The hyper-adaptability of design, whether in the home, the hotel or the hospital, was central to our recent live panel discussion with Dezeen, titled Wellbeing and Healthcare. Dezeen founder and editor in chief Marcus Fairs brought together Tony Chi, founder of tonychi studio, Ryan Hullinger, partner at international architecture firm NBBJ, and Lun Cheak Tan, our Vice President of Industrial Design, to discuss the crossover between wellbeing and healthcare, with an emphasis on the significance of the bathroom.

Bathrooms are morphing from utilitarian spaces for physical ablutions into soulful sanctuaries for physical and mental wellbeing. At the same time, designers have been experimenting with the open bathroom, where the separation between bathroom and bedroom is partial, movable, or in some cases, simply absent.

The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel by tonychi studio
The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel by tonychi studio

Renowned for his focus on “invisible design,” or the emotional resonance of design over physical style, Tony Chi said, “What I am doing now is creating a design without the noun.” Rather than a bedroom or bathroom, he talks about a “human space.” According to Chi, highlighting the intangible emotions of the space rather than physical design elevates the user experience. Users feel the design as much as they see it. “I regard people’s emotional connection within a space as the most significant and crucial element in design,” he says. “Functionality should not only be about the tasks to be done within a space. Romance and imagination should also give us a purpose and drive us to inhabit our spaces.”

Andaz 5th Avenue by tonychi studio
Andaz 5th Avenue by tonychi studio

Resonating with Chi’s idea of “invisible design”, our Perspective of the Year, Dimensions of Wellbeing, highlights the connection between physical space and personal wellbeing. Like Chi’s bathtubs, which feature reading lights for extra comfort and contentment, our intelligent toilet levels up that corner of this particular “human space” considerably. Tan remarked, “Gracious living is about having a delightful everyday experience in your bathroom.” Delight, in this case, comes via a toilet with lighting that changes according to the time of day— energizing in the morning, dim to avoid interrupting the circadian rhythm at night. Then there are the sounds of nature, proven to slow the heart rate and calm stress — birds chirp during the daytime, crickets sing at night.

KOHLER Numi 2.0 Intelligent Toilet
KOHLER Veil Intelligent Toilet
KOHLER Innate Intelligent Toilet

“It’s very common for us to hear that people didn’t know they needed an intelligent toilet, but once they’ve experienced it, they can’t live without it,” says Tan’s Kohler colleague in the U.S. Shawn Booth, who heads up Kohler’s North America Design Studio. “First and foremost, people appreciate feeling clean throughout the day, and I continue to be impressed by just how much people love heated seats. In some ways, intelligent products will be able to identify patterns, and therefore preferences, better than we can, creating experiences that we may not have even know we wanted until they’re created for us.”

In the home or a hotel, blurred boundaries and elevated experiences are embraced as a point of difference, but when it comes to healthcare and hospitals, should the old ways persist?

Hospital Corridor
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Room
Patient Room

Architect Ryan Hullinger has been focusing on enhanced clinical performance and adaptable hospital design to award-winning effect. He advocates a reinvention of hospital design — both inside and outside the building — that ensures an elevated user experience while extending the longevity of the building itself. What’s more, he says, “The future of healthcare is not in the boundaries of the hospital.” Take first the current need for testing and vaccinating large populations. NBBJ’s proposal for prefabricated drive-through clinics

sees cars glide in and out of motor-racing pitstop-like bays, allowing patients to interact with hospital staff from their cars, enhancing safety and convenience. Hullinger suggests that the resulting empty waiting rooms inside the hospital could be transformed into staff rejuvenation areas— prefabricated spheres full of greenery and light that are just what the doctor ordered for exhausted frontline staff in need of precious rest.

He also mentioned a prefabricated intelligent wall design for patient rooms, with current and future technology built into the headwall on one side, while on the reverse side in the next room is an interactive screen on the footwall. “The same component that we're prefabricating is hosting life support on one side and hosting patient and family emotional support on the other,” he explained.

KOHLER Kumin Sensor Faucet
KOHLER Kumin Sensor Faucet

Whether discussing open or enclosed designs, all the panelists agreed that hygiene is key. As leaders in bathroom design, we know this all too well, and it is why we have designed faucets that can be adapted to repel bacteria via a special coating, fitted with sensors so that they need never be touched, and activated by voice control. “People’s expectations for what their products and environments can do for them are increasing and accelerating throughout the home,” says Booth, “and our goal is to exceed those expectations.”