Let’s wipe the slate clean. It is time to roll out the secret behind illustrated toilet tissue (aka toilet paper or TP).
Last year, German designer Juli Gudehus launched a series on YouTube, aptly titled “Design for the Arse,” in which she comments on her collection—currently 1,043 sheets (that’s a lot of sheets)—from various countries in numerous styles. “The media response was enormous, and until today the interest is undiminished,” she told me. As a devoted fancier of this essential commodity, I can understand why.
I asked her to peel off some favorite examples and explain why this quotidian product has such an hypnotic allure. (For even more, click here for her flushed-out theses.)
The obvious first question is why? Why are you interested in toilet paper?
The abundance of the world, in particular the one of communication design, amazes and inspires me. Every day offers opportunities for expeditions. I love that! It is fun and exciting.
Toilet paper is just one of my collections, though admittedly the largest one. And right now most prominent ever since Corona saw a run on this supposedly mundane consumer item. On this occasion I opened my treasure chest and started a YouTube series called “Design for the Arse.”
I collect all kinds of things that are designed. This has already led to many of my works. Comparing apples and oranges is my daily bread.
Collecting and sorting—in my eyes, this is a cultural technique! A revelation of more or less obvious contexts and connections, a fascinating inspiration machine, incredibly instructive.
I offer two workshops around this. One is called “lore & order” and one “playing & rules.” I love to spark the idea of a certain structured approach to thinking and making! As a guest professor at the Bauhaus University in Dessau, I once dedicated one of my courses to “shit happens.” Feces to me seemed something so human and yet a field in which only few professionals want to work with all their wit and passion. This course was attended by communication, interior and product designers from various countries, who enriched each other and also me in several ways. Next spring I will give my first workshop especially on “Design for the Arse” in Sweden. Right now I give a talk on that topic at universities and other institutions.
Bathroom tissue, as it is politely referred to, is certainly a major cultural hygienic product, but what else are you attempting to discuss through your collection?
“Bathroom tissue” … language often speaks its own language. In and outside of the “restroom” there is definitely a lot of bashfulness involved. You will not be surprised to learn that the “business” itself and everything that goes with it is rarely depicted on toilet paper. Which is funny, as our crazy consumer world seems to bear anything in millions of variations. At increasing speed. Again and again I think, now this is inconceivable. And yet someone has devised, designed, produced and sold it.
Like Alice in Wonderland, I am delighted by every new finding, no matter if ordinary or exceptional, whereas on a professional level I “botanize” and study them like Alexander von Humboldt. Many designs make me smile, some make me laugh. And all of them make me think and rethink. I am open to what that may be!
What I DO observe so far is for instance a constant ambivalence between adoration and contempt. For me it is one of the most fascinating phenomenons in the field of toilet tissue. When you buy roses, puppies, money, the U.S. flag or Trump printed on toilet tissue, are you happy to see them? Or do you just not give a shit about them?
Also, I find that meanwhile in our wealthy Western world, all aspects of any other product applies for toilet paper as well. Such as the branding, naming, product lines, USPs, economic considerations, logos, illustrations, typography, trends and memes. Even redesigns. And limited editions.
And, one more: I notice that toilet paper is still underrated as a medium. I mean, it is being used in billions of households! There is such a wide audience in a place where there is usually not much to see or read.
When was toilet paper introduced to the world? And who did the introducing?
Bathroom issues may have been far from Eve and Adam’s minds, as they might not have had a powder room. But God only knows! I like to imagine that she provided toilet tissue with dinosaur prints for them.
While Neanderthals seem to have preferred leaves, the first documented mention of toilet paper is found in the 6th century in China. Toilet paper as an industrial product was invented in the middle of the 19th century in the U.S. by a man called Joseph Gayetty. It was watermarked with his name and sold in single sheets in flat packages. The Scott Paper Company began to market rolls in 1890 but they may not have invented it.
Since then, this consumable has seen a lot of refinement. More and more comfort. Meanwhile, it is splinter free, finger-breakthrough–resistant, absorbing, flushable, embossed, printed and even scented or mixed with skincare ingredients. In wealthy countries, that is.
Do you collect rolls, individual sheets, packing wrappers? What are your criteria?
I collect toilet paper wherever I see something. It must be on rolls and it must be dry. No wrappers, no. As I just keep one sheet of each design, I leave some of the rolls in restaurants, department stores, in my hotel, in the train, on the airplane … anonymously. And I wonder whether people will wonder and maybe smile when they find them. Occasionally friends make “donations.” And due to the enormous media response last year, now also strangers, people from other countries, send me the most wonderful parcels.
