Water Works

Led by a hard-charging CEO and his right-hand man, Grohe uses design to remake both the bathroom and its own business.

Not long after the German faucets-and-fittings manufacturer Grohe was bought by a private-equity consortium in 2004, a media and political storm erupted. With an eye on the upcoming election, the ruling Social Democratic Party Chairman Franz Müntefering began ranting against foreign and local private-equity firms, calling them “locusts” who were ravaging firms and destroying jobs. From the design world’s perspective, the future for Grohe looked gloomy, according to Vito Oraem, managing director of the renowned Red Dot design awards, which hadn’t prominently featured the company’s products for some years. “There were skeptics who said these locusts would kill the sense of German quality, pick up the profits, kick out the workers, break up the company, and sell off the parts,” Oraem says.

In 2007, however, Grohe launched a new product that signaled an unexpected change of direction. It introduced Ondus, a collection with a strange, ribbonlike faucet—in matte-black, glossy-white, chrome, and titanium finishes—that could be operated and programmed from a touch-sensitive digital control panel and wireless unit. Whereas the old Grohe had been known for solid, midmarket, precision-engineered, long-lasting chrome faucets and spouts, the new line was unabashedly high-end. It began raking in design accolades: a Red Dot award, an iF China, and a Design Plus award. The company’s new chief designer, Paul Flowers, was selected for the “40 Under 40” list established by the European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies. “It was shocking,” Oraem says, “that a company under this totally different ownership was able to bring innovation to the market.”

Curious to explore what brought about such a categorical leap of design faith at what is now the world’s leading manufacturer of bathroom fittings, I ventured out to Grohe’s Düsseldorf headquarters to inspect the plumbing. The company’s CEO, David J. Haines, and its design frontman, the 37-year-old Flowers, met me in the penthouse offices of a crisp, six-story Richard Meier & Partners–designed glass building. Both Haines and Flowers are British expats. Haines arrived in 2004 from Vodafone—where he helped oversee the development of a mobile Internet service and the accompanying phone and operating system—and Flowers was headhunted a year later from a position at the appliance manufacturer Electrolux.

To Haines, an imposing, blunt, media-trained businessman, the key to design management is to find people, like Flowers, who have a “passion for change” and grant them the “freedom to do their job.” The Meier building, which Grohe moved into two years ago, plays a significant role. With its open-plan offices, gym, sauna, canteen, and outdoor terraces, it resembles a Silicon Valley headquarters. And using a clear, high-performance, low-iron glass to maximize light, it is a conducive setting for big aspirations. “It’s a perfect manifestation of the corporate-culture change that we’ve been creating here, ” Haines says.

Across the conference table, Flowers, slight but sharp, speaks with a pan-European English accent (he’s worked in Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany over the last decade) and the air of a rising design celebrity in the garb of a company man. He was scouted while studying at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle, whose alumni include Apple’s Jonathan Ive, and was offered a job with Electrolux, where he worked for three years before joining the giant team at Philips Design in Eindhoven. Upon meeting Haines in 2005, he recognized a design patron who would give him a chance to invent. “There were 280 of us in Philips. There I was a spectator, one of many. Here I can experiment.” He quickly coined the phrase “sensual minimalism” to describe the design language he envisioned for Grohe and produced a kind of geometric mascot, a cube with rounded edges, to inspire his team. Flowers conjures up the image of the human body in a shower to explain: “Hard-edged minimalism is inappropriate when you’re naked and vulnerable.”

I can’t help making a comparison with Apple: a CEO who understands and prioritizes design, a young in-house design team with enough hubris and desire to prove itself, and all the benefits of close-at-hand collaboration with the engineers, researchers, marketers, factory workers, and machines that influence the design process. Flowers’s latest recipient of a Red Dot award is the Rainshower Icon showerhead, which comes in an array of colors, recalling the fruit-flavored iMacs that began Apple’s revival.

When Flowers started at Grohe, Haines told him, “I want to be revered as Apple is revered, for products that are intuitive and make sense.” Shortly after arriving, Flowers stopped buying trend research and began sending his design team on scouting missions to trade fairs and exhibitions to look for longer-term societal trends. “By the time I’ve heard of something, it’s going to take me, if I’m lucky, nine months to design a range, and then the trend is gone or irrelevant,” Flowers says. Now his team tries to set trends. Black-and-white fixtures, now common among high-end manufacturers, were one of Flowers’s first predictions. His team also developed a palette of signature elements—a lozenge shape, a seven-degree angle and a circle—that would provide the “design DNA” for many products, visible in the shapes and angles of faucets and controls. The angles and indentations are gestural, intended to communicate function: a curving hand-held shower wand resembles a high-tech prosthetic limb. “I’m not interested in styling,” Flowers says, “but what a product communicates to you.”

The entire Ondus line, including Ondus Digitecture, a forthcoming modular collection designed to make specifying bathrooms easier, is driven by what Flowers calls “performance art.” That is, the product looks good when it’s not being used, which is, he says, 90 percent the time. Until it’s activated, a smooth black surface conceals many of the pressure-sensitive controls and the digital readout, which allow showerers to preset their preferred temperature and water flow. “Ergonomics would say, ‘Make those buttons big,’ but aesthetics say, ‘Make them small,’” Flowers says. “With Ondus I can have both; only when it’s switched on do you see the big backlit buttons.”

