I wrote this post sometime ago and kept it as draft in order not to ruin a surprise purchase for my wife. Find out what was at the end!

Last year I presented a paper on Object Therapy at the second Product Lifetimes And The Environment (PLATE) conference in Delft. One of the other presentations was by Michael Luchs on Consumer Wisdom, a framework for understanding and recognising wise consumption, in contrast to dominant modes of consumption in the developed world that can be very wasteful.

I had a chance to reflect on this in terms of two perplexing purchases I should make.

First, I need a new toilet seat. That this should be a perplexing choice says something: there are dozens you can buy around the corner at the local hardware store and, as I found out, thousands online, not to mention many more at speciality bathroom suppliers. In this case being perplexed is more a case of my obsession with durability than it is with scatology, though, as my wife says, I did design a toilet brush once, so there is something to that too.

But durability is the main thing. First of all I don’t want to buy a plastic seat as I’m trying to reduce my consumption of plastic products for both ethical and aesthetical reasons. Metals are strong and durable, but damn cold to sit on. This mainly leaves me with wood as a material choice, which is actually pretty nice to sit on.

Unfortunately, toilet seat hardware is rarely described in these wooden seats, in anything than the vaguest terms: “chromed” “brass-look” etc, if at all. Sometimes is specified the hardware is a steel alloy with a nickel-chrome or nickel-brass plating, sometimes being listed as PVD-plating, a kind of vacuum plating that is, more or less I’ve read, somewhat resistant to tarnishing.

I’m generally opposed to plating. Why hide the material? Some forms of plating make sense to some degree, chrome plating for example because it can very durable, if done well, but that is offset by the environmental effects of the process, which are poor. Other forms of plating make little sense, even if they provide some form of protection, because they are will eventually break down, and they complicate the business of maintenance.

For historical comparison, the Victorians of the 19th Century, for example, loved solid brass hardware and lovingly polished into several times a year to keep it in good condition, and when it was neglected it simply tarnished in an appealing way, needing nothing more than some abrasive polishing compound and a bit of work to make shiny again, if you wanted that.

Some forms of hardware were kept shiny by touch, door handles for examples, visually communicating their human use. This is an expression of transparent materials and use.

Today’s consumers mostly seem afraid and dismissive of maintenance. They somehow expect brass fittings to remain shiny without effort, and as a result, manufacturers often lacquer the brass to prevent the tarnishing by oxidation.  But the lacquer, usually a petrochemical polymer like epoxy or urethane, eventually breaks down in ugly patches, creating splotchy tarnishing, a poor cousin to use-based tarnishing patterns. For example this is my bike bell:

To fix this, you need to strip back the lacquer with an abrasive. I could and probably will do this to this bike bell because its solid brass, but the danger with many bathroom fittings is that the brass is only microns deep, and exposing the steel or nickel underneath may result in further oxidation or lead to material failure.

What are the timeframes I’m talking about for these kinds of products and their treatments? Its hard to say for sure, but from experience and some superficial reading, a lacquer can break down in 6 months to 3 years. A PVD plating, lacquered or not, is claimed to last up to 20 years or so. But I don’t think this is long enough, and I kind of doubt it anyway. Given that solid brass can last thousands of years, and is less disposed to corrosion than steel, or even stainless steel.

For poor durability at the low end of the market, the feedback on cheap sold wooden seats on Amazon, even the ones with PVD plating, indicate some seats are breaking or in disrepair after less than a year. The consistency of quality is a concern, it varies widely, and one can also wonder about the kind of industry these seats comes from e.g poorly managed forests and unethical labour conditions in Asia. My review didn’t include ‘wood-look’ seats with veneer placed over MDF or ply –presumably even less durable and with worse environmental impact. It amazes me how much companies are engaged in the practice of scamming consumers into buying cheaply made, quickly breaking products.

There are, however, some worse toilet seats on Amazon. 

My favourite scapegoat for everything that is wrong with contemporary production and consumption, IKEA, has a wooden toilet seat, the NÖMMEN, that encapsulates this problem. Its wooden, stained and lacquered black, and its hardware is not described. Its the only wooden seat they sell. Why? I’m going to make some presumptions to answer that. Its stained black because its made from pine, a cheap, light wood, that will split easily from water damage and every day wear. Staining it black doesn’t improve it, but it hides the affective materialities of pine as a cheap wood, so it affectively reduces this cheapness and lack of durability being sensed by IKEA customers.

Sorry I can’t go into much further detail on this, but read my doctoral thesis Affect and the experimental design of  domestic products for more information on the framework I use to make this claim, if you like.

I’m also betting the lacquer used, probably a urethane or epoxy, is very thin to reduce manufacturing costs. And for sure, the hardware will be a combination of cheap polymer and mild steel with a a very thin nickel or, if lucky, chrome finish. Almost certainly nickel. For a large manufacturer that claims they are concerned about environmental impacts, IKEA make absolutely shitty bathroom products that don’t last, because they rely on repeat business from transient customers that aren’t bothered by lifespans of only a few years.  If they did, they wouldn’t keep selling the IMMELN shower caddy, whose mild-steel sub-structure rusts and breaks open its powder coating soon after purchase. Its is a material choice completely and irresponsibly unsuitable for a shower environment.