To date, my toilet paper collection comprises 1,043 single sheets from about 30 years and uncounted countries. The countries are uncounted because, unfortunately, I did not take any notes. In any case, I know that I bought bathroom tissue in Japan, the USA and Latvia, for example, and that some was donated to me from Ukraine, Eritrea and the Netherlands. I have archived all these sheets in A5 transparent pockets, each with a white sheet of paper behind it—a bit like a butterfly collection.
In my organized binders, I have sorted these treasures thematically, and these themes also form the golden thread through my YouTube episodes. For example, there’s one about bears, one about insects, others about mistakes, seasons, patterns, brands and so on. The theme of the last episode was shells. Among the hits in my collection are a poo-brown toilet paper from the early ’80s, toilet paper from Deutsche Bahn—i.e., former state property—a toilet paper printed with camouflage patterns, but which is NOT the U.S. Army’s own brand. Hmm, what else … toilet paper that looks and feels like crepe paper. Toilet paper that looks like glassine and is completely smooth. A rainbow-farting unicorn, a tap-dancing and egg-juggling Easter bunny, a talking toilet roll, cacti and Coronaviruses …
When I did a lot more travel to distant ports of call, like Europe, I’d always bring my own toilet paper, usually in neatly folded individual sheets. Guidebooks would advise to be on guard for shortages.
Have you ever run out of paper?
I remember how, long before I started collecting toilet paper, I had to buy single sheets in a public toilet in Greece, and how in other poor countries toilet paper was to be thrown into an extra bucket in order not to clog the drain pipe.
In the historical rich Switzerland, for a while I saw remarkably many toilet papers with articulated nubs embossed. I asked friends who lived there but they didn’t know why. At least it cannot have been made to prevent slipping. Other countries, other formats—in Germany we seem to like the DIN format, Deutsche Industrie Norm, so our sheets are about the size of a postcard. And we seem to love lots of layers. Our toilet paper is so thick that sometimes just one sheet would do. Like a cushion. No, I am joking. In Asia, however, toilet paper is preferably delicate and wafer thin. It is being used in a biscuit technique, I was told. You take a long stripe and crumple it.
What have you learned during this exploration, either in terms of manufacture, design, types of quality?
There is a lot of expertise put into engineering of the tissue itself, into its components, fabrication and embossing. Only the prints make me wonder how often professional designers and/or illustrators are being commissioned at all. I see many silly ideas and half-assed messages, rarely intelligent concepts, meaningful communication or beautiful designs. I am much looking forward to the day I am being asked to design toilet paper myself! Be it a supermarket, gift or merchandise article, a promotional or fan item.
Collecting and sorting, not only of toilet paper, gives me insight into how companies and designers think. And where and how they do not think enough. That is why in my teaching, I focus on evoking an awareness of problems, and sharpening the perception of niches that can be explored and occupied. In other words: on recognizing and making use of chances.
You might think we, the wealthy Western world, may already have produced all possible kinds of toilet paper? Nowhere near. There is still a lot which is considered to be impossible. Both in a metaphorical sense and technically. Or nobody thought of it.
Can you tell me the most popular trade character or visual mascot on toilet paper worldwide?
This question leaves me clueless. I can only report on what seems to be popular in general: everything cozy, cute, funny, playful, fluffy and light. Like kittens, lambs, cubs, feathers, leaves, flowers and blossoms of all kinds. The most popular trade character? I guess it must be the Hello Kitty kitten . . . In my collection I have several. And when I was in Japan in 1999 I found it on every conceivable product. Plus the Sanrio corporation still sells them worldwide.
Do you have any sense what harm decades of used bathroom tissue has done to the environment?
Well, our bathroom tissue may be optimized for sewage systems but many non-recycled brands are very often bleached, dyed, printed, scented, lotioned, waxed, even medicated with anti-bacterial chemicals and wrapped in plastic. So it is not really a sustainable solution.
The cornucopia of ever new design gives me guilty pleasure, while at the same time I do hope for more ecological awareness. This is quite contradictory.
More often now I see bathroom tissue made from fast-growing plants like sugar cane, bamboo, hemp and grass. Still, recycled paper seems to be better for the environment. And even better, though very unfamiliar for us here and now: using soap and water and a sponge or cloth.