As much as we like to imagine that good product design can single-handedly change the fortunes of a company, achieving “sensual minimalism” required a ruthless company overhaul. “Internally, there was huge resistance,” says Haines of the initial reaction to the Ondus concepts. “People said, ‘We don’t do this kind of design; it’s too innovative, too expensive. We don’t do this technology. How are we going to make it? Where are we going to sell it?’” The new product required Grohe to develop new digital-electronics capabilities and new engineering solutions to figure out how to push water through a flat, elongated tube. The company’s manufacturing plant, in Hemer, Germany, was streamlined, switching from batch- to line-based “pull” manufacturing, which reduced inventory, lead times (from twenty to four days), and the distance traveled by a product during manufacturing (from 1,640 to 656 feet), and increased productivity by 18 percent. Newspaper reports from 2005 recall an intense battle between the new management and IG Metall, the German metalworkers’ union. The union negotiated Grohe’s proposed 1,500 job losses down to 943 and, according to one report, talked the company out of closing its Hemer plant and moving to cheaper facilities in China.

Visting the Hemer factory with a misty-eyed affection for places where stuff gets made, I couldn’t help subscribing to the union’s argument that efficient German manufacturing and meticulous craftsmanship is integral to the Grohe culture. In one section of the plant, robots assembled the ceramic cartridges that go inside the single mixer faucets. On a lower floor, a factory worker was grinding metal by hand, having spotted a defect the robots missed.

But this is no benign industry. Our love of shiny fittings has spawned the practice of electroplating parts in toxic baths of nickel and chromic acid. Flowers says Grohe is investigating alternatives to nickel- and chrome-plating (which produces known carcinogens), but in the near term nothing is likely to replace the tough, anticorrosive properties of these finishes. On the other hand, the company has taken responsibility for—and recognized a design opportunity in—how it distributes water, “our most precious resource” as Haines puts it. With digital controls and a fast thermostat, Flowers argues, you don’t waste water finding the right temperature. For those who prefer not to run water down the drain while they shave or shampoo, there’s a pause button on Ondus. Grohe’s Rainshower Icon collection includes a “dimmer switch” that reduces the flow of water by 40 percent, removing a bit of the guilt from long showers. “We believe that a lot of our technology can teach consumers to reduce consumption,” Flowers says. “Most brands are putting in a restrictor in showers so you have less flow. I never understood this concept. If I have shampoo in my hair, I just keep rinsing and rinsing until the shampoo’s gone. With our showers, you can choose when you want to reduce flow, so you have passive and active states.”

Grohe’s most imaginative example of conservation-minded thinking is its attempt to take on the bottled-water industry. The average four-person family uses approximately 188 gallons of bottled water a year, and it takes the equivalent of seven liters of water to make each one-liter bottle. With Grohe Blue, a faucet is combined with a filtering unit under the sink so that filtered water flows through a separate channel in the neck, activated by a rotating handle. When the filter needs changing, an illuminated blue logo on the handle begins flashing. According to the head of marketing, Gerry Mulvin, who oversees research at the company, the tricky part was developing a filter that could be suited to regional differences in water quality. “We did extensive work designing a filter,” Mulvin says. “If you take out too much, there’s no taste.”

After two days in wintry Düsseldorf, hearing how ideas germinate in Grohe’s glass hothouse, I was struck by the corporate culture the new management has created, in which decisions are made fast and design thinking is prioritized. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the company’s doubled investment in research and development will pay dividends. Grohe calls the industry outlook “somber.” The collapse of real estate markets has decimated the market for fittings, showers, and flushing systems. The other uncertainty is whether Grohe’s embrace of digital technology and water delivery will fly in the United States, where the company still lags behind its rivals for market share. Compared with their European counterparts, Americans are conservative when it comes to bathroom tastes, and there may be a steeper learning curve here for people to accept that digital electronics and water can coexist. As for water conservation, we are a long way from installing water-usage meters in every residence—a requirement in Germany.

Flowers’s response, for now, is to keep throwing new ideas at the market. In Grohe’s capacious design studio, where next year’s designs sat conspicuously hidden beneath white blankets, Flowers allowed me a glance at a concept prototype for a circular shower tray without a visible drain (a discreet circular gutter expels the water). Much like the auto industry, or Philips Design, Grohe deploys experimental showstoppers at trade fairs for their “halo effect” on the surrounding, more manufacturable products. The protoypes of the Digitecture line, unveiled at a fair last year, included “provocations,” as Flowers calls them: modular towel holders, soap dispensers, shelves, televisions, and speakers that plug into the bathroom’s flat-panel system. “That’s the beautiful thing about digital,” he says. “As we transform the bathroom from this functional space for cleaning and grooming into this well-being sanctuary, you can start to introduce, because you have power, different forms of entertainment.”

Before leaving Germany, I traveled to Essen to pay a visit to the Red Dot Design Museum, a former coal-mining structure converted by Foster + Partners into five floors of exhibition space. An entire section of the building had been filled with sleek, award-winning faucets, radiators resembling wall-coverings, and a bath illuminated by blue LED lights beneath the skin. Here, Grohe’s offerings, including the Rainshower Icon showerhead, which won a “Best of the Best” Red Dot award last year, assumed prominent positions. It occurred to me that American bathrooms, with their claw-foot tubs, crystal handles, and ornate fixtures, tend to look to a romantic past of lush plenitude. German bathrooms, by contrast, imagine a postindustrial future of minimal, responsive controls and cautious, managed indulgence.

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