in an earlier collaborative study, The Cornell Kitchen, whose user-centered philosophy was pithily described as:
Build the cabinets to fit the woman.
Build the shelves to fit the supplies.
Build the kitchen to fit the family. 18
Kira also championed this inside-out philosophy of design, stating that his aim was to fit “the activity, or the equipment, to the man, rather than vice versa.” 19 Through detailed analysis of the bathroom’s four major fittings and their actual use, Kira demonstrated that conventional design had produced lavatories that were too low, bathtubs too short, showers too small and water closets too high. He sought to address these flaws with flexible designs that accommodated the full range of human activities comfortably and safely. He showed that baths, while not as sensationally dangerous as automobiles, were a major cause of injury in the home, and that other aspects of bathroom design were bad for general health and physical functioning, causing a range of conditions from hemorrhoids to scabies. Bearing in mind normal changes over the course of a lifetime (weight gain, pregnancy, aging, and illness), he advised that safety features like non-slip surfaces, hand-sprays and safety rails be installed even in standard facilities, as such incapacities represented “only more severe degrees of those encountered by the ‘normal’ population.” 20
For the most part, Kira’s proposed changes were mundane. His dramatic redesign of the water closet, however, showed that he felt certain cases justified a more interventionist approach. A survey of the medical literature had convinced him that throne-style water closet designs were a major cause of constipation, described by physiotherapist F. A. Hornibrook as “the greatest physical vice of the white race.” 21 Noting the medical view that the optimal posture was a squat, Kira proposed a semi-squat water closet with a redesigned seat that supported the ischial tuberosities and brought the knees above seat level, which would gradually strengthen abdominal and upper leg muscles and forestall many medical problems of the aged. 22
Kira had to know that many users would find the squat closet an unacceptable departure from the conventional throne. Dreyfuss had explicitly warned that new designs tended to fail when they broke radically in form with the products they replaced. 23 If consumers demanded the reassurance of “survival form” in cars, clocks and toasters, they would certainly demand it in bathroom equipment, which provoked strong feelings of guilt and disgust. In fact, Kira devoted lengthy passages to identifying and dissecting bathroom taboos with reference to anthropologists, sexologists and psychoanalysts, and sometimes he conceded that user subjectivity had him beat. For instance, even though he valued its hygienic benefits, he never had much hope for the bidet, which Americans rejected due to its negative associations with loose (French) sexuality.
Given his realism elsewhere, Kira’s crusade for squat toilets raises the question: what audience was he trying to reach? Who did he see as being key to achieving bathroom reform? It seems clear, in the book’s first edition, that Kira was not targeting consumers directly; rather his primary goal was to convince manufacturers, builders and architects that his ideas were viable. Hence his extensive use of technocratic visual studies (which lay readers would have found baffling) and his focus on production methods. Not unlike Buckminster Fuller, whose Dymaxion designs he referenced, Kira hoped to persuade manufacturers to turn out “complete” facilities with designed-in accessories and safety features. In stark contrast to Nader, Kira believed that his rational case would win these parties over, and he largely eschewed moralizing or threats of government intervention. His conclusion was notably serene: “The ultimate responsibility for a rational approach to personal hygiene … rests not only with the producers, but with the architects, consumers — in fact, with all of us.” 24
Kira’s conciliatory optimism was understandable, given his involvement with American Standard, which he anticipated would bring some of his designs into mass production. Indeed, the company was investing heavily in research and product development and demonstrating a greater sensitivity to safety than it had before. The year before The Bathroom was published, American Standard released the Stan-sure “skid-resistant” bathtub, possibly to capitalize on Kira’s recommendation that all bathtubs have non-slip bottoms. 25 American Standard eventually put one of Kira’s designs into production, a posture-mold seat; and he consulted on other products for the company, notably the prefabricated Spectra 70 bath and enclosure, which included most of his design criteria, from multiple shower heads to a lumbar support to a fold-out tray. 26
Yet despite enthusiastic reviews for The Bathroom in the trade press, there was no rush on the part of other manufacturers, builders or architects to follow Kira’s guidance or make use of his data. The Washington Post noted that “almost everyone is familiar with the conclusions of Alexander Kira,” but that his ideas had not yet had much impact. Still, the Post predicted that the public — once the mass-market paperback of the book had circulated — would “force the fixture industry to design safer models.” Until then, it advised, “keep your tub belts buckled.” 27
“Unsafe at any Faucet”
With the reference to “tub belts,” the newspaper linked Kira’s safety concerns to the contemporary debate in the automobile industry. Revealingly, the Post assumed that bath manufacturers could not be trusted to reform themselves and would need external pressure to do so — a conclusion that might not have seemed obvious before Nader. (America’s foremost humorist, Art Buchwald, satirized the new orthodoxy through an “interview” with Ralph Draino, author of “Unsafe at any Faucet,” who argued that plumbing manufacturers needed “government control because they can’t police themselves.” 28) In any case, Kira did seem to lose faith in manufacturers after his book was released, and he changed his tactics accordingly. While the first edition resembled a scientific report, the 1976 edition worked much harder to win over the public. It featured completely new sections on public facilities and bathrooms for the disabled, and the entire text was extensively rewritten and updated, with an abundance of anecdotes, homosexual graffiti and dirty jokes.
