Bathroom And Kitchen Design Revolutions (And A Surprise Home Safety Lesson)

No longer simply "service" rooms, kitchens and bathrooms have become increasingly integrated in living spaces. But the author also finds out what's any home's most important feature.

Bathrooms are now a place where one can relax.
Bathrooms are now a place where one can relax.
Berto González Montaner

BUENOS AIRES – The most radical changes in interior design are now happening in bathrooms and kitchens. At least, according to the latest edition of the Milan International Furniture Fair.

In Argentina too, things are changing. Sure, kitchens and bathrooms are still cramped little rooms, confined to the back of our old houses and buildings. Yet with the expansion of apartments, kitchens have become larger — to the point of moving frontwards in the blueprings, by the living and dining space.

As for the bathroom, it has moved in with the bedroom, nicely complementing the dressing room. Where space allows it, this can even become a suite. But, as architects say, they tend to remain "submarine" — without light or outside views.

Kitchens are now technical and sophisticated. The kitchen space is increasingly functional and the sink, dining surface and bar are now fully integrated. Yet one obstacle remains. As Augusto Penedo of the Urgell-Penedo-Urgell studio told me, residential developers have proved most reluctant to accept the merging of the kitchen and living areas into one, single space.

A living room? A kitchen? Both

In Milan, major design companies presented their kitchen models as a piece of home furnishing, integrated spatially in the living space, and in its materials and textures. We could see items like wall ovens, fridges and freezers hidden behind floor-to-ceiling cupboard panels. They would then slide, open or be concealed into the depth of a structure that, itself, extends in other spaces like the library.

What were the materials used? Natural wood, wood laminates, textiles — even granite and marble stones that felt like leather. Gradually, they're ending kitchens "lab" appearance and giving them warmth.

The kitchen items are hidden behind cupboard panels — Photo: Articad Images

Between the cooking and the living spaces, what we call the island — this slightly elevated table top surrounded by benches or stools, and used for breakfast — has grown. It can now combine not only space to prepare food, but a glass-ceramic cooker, a kitchen sink, and a dining area. There's nothing over it.

Kitchen cupboards are also disappearing. They're morphing either into waist-high storage or sliding shelves, that can keep as much as the most obsessive owners ever dreamt of.

Want to relax? The bathroom's new role

As the kitchen no longer looks like a kitchen, the bathroom changes too. It is no longer designed exclusively for personal hygiene. Like new kitchens, it won't be confined to its service tasks — but aims at being a place where one can relax and have fun with water. The 3.2 square meters and ventilation grill required by our building codes are no longer enough.

Bathrooms are now a full part of bedrooms — with the best views. They are organized into three distinct areas: the toilet and bidet on one side — often suspended to ease the cleaning — the sink on another side, and, finally, the shower and bath tub.

Tubs are now unfailingly detached from the wall and, despite new designs, recall the four-legged bath tubs of old times. Showers have also changed. The traditional tap or shower head now includes modules and mechanisms that give you cascades, rain — and even massages.

Safety before a fancy design

A lot of creative energy is going into taps. Companies are hiring prestigious designers to give their products unique forms and concepts. One of the most celebrated designs at the Milan fair was Philippe Starck's transparent tap, which lets you see water swirling as it rises through the faucet. Quite a nice way to include nature in our daily habits.

As I was enjoying this veritable kitchen and bathroom revolution in Milan, a phone call from Buenos Aires broke the magic. After an intensive day wandering around the fair, my wife and I were sleeping. Suddenly, at 4 in the morning, her phone rang.

"Hello! It's Pedro, Juan's friend (Juan is my son). Lala, are you with Berto? Thieves are breaking the front door and entering your house!"

My house is on a busy street in Almagro, a neighborhood of Buenos Aires. It was 11 p.m. there. Providence made sure that a friend of my son was passing by, just as the thieves were crossing the street to violate my home. They made so much noise that a neighbor sitting at a bar next door called the police. My children were at home then.

They locked themselves in the bathroom. A miracle, along with the thieves' incompetence in trying to force the door, gave the police time to send five officers. The thieves fled as soon as they heard the police car, and my children emerged from the bathroom. Yes, a traditional place in design, but apparently still the safest part of the house.

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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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