When the jet-black toilet was introduced by Kohler in the 1920s, it was considered so avant-garde that it was featured in a 1929 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit about the design of the “modern bath and dressing room.”
This spring, when designer Scott Sanders installed a black toilet (Kohler’s Memoirs Stately) and black sink (Kohler’s Caxton undermount) in his powder room at the 2018 Kips Bay Decorator Show House, it was still considered avant-garde.
“A white toilet and a white sink are the most expected thing you can do in a bathroom,” says Sanders, who is based in New York. “A powder room should be chic and interesting. It’s great to treat your guests to something really unexpected.”
Sanders admits it’s not a look for everyone. “It’s not the first time I’ve used one. Sometimes if you suggest it, though, you do get some pushback. ‘A black toilet?’ They look at you like you have two heads.” But Sanders explains that basic black blends in more than white does, allowing for a greater number of wallpaper choices.
Betsy Froelich, a Kohler marketing manager, says black has been in its line almost continuously for 90 years. But in some decades, such as now, sales of black go up. To put it in perspective, the overwhelming choice in toilets is still white or biscuit. But black is No. 3, and it seems to be getting more attention these days.
Luxury brand Toto sells 15 toilet models that come in black, and spokeswoman Lenora Campos says the company has been getting more requests for them recently.
The styles and shades of black toilets do evolve over time. In the 1920s, black toilets were inspired by art deco; in the 1980s, they had a resurgence because of the popularity of Italian modern design and black lacquer.
Today, fashion-forward designers are showing them in dramatic ways and in different finishes and textures. Kohler has more than 30 toilet options in black (as well as 40 black sinks) in a wide range of styles and prices. And the brand is seeing a lot of interest in a new matte finish it is offering in Numi, its luxury “intelligent toilet.” Part of the reason for the surge, Froelich says, is the recent popularity of black stainless kitchen appliances and matte black finishes on cars.
Also, she says, “You see a lot of moody man-cave bathrooms, and that look is brought to life through the use of black fixtures. Black gives the toilet a look of sophistication that the standard white toilet doesn’t offer.”
Sanders says he chose black to add drama to his tiny space at Kips Bay. To dress it up more, he used brushed brass hardware that had a gold hint. He says the black looks great with dim lights, a burning candle and fresh flowers. “The black tends to blend in more, while a white toilet is all you see when you walk in.”
Other designers are not convinced.
“I’m not too fond of them,” says Camille Saum, a D.C.-area designer. “I don’t like the water spots that show up on the shiny black finishes.”
New York designer Nick Olsen, who grew up in a house in Florida with a black toilet, pedestal sink and tub that his mom was never fond of, says he finds that look quirky and “a bit too out there” for residential bathrooms. “It would require a very adventurous and open client,” Olsen says. “In a restaurant bathroom, a black toilet could be glamorous and sexy. But at home, it could feel like a 1980s nightclub.”