So back to toilet seats. Its clear to me I want a toilet seat with raw, solid brass hardware. To be honest, I won’t ever polish it, but I like to know that I could, and I would enjoy seeing its tarnish patterns develop over the years.

But finding a wooden toilet seat with raw, solid, unlacquered brass hardware is a bit of a challenge, The two contenders are both British. Perrin and Rowe, and Tosca and Willoughby. The latter have a clear institutional concern for durability, though the former seems to be of equal quality. Either way, I’m looking at around $700 Australian.

Is this justified? Tosca and Willoughby suggest their seats will last for up to 3 or 4 decades with care, and maybe longer. They don’t repair seats (hygiene reasons!) but will advise on maintenance. With wooden toilet seats, you have to be careful of water damage from over-powerful flushes for example, and the seat may need to be re-lacquered at some point.

(I don’t want to get into the wood lacquer issue right now, but thats also a a perplexity. Tosca and Willoughby supply un-lacquered seats though, and this would enable me to use a non-petrochemical lacquer of my own choosing, albeit with a higher burden of maintenance.)

Lets do some simple maths, taking the lower figure as an expected lifespan. If I use the seat once per day for 300 days of the year, times 30 years, I have a use rate of 9000 times. Used to divide $700 I obtain a rough figure of less than 8 cents per use. I’m not going into details of use (sorrynotsorry!) that doesn’t consider use by friends and family. Not too bad, but its a big outlay in one go, and my wife, who actually thinks I’m only considering to spend $200 or $300 based on some cautious conversational probing, is not too thrilled about it.

Speaking of my wife, the other purchase I am considering, is a Karl Fritcsh ring for her xmas present and kind of re-engagement ring. We’ve been married in Japan, but not legally in Australia. I once said we wouldn’t until our gay friends can marry, so now the time is up.

My interest in this ring, despite its cost at $2000, is that despite my almost complete failure at choosing jewellery that my wife likes in the past, I’m pretty sure she will like this ring, at least because she is a big fan of Karl Fritcsh, whose work I think is pretty cool too.

I can’t do any maths to justify this expense, I don’t know how often she’ll wear it and you can’t put a price on that anyway. In truth, she just deserves something nice for raising our kids and being a gorgeous wife and partner in life.

There are some durability issues though. I imagine the polished silver detail will tarnish and need repolishing, easily done by my wife as she is a jeweller, and lifewise the blackened silver ring section will de-black from rubbing on the skin and become shiny. But she knows how to re-black silver, or otherwise we could even send it back to Karl Fritsch for restoration. With no mechanical parts, the ring is pretty much durable over a massive timescale.

I should mention that this is, for now, an either/or purchase, I can’t afford both – perhaps more for psychological reasons than financial ones.

So, I refer back to Dr Luch’s paper and consider whether, or which, choice is a wise purchase. He lists 5 factors that define consumer wisdom:

Contemplation: evidence of reasoning and reflection across time. Check for both. Doing that by writing this post.

Intentionality: a connection between choices made in the present and their long term ramifications as a component of realising a lifestyle. Check for both. I can imagine myself using the toilet seat with pleasure every morning, and occasionally maintaining it, provided that wasn’t too often. The ring is a little more abstract, but the potential for wifefriend pleasure, contributing to our together-realised lifestyle, is strong.

Emotional Mastery: understanding the emotions behind consumptions. Check for the toilet seat – I’m attempting to apply my understanding of materialities and product design to the choice as much like an automaton as possible. I’m not especially sold on the aspirational marketing of Perrin & Rowe or Tosca & Willoughby, though I imagine many of their customers are. But I acknowledge this market position is relational to producing extremely high quality products, similar to other aspiration brands like Rolls Royce, or Bang & Olufsen. For the ring, I just want to please my wife, but if anything the trouble with this factor of emotional mastery is that I may not be accomodating her desire for frugality. I’m pretty sure she’ll get over that with the ring, but the toilet seat may be an everyday reminder of needless expense, that she’ll use to hector me on an everyday basis. I can, however, manage that.

Openness: this concerns consumer openness to consumerist processes, such as repair and reuse. Not really relevant, as I’m already an outlier in that regard.

Transcendence: concerning how consumption has consequences beyond the personal, with contingencies that impact inter-personal relations and relations with the natural world. Check for the toilet seat – I don’t think I’d be writing this overly self-indulging post in the first place if I wasn’t extremely interested, and troubled, by the human/nature existential relationship. Not sure about the ring.

So, in a way, the toilet seat is a better fit to these factors as a potential action of wise consumption. However, with the big caveat that the toilet seat, as much as I’ll enjoy the expensive purchase, may have negative consequences for my wife, for whom years may pass before she appreciates its presence in her home. On the other hand, the ring is a kind of a win-win.

UPDATE: I bought the Karl Fritsch ring for my wife, though she later swapped it at the gallery for a different one by Karl that she preferred. Interestingly, this ring is likely to need less maintenance, something my wife recognised.

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No words. ?? #karlfritsch #galleryfunaki #bestpresentever

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We still require a new toilet seat.

 

 

 

 

 

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