You might assume a trip to the restroom would be the least noteworthy experience of a night on the town.
After all, what is there really to report? A toilet stall, sink and, for men, perhaps a urinal — items that don’t exactly provoke scintillating dinner conversation.
But bathroom décor is changing. Increasingly, the room that formerly dare not be named is no longer a design afterthought. Sometimes restrooms in public places can be downright cool.
Some business owners and managers speak of their desire to carry the branding of their establishment into their public restrooms. Customers often spend several minutes in these spaces. The more intimate, upscale or unique they are, the more likely the customer will leave with a positive overall opinion of the business.
Bathroom design can be as random and varied as any other public interior space. But as decorators, architects and business owners become more daring, these rooms are less likely to be tucked away in the back.
1600 Liberty St., West Bottoms
If you happen to look up in the men’s room here, you’ll notice the fluorescent lights have a message for you:
This being an art gallery, the cut-out letters (inspired, of course, by the $700 billion Wall Street rescue plan) qualify as artwork. This art comes with a price tag: half a trillion dollars.
“It probably should be a trillion by now,” jokes the piece’s creator, Dolphin employee Archie Scott Gobber.
Men’s restrooms aren’t usually a place you want to hang out in, but Dolphin’s boasts so much cool artwork, it’s a gallery unto itself: photos of a 1939 bathing beauty contest at a local ballpark, the crowd at Coney Island in 1938, the downtown KC of yesteryear. A Schlitz beer ad from the ’50s. A New York subway system map.
Most unique, though, is what’s displayed just to the right of the urinal: a silver-leafed, smashed-in doughnut with pink frosting. In a frame.
“There’s not a lick of mold on it,” Gobber notes.
Much of the art came from the men’s room at Dolphin’s previous location in the Crossroads.
The women’s room, though, is totally new — and designed by owner John O’Brien’s 12-year-old daughter, Kaitlin.
“She’s always worked on different projects with me,” O’Brien says. “She has quite an eye.”
Kaitlin proposed a small lounge area with sinks outside two private toilet rooms. She worked up drawings and went with her dad to find the sinks she wanted, which sit on a walnut table built by Dolphin artist Robin Beard. She also chose the artwork (some from her own collection), the turquoise paint, old-school light fixtures and floor tile.
Designing restrooms (and other interior spaces) is nothing new for Dolphin. Two examples: City Tavern and Harry’s Country Club.
618 Ward Parkway, Country Club Plaza
The focal point of the men’s room at ReVerse is the stainless steel wall with an etched-in check pattern that covers the entire north wall from floor to ceiling. The steel provides an edgy, urban feel, while the classic check pattern adds sophistication.
But most apparent in both the men’s and women’s rooms is the use of LCD TV screens, which were installed about a year and a half ago.
“Customers came into the restaurant wanting to know what was going on,” says general manager Ralph Cervantes. “This was a great way to convey that.”
Frames that appear on the screens promote special offers at the restaurant as well as upcoming events and activities. For the guys, the LCDs are mounted flush in the wall above the urinals for easy reading.
For the ladies, however, the look is taken up a notch: In their restroom, the screens are mounted behind the vanity mirrors.
444 Ward Parkway, Country Club Plaza
At Kona Grill the bathroom sinks are the main attractions.
In these vanities, the faucets float from beneath a small shelf with a sleek, unassuming placement. The oversized, natural-stone basins slope toward the drain in angular, jagged sections, creating a waterfall effect.
The sinks in the men’s and women’s rooms are identical with the exception of color. The women have a white vanity; the men get black.
General manager Michael Tumbali says the waterfall effect was designed to create a tropical feel in line with Kona’s Hawaiian namesake and sushi menu.
There is one drawback to the vanity design.
“Customers can never find the valve that
controls the sink,” Tumbali says. “But people always say how much they love them.”
51st and Oak streets
This pizza place’s logo is reminiscent of federal highway signs. Old license plates and hubcaps cover one wall. Booths are reserved for “Compact Cars Only.”
So how would you carry the car theme — this place was a gas station, then an auto repair business — into the restrooms?
Slap on some bumper stickers.
Sorry, ladies, but only the men’s room is plastered with bumper stickers, which are intended not to offend. No Obama or McCain stickers. Nothing about abortion.
So what do these stickers advocate? Wisdom. Humor. What one employee calls “hippie enlightenment.”
Such as: “If you remember the ’60s you probably weren’t there.” And: “People never lie as much as after fishing, during a war or before an election.”
“I don’t think my bathroom is the place to make a (political) statement,” says Jason Pryor, who owns Pizza 51 with his wife, Shannon. “My goal is just to serve good pizza.”
The bumper stickers are merely “something to read while you’re doing your business,” Pryor says.
But customers, many of them University of Missouri-Kansas City students, seem to dig the stickers. Sometimes a little too much.
Shannon polyurethaned them to the wall, but that ended up shrinking the stickers, causing their corners to turn up — and making them easier to swipe. And indeed some of the stickers have hit the road.
Meanwhile, women customers have let Jason know they’d like something on their room’s walls, too. And they’ll get it.
Not bumper stickers, but road maps and atlases.
“It’s pretty cheap art, if you want to call it that,” Pryor says.
1617 Main St., Crossroads
Design of public restrooms can go beyond branding and interior continuity. Sometimes it can just be fun.
At Nara, both the men’s and women’s restrooms are in the basement of the building (which dates to early 1900s), complete with concrete floors and raw brick walls. The space is modernized by a healthy dose of floor-to-ceiling mirrors. But the centerpiece is the single sink that both restrooms share.
In the wall between the restrooms, a concrete trough-style sink is all that separates the girls from the boys. The flirty sink adds mystery with a half-wall above the faucets, preventing one sex from seeing the faces or upper bodies of the other. Hands mingle freely in the context of soapy suds and water.
Nara is Casey Adams’ first restaurant, but he knew he wanted something fun.
“I had seen these common areas in baths before when traveling, and I thought it was a great idea,” he says. “It’s received a lot of talk.”
106 W. Main St., Smithville
Jonathan Justus opened his restaurant in a former drugstore that was once owned by his family. Before redesigning the property into an upscale restaurant, Justus and his wife, Camille Eklof, reflected on their favorite dining experiences from around the world.
“It had happened to us so many times in our travels,” Justus says. “We wanted our own diners to have the experience of visiting the restrooms and coming back to their tables saying, ‘You’ve gotta check out the bathroom.’ ”
Probably the most talked-about feature in Justus Drugstore’s restrooms is the floors. They are polished concrete, a material more typically used in uber-contemporary spaces. Stenciled medallions on the floor reflect the eclectic international feel that permeates the rest of the restaurant. The tiles encompass Moroccan, Persian and Ottoman Empire motifs. Justus was inspired by details he saw on liturgical books.
In the men’s room, the world-traveler look continues with an original framed map of the 1951 Tour de France. ★
Adam R. Gebhardt of Kansas City is a freelance writer. Tim Engle is a writer-editor for The Star. Mike Ransdell is a staff photographer. To reach them, call 816-234-4779 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.