Cover Kohler Smart mirror

We discuss the development of smart home technology with Mark Bickerstaff, director of new product development for kitchen and bath at Kohler

Given the growing ubiquity of smart home devices, it’s quite evident that technology will continue to shape the ways we live, work and play—and good design will help make it a more seamless part of our daily lives.

For Mark Bickerstaffe, Kohler’s director of product development for kitchen and bathroom, it’s a rewarding, ongoing challenge to discover more elegant ways to better integrate these cutting-edge features into our homes. 

(Related: Design Dynasties: David Kohler Of Kohler)

“We don’t want to include technology for the sake of it, we want to include it to help you have a better experience," says Bickerstaffe. "We always strive to do better. It’s why I work at Kohler—we don’t just care about making a great product, we care about artistry and craftsmanship."

“We don’t want to include technology for the sake of it, we want to include it to help you have a better experience"

Tatler Asia
Above Mark Bickerstaffe, director of product development for kitchen and bathroom at Kohler

This user-centric approach shapes the interactive design of the American brand’s kitchen and bathroom products, which pair sleek design elements with functional details. These include voice-activated smart mirrors and intelligent toilets that can adapt to your personal habits, as well as shower fixtures inspired by relaxing rhythm of rainfall.

Here, the product development director tells us more about the brand’s latest kitchen and bathroom collections, the interior trends to watch, and how smart features will continue to shape the homes of the future.

What’s your typical starting point for the development of each product?
Mark Bickerstaffe (MB) It can start in a number of ways—we can identify themes that are very important to the business to continuously develop, to deliver a better experience and functionality in the bathroom and kitchen, and that can lead to the start of a product. Or we can identify something that is useful to the consumer and that becomes a project.

A great example is Sensis, our new intelligent toilet targeted at Asian women who really have a desire to look after themselves with beauty and health care regimes. So Sensis was designed to do that, to deliver things that they cared about such as water quality, hygiene and the overall aesthetic itself. It’s a beautiful object that looks like a cosmetic container, and has an element of decoration while being understated.

(Related: Design Speak: Konstantin Grcic's High-Tech Approach To Furniture Design)

Tatler Asia
Above The Real rain showering system from Kohler

The other way can be pure chance—we didn’t plan for it, it just happened. An important part of creativity is to have structured processes, but also have room for the happy accidents; the inspiration that leads to a product.

For example, the Real rain showering system came about when one of our American designers, was caught in a summer rainstorm. And he thought, ‘Why can’t I have a shower that feels as great as this summer rain?’

He went on a personal quest to find the difference, which turned out to be that raindrops are in different sizes, and they fall randomly, whereas showers tend to be pressurised. By understanding that, we were able to develop an absolutely amazing experience that is very much like real summer rain.

Tell us more about the new Components collection.
MB We started the Components faucet collection after seeing that customers, designers and architects were looking for beautiful simplicity in design. We also realised customers wanted the ability to put their own stamp on the collection by customising it. So we set out to find a way to allow that range to be personalised, mixed and matched by the customer.

What we created was a collection of spouts and handles that can work together to create your version of the collection through a choice of two spouts, three handles and numerous finishes.

How has technology transformed your design process?
MB I’m a true believer that technology can make the whole experience better, in many ways that we don’t fully understand and we’re discovering all the time.

There is a certain beauty and delight in a bathroom mirror that turns on as you approach. As you lean in towards it, your gesture is telling the mirror what to do, and it can sense that and respond to it. So things like that are little delights that you forget but become a normal part of your day. That to me is the true power of technology—it’s taking away complexity, making it easier to use and adding more value. 

For instance, in the kitchen, a fixture could pour a very specific amount of water so that you don’t waste water, but it also means that you get control. It’s precise and making your life easier. There’s also the peace of mind—if you get a burst pipe in your house, it’s easy for technology to sense that and turn off the whole water supply. And why not, that should be a part of our normal lives now, so we can prevent the damage.

The smart technology of Kohler Konnect may be difficult work but we like the challenge, it’s been very satisfying. Kohler Konnect is a system—the app is part of it, which creates the ability to customise settings and program them to your personal preferences. It allows the bathroom to respond to the way you’re using it.

