The washbasin has been in the news of late, given the increased and continued importance of hand washing. On one level, it's a utilitarian thing. So long as our hands are clean, the nature of the receptacle in which we wash them doesn't really matter. But where utility leads, style follows after.
If we're going to be asking our guests to wash their hands, shouldn't we offer them somewhere beautiful to do that? The fantastical end of bathroom design has produced some extraordinary basins. Some are architectural. The Silenzo from the Italian studio Antonio Lupi is built into the wall so it seems as though someone has peeled the skin off a building to create a sink.
Others are free-standing. The Bolgheri basin, also from the Antonio Lupi studio, is a simple sink in translucent resin on a pillar of natural cork. It's a bit like washing your hands in a forest pool. More are high-tech. The Vitae basin, designed for Noken by the late great Zaha Hadid (1950-2016), looks like an element from a racing vehicle.
Cue the most beautiful, and the most troubling, washbasin in the world. The Introverso basin, designed by Paolo Ulian for Antonio Lupi, is a free-standing cylinder of white Carrara marble. The marble has been machine-cut into thin horizontal slices around an inner hourglass form.
The brochure describes it as "a shape within a shape … the marble block loses its monolithic appearance and is transformed into something ethereal, transparent, enclosing a core secret. A soul that can remain hidden, leaving a glimpse of the subtle play of light, or it may be slowly unveiled by breaking the edges of the blades."
There's the rub. The basin is designed to be broken. Promotional videos show Ulian (who designed the basin), confidently chipping off slices of marble and sweeping them aside. The partially fragmented basin looks even more beautiful than the whole one, but Ulian knows what he's doing and, crucially, he knows when to stop. Would you try this at home? It seems like the kind of project that you would resist for years. Then, one day, you would wake up with a hangover and a hammer beside the bed. Staggering into the bathroom, you'd find the floor strewn with chips of marble… Prices for this head-wrecking conundrum start at €8,613.
Back in the real world, there's a sale on at TileStyle until the end of July. "Our washbasins start at €80," says Tony Murphy of TileStyle. "But most people will turn up their noses at an €80 basin. It's just a basin on a pedestal with no design or aesthetic about it."
A range of retro ceramic basins from Bleu Provence (from €439) - sensible wall-mounted sinks with integrated splashbacks - allows you to you to choose the colour of the sink, inside and out. But there's no storage and this, Murphy explains, is the thing that everyone wants.
"People want to declutter their bathrooms. They're in complete denial that they own moisturiser and aftershave and they want somewhere to hide it."
At TileStyle, you can get a nice-looking rectangular basin with storage underneath for a sale price of €349. The considerably more expensive free-standing I Catini basin by Cielo is almost infinitely configurable, both in terms of shape and colour. The basic recipe is a ceramic washbasin set in a steel frame with ceramic or marble shelves and, crucially, a storage drawer. You can also buy a matching mirror.
The Cielo website has an online configurator that allows you to play around with shape and colour. Each element is priced separately but, to give a notion of the prices, the one I liked best broke down as follows: Catino Oval washbasin (€794); Framework in matt black (€883); marble shelf (€667).
Aesthetics aside, handwashing is an act of hygiene and this too has a bearing on design. Touch-free tech has been a feature of public bathrooms for a while. Will we see it emerging in people's homes? "Definitely," Murphy says. "It's a totally changed world. The thing that people want now is contactless. If it's infrared, then they don't have to touch it." In public bathrooms, almost everything can be touch-free: taps, flush mechanisms, towel dispensers, soap dispensers, bins with a sensor opening, and mirrors that light up when you come close to them.
At home, there's no need to be quite so hands-off. "Contactless taps and flush mechanisms are a no-brainer. We've been installing them in people's homes for a while, but mostly for the elderly and the less-abled. Now everyone wants them."
There seems to be no benchmark for the price for contactless taps. There's one on Wish for €25. It includes a Chinese user manual. Then, at the other end of the scale, the super-sexy Airblade Wash+Dry from Dyson costs €1,720. The rest are somewhere in between and their designs are similarly various.
My favourite is Arne Jacobsen's Vola mixer tap, designed in 1968 and reconfigured as a contactless tap in 2014. It works brilliantly, mainly because the original design was so foresighted. All the mechanical parts of the mixer were hidden in the wall, leaving only the handles and spout exposed. The touch-free version is innovative, but designed in the spirit of the original. And there's something marvellous about a touch-free tap from beyond the grave.
One of the drawbacks of contactless taps is they can be difficult to activate if you're not used to them. I once spent several uncomfortable minutes in a guest bathroom, flapping soapy hands to no avail, while the host shouted instructions from the hallway. Or, and this is a much more serious issue, they can be turned on accidentally.
"The really important thing is to have a thermostatic mixing valve so that there are no scald issues," says Murphy, who has some horror stories about scalded children. A thermostatic mixing valve (TMV) regulates the temperature of water coming out of a tap and can, quite literally be a life-saver. Many new taps come with this technology - infrared mixer taps start at €250 - but a TMV can also be retrofitted for less than €50 per tap.
Murphy also predicts a rise in the use of antibacterial materials like Krion, which can be used to make countertops, but also basins and sinks. But he reckons that the unhygienic communal hand towel is here to stay.
"I can't see people switching to hand-driers. We'll always share towels, but we'll change them more frequently. It's no longer the case that the cloakroom towel will be there for the week."
See tilestyle.ie, dyson.ie, bleuprovence.it, ceramicacielo.it.