The illustrations changed most substantially: Kira’s original photos of modestly bathing-suited models were replaced with “more natural” photos of nude women and men performing typical hygiene activities and physiological acts from showering to urinating. All of the report’s original studies were re-drawn or re-photographed, and new ones were included. And, tellingly, Kira decided to feature manufacturers’ photographs of existing products. By now he could choose from a larger number of ergonomic fittings that responded to or were sympathetic to his design criteria, and he realized that product references appealed to the consumer. “The likelihood of fully realizing the substantive improvements described and suggested in the following pages,” he wrote, “depends very much on the consumer’s level of concern and willingness to demand and pay for more rational, more convenient, and safer solutions.” 29
With this statement, Kira embraced the idea of consumer-led change, urging readers to literally buy his vision of safer bathrooms and thus to force reform one purchase at a time. Kira judged that concerns over health and safety were most likely to spur consumers into action. Consequently, in the revised edition, he was more explicit about the dangers of bathrooms, citing the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s estimate that 275,000 people were injured each year in baths, a figure which was then repeated in many reviews of his book. Kira’s efforts to fit into the crusader genre received a further boost when Nader, now the country’s most famous consumer activist, wrote an endorsement for the book, praising it as an exposé of the “inadequate safety, hygiene and convenience features in bathrooms.” 30
Yet The Bathroom greatly exceeded the boundaries of Nader’s own inquiries, thanks to Kira’s constant delving into psychosexual life well as to his worldly, almost raffish tone and his often obscure and titillating visuals. The resulting book was a strange hybrid, a cross between Unsafe at Any Speed, Masters and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response and Alex Comfort’s Joy of Sex. People read it, talked about it, and wondered at it; but did they act on it? While The Bathroom’s conclusions were noted in design-savvy decorating guides and some European manufacturers produced Kira-inspired designs, the book did not inspire the widespread consumer revolution that its author sought. 31
This failure was perhaps to be expected: the ergonomic needs of users often do not map onto consumer desires. In Kira’s case, a mismatch seemed inevitable: he was quietly anti-fashion, and he rarely discussed what bathrooms might look like, on the grounds that this would detract from their quality as functional spaces. For all his open-mindedness, he showed limited willingness to engage people’s bathroom fantasies — even as they hovered like ghosts in Appendix B of his original study, a summary of respondents’ suggestions for improvements that revealed a palpable yearning for more space, more privacy, more gadgets and more opulence, such as alcoved powder rooms, terrazzo tiles, full-length mirrors, built-in heat lamps, even a “built-in ashtray on an aluminum swivel” next to the toilet. 32 In short, people longed for a Hollywood-style luxury bathroom, whose excesses Kira deplored. Needless to say, no respondent expressed a desire for a more physiologically correct way of defecating.
Indeed, even when in possession of health and safety information, consumers might not act to protect their “rights” as citizens or their best interests as users. To take one example: in the 1980s, Kira complained that safety bars — among the most innocuous of features — were often resisted because they made the able-bodied feel infirm or old. 33 The dislike of safety bars, however, should not be seen to confirm the “irrationality” of consumers; rather, it highlights the fact that objective and subjective human factors are complex and contradictory and can surpass the capacity of design to reconcile them. This is likely why Kira, with surprising frankness, described his designs as a “compromise between realities.” 34 But if Kira made expedient and practical compromises, many consumers — as the example of safety bars suggests — were unwilling to do the same. This would prove to be the great weakness of consumer-led bathroom reform.
Given the resistance, how could a space be opened up for change? In interviews, Kira reflected that the best hope lay in education: improving the public’s awareness and understanding of design issues. 35 By contrast, Dreyfuss maintained that “survival form” was necessary to win consumers’ acceptance; and Banham believed that architects should continue to maintain overall control over environments (selecting “good” designs on consumers’ behalf.) 36 But it was Nader — with his insistence on consumer advocacy, government intervention and external scrutiny — who proved most prescient. For it would ultimately take disability standards, codes and regulations to usher in a sea change in bathroom design and to universalize safety features in public facilities. The impetus came from the civil rights movement: from the 1960s onward disability rights activists advanced the proposition that accessible public facilities were essential to equality. 37 Their highly effective campaigns made it obvious that the concept of “body rights” was just as applicable to bathrooms as to automobiles. Yet in their own homes, most consumers seemed content to leave their body rights just outside the bathroom door.
10.19.2013 at 14:26
This is the most informed and empowering piece of writing on design thinking I have ever read. And -- Many thanks for placing it in the public domain.