As you walk into a bathroom, it can create the lighting you need. When you walk in at night, you want the lighting to be subtle because of the time of the day, and it can change automatically. If you go to the toilet, it can turn the heated seat on, lift the lid and turn the extractor fan on, turn the lighting on and then turn it all off again. All of that eases your journey through the bathroom and that’s what Konnect is, it’s bringing things together. It allows that next level of experience in the bathroom—to make your life easier, better, safer and more delightful.

"It allows that next level of experience in the bathroom—to make your life easier, better, safer and more delightful."

(Related: The Rising Singapore Tech Stars You Need To Know)

What are the key bathroom trends to watch?
MB We’ll see the continuation of the bathroom looking less like a bathroom and more like a living room. There will be furniture in the bathroom, there will be soft surfaces, the materials that we use will continue to evolve.

Technology will continue to be integrated and it won’t be that visible. That’s the key thing, it needs to be integrated to be useful. Lighting will be one area to see a lot of big changes; it’s typically terrible in the bathroom, it’s an opportunity to integrate it better into our products.

Tatler Asia
Above The Iconic collection of faucets from Kohler

Bathtubs were almost disappearing completely but they’ve come back now, for two reasons. There’s an element of design—when I’ve got the money and space, it becomes a centrepiece, beautiful object. And it’s also an investment in personal time, in relaxing in the bath that’s very much a demonstration of luxury. I see that vacation homes and resort-style homes tend to have bathrooms that are more experiential, with opportunities to take care of yourself, to relax and unwind, with the whole spa-like theory.

(Related: Designer Olivia Lee On Balancing Good Design With Practical Purpose)

How do you foresee bathrooms of the future to look like?
MB It’s that challenge to really address the needs of ageing, and to do it in beautiful ways. Too often, you may walk into a disabled bathroom and think that you don’t want to be here because it stigmatises you. To me, that’s a failure of design and it’s something we need to do better. What we mean to do is to create inclusivity, to design bathrooms that are good for any age. That is the challenge for bathroom designers, to make the space suitable for everyone.

"What we mean to do is to create inclusivity, to design bathrooms that are good for any age. That is the challenge for bathroom designers,to make the space suitable for everyone."

I think technology can help in many ways, taking away some of the ways you interact with objects that it frees you from mobility. There are also physical things about access such as getting into the shower or bathtub without slipping and falling. Things that can help with muscle stiffness; that’s all possible and we’re developing the next generation of products that can help with optimising your help. It has a safety aspect as well—to sense whether someone has fallen in the bathroom, or not moving.

Ultimately, sustainability will be a big issue, especially in cities with the pressure of consumption of water and electricity, and how you deal with the waste product. As a great example, there’s a toilet we’ve just designed called Modern life. When we were developing it, what became clear was that one of the biggest issues with the toilet and sustainability is not the energy and materials that go into making it, and it wasn’t water; it was the cleaning chemicals used to clean it. Those are potentially damaging to the environment and expensive to produce.

By designing the toilet with attention to how you clean it, you reduce the cleaning time by 75 per cent and reduce the requirement for chemicals by the same percentage. In that one change, we reduce the environmental footprint of the product four or five times more than we ever could have done by reducing the water volume a little bit more. It’s thinking that it’s not just the superficial things of reducing the amount of water, but looking deeper into the whole life cycle of the product.

(Related: The Circuitry Of Award-Winning Design)

What are the key kitchen trends to watch?
MB We’re already seeing some great new products where the surfaces in the kitchen become multi-functional. Boards or surfaces might cover the sink to allow it to be used as a countertop when you’re not using the sink. Induction hobs becoming very normal, to create a smooth surface. What we’re seeing is the next step, where the hobs become invisible until you want to use them.

In cities, there is still a become trend of people not cooking. So the kitchen is becoming a clean-up space, a social space. These kitchens are about storage and displays, and enabling that social aspect that you might want in your home and less about the traditional ways of cooking. That said, as soon as you come outside of the city, there is craft and semi-professional cooking with people wanting to invest time and energy into a love for craft and food.

(Related: 7 New Stores To Explore For Decor Inspiration)

A version of this article first appeared in Singapore Tatler Homes Oct-Nov 2018

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.