Leonard Koren: Undesigning the Bath

by Jane Withers

I remember distinctly the muggy London morning that Undesigning the Bath landed on my desk. It was the eleventh hour before press deadline and I was hunting for material for the book pages of a design magazine. Intrigued by the deadpan title, I started flicking through this modest-looking book and ended up transfixed by the sparse text and grainy black-and-white images of bathhouses and bathers, from the steamy hamams of Istanbul to the mud baths of California’s counterculture, from a cable car converted into a flying bathtub to an Apache sweat lodge. I soon discovered that the author, Leonard Koren, was a bathing aficionado who had lived in Japan and, in the 1970s, published a magazine called WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, which still enjoys cult status. In Undesigning the Bath, Koren (who trained as an architect) opens fire with the ballsy provocation that he can’t recall more than two or three designer-created baths that were not “oppressively sterile, boring, or mannerist caricatures of some historical model.” He had a point. Around 1996, the year the book was published, bathing was coming out of the closet as design magazines eulogized over immaculately sleek granite, sandstone, or marble cells that looked as inhospitable to the naked body as a hospital morgue. Instead, Koren goes on to muse on what he considers makes “a great bath,” enumerating such qualities as “animism,” “mind-body reconciliation,” “sacredness,” and “timelessness.”

Although Koren’s philosophy of bathing has roots in Californian counterculture (a direct lineage from magazines like the Whole Earth Catalog), it also embraces high bath traditions such as the Ottoman hamam and the Japanese onsen, weaving these different strands into a rich global bathing culture that has all but disappeared from a world that prizes technological efficiency and ergonomics over the state of yudedako—a word that translates literally as “boiled octopus” and describes the state of nirvana the Japanese bather hopes to achieve when the body turns bright red and the mind floats into a state of transcendental bliss.

At the time I encountered Koren I was already a keen bather who would take a circuitous detour just to test a mudhole or see the remains of a Roman bath in North Africa. In retrospect I recognize this as the incident that completely tipped me over the brink into a state I now recognize as “aqua-holicism.”

Jane Withers is a design consultant and curator based in London.

Images: Photography by Leonard Koren.