Under / Over: Is toilet paper actually one of design’s most worrying environmental problems?
Commissioning over 50 artists to design their own toilet paper holders, a new show dissects the politics of the bathroom.
While discussing a new exhibition, held at Marta in Los Angeles, its co-founder Benjamin Critton likens its message and contents to a children’s book, Everybody Poops. Written by Japanese author Tomi Gamo, the book details the toilet trips of each and every animal sweetly and calmly, until any anxiety surrounding the bathroom has settled in your stomach. “Not only is it a great children’s book,” Benjamin tells It’s Nice That, “but it’s literally true!”
Art and design, however, the area Benjamin and his co-founder Heidi Korsavong surround themselves in, rarely has this universally relatable quality. Objects of high design, the ones you’d expect to be featured in a gallery, often make most of us feel uncomfortable. Delicate pieces tend to accelerate your heartbeat both due to their beauty and a fear of breaking them. Other pieces feel so incomprehensible that, somehow, an actual object manages to make you feel slightly inferior. In almost all instances, its owner will be snooty and shout about its rarity.
One object which is difficult to get on your high horse about however is the focus of Marta’s new show – an exhibition of toilet paper holders.
As a gallery, Marta, which has only just passed its first birthday, is a uniquely joyful artistic space. Facing Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and based in an old shopfront, its co-founders see themselves as “always seeking that un-sturdy fine line between design and art,” as Benjamin describes. Its featured creatives tend to be “either designers who have sort of somehow found themselves making artworks, or artists who are tenuously stepping into the realm of functionality. That’s the moment in which we want to host work.”
Under / Over, also Marta’s first group show, does this wholeheartedly by commissioning over 50 creatives to design their own toilet paper holders. Beginning work on the project around this time last year, the show is a collaboration with two former studio mates, Scott Barry and Rachel Eubanks, of sustainable toilet paper company Plant Paper. Essentially, the pair – who admit to never thinking too much about the politics of the bathroom previously – would overhear Rachel giving her schpeel to potential clients. “We’d be like, ‘is that true?’ before she gave us the full litany of research. It opened our eyes a little bit.”
At first, the show’s intention was to discuss the form of toilet paper holders – a classic show shining a light on an incredibly useful design object, formerly unloved. Yet as Benjamin and Heidi learned more about the toilet paper industry – “or loo roll as you call it” – several entry points presented themselves.
“No one ever thinks where does my toilet paper come from?”Benjamin Critton, Marta
The first unpacked in the show is the immediate environmental impact poorly considered toilet paper manufacturing has on our planet. “Toilet paper is an environmental disaster, it’s horrendous,” Benjamin explains to us. Tracing back the growing use of toilet paper to the 1900s, “after centuries of wiping variously with stones, sponges, sea-shells, and corn cobs,” toilet paper, as we know it, began to be “made of virgin tree-pulp, chlorine, and a host of other toxic chemicals.” Resultantly, the effects are un-shockingly alarming, from “27,000 trees flushed down the world’s toilets each day”, to the fact that each roll uses “37 gallons of clean water” – not to mention “over a gallon of bleach, formaldehyde, and other chemicals”.
One of the most alarming factors of our consumption is how absent-mindedly we each purchase toilet paper. Rarely does the average buyer heavily consider which brand to buy, especially in comparison to the careful consideration adopted with other products. “No one ever thinks ‘where does my toilet paper come from?’” adds Benjamin on this point. “In a city, it’s just something you buy at the corner store, and maybe in rural places, you’ll bulk up, but it’s not a conscious decision at the checkout line.” And, by not giving the product more conscious thought, we contribute to the political beliefs of its manufacturers too.
“You use the comedy as a sort of inroad to talk about the potentially more serious or more far-reaching consequences of a particular design habit”Benjamin Critton, Marta
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Marta: Under / Over, BNAG, Toilet Tongue 2, 2020, Unique Ceramic
Notably in the States, one single company, owned by Koch Industries, “controls 29 per cent of the tissue paper market in North America,” the gallery explains in an introduction to the show. “With the purchase of fluffy, plastic-wrapped, bleach-white rolls, many Americans are unwittingly aiding the politically-conservative effort of conglomerates like Koch Industries, which has funnelled millions into voter suppression, the aiding and growth of the Prison Industrial Complex, and the reversal of common-sense environmental protections.”
It’s here that Plant Paper offers an earnest alternative. Made of bamboo, “one of the fastest-growing pieces of plant life, it’s really easy to cultivate, easily farmed, regrown and super sustainable,” describes Benjamin. Additionally, the brand never dresses it up to make it appear like its peers on the shelf. “They’re not taking that paper and making it feel white and fluffy – it is what it is. It’s almost like a modernist approach to toilet paper-making,” the co-curator laughs, “but seriously – in its honesty to materials!”
In turn, Under / Over draws viewers in joyfully at first, before getting serious; almost like a dark comedy playing into people’s sensibilities, as Benjamin puts it. “You use the comedy as a sort of inroad to talk about the potentially more serious or more far-reaching consequences of a particular design habit,” he explains. “I would call toilet paper and its industry a design problem in the same way that most environmental issues are, at their core, a design problem. This one just happens to include everyone.”
“High design that just happen to hold a roll of toilet paper”Benjamin Critton, Marta
The fact that toilet paper’s consumer audience does include literally everyone in the western world is a point viewers will notice is played upon throughout the show. Pieces featured are each considerately made but wildly different, like Joseph Algieri’s crystal frosted to the wall design, Ryan Belli’s almost squidgy stacked edition, or off in another tangent is Peter Shire’s rainbow sheened toilet seat.
Receiving toilet paper holders from those commissioned in the post of the past few months, Benjamin describes that, in their “weird version of Christmas”, they’ve received only four or five holders which are more artistically leaning, whereas the rest are fully functional. “Lots of the pieces have an inherent humour to them, or have an inherent playfulness to them,” he explains. “Others, materially, are very serious – really beautiful pieces of what people may consider high design that just happen to hold a roll of toilet paper. It cuts at all these levels, and everyone finds their own angle.”
Each highly unique in context, texture and idea, Under / Over as an exhibition to some may be “just funny” (its title itself is a winking joke after all) but to others, it’s “funny and meaningful”, or even “dead serious and meaningful” as Benjamin describes. “Hopefully, it runs that full gamut.”
Under / Over runs through to 1 November, 2020, with timed exhibition spots available to book.
Marta: Under / Over
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.