Earlier this year, I visited TOTO Ltd. headquarters as well as their factories to get familiar with new products launched in 2018; I even got a sneak peek at what else is coming down the pike. What impressed me the most about the famous plumbing company, aside from their exceptional product lines, is their history and their commitment to quality.

When designing a faucet or plumbing fixture, it seems like the rules are simple: function, then form, then add water. While many products in the TOTO line look sleek and stunning, a lot of work goes into the tiniest of details – both from a mechanical and design standpoint.

While in Tokyo, I met the members of the talented design team to discuss their sanitary fixtures, and got some one-on-one time with Shogo Takayama. Shogo-san gave me insight into what he and others at TOTO deal with when working on such common, yet essential products in our lives.

Q.   What is your background, and your role with TOTO? What are your responsibilities designing products?

I studied at and graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts. After I worked for a lighting company for several years, I joined TOTO Ltd. I had been thinking that I wanted to design something functional and artistic, specifically with products related to and with water. Here at TOTO, I deal with product design, design strategy and communications. My responsibilities have me interacting daily with those three departments here at the company.

Q.    What is a typical length of time that a TOTO fixture takes from concept to finished product?

Generally speaking, it takes about two years from the beginning of planning until we are able to do a product launch. But that timeframe varies on the specific product. We divide the process into several stages, and we prioritize aspects of fabrication into focuses such as “market survey,” “product planning” and “design concept.” We take time to discuss goals in an internal meeting before any the designers start to sketch.

Q.    How do you approach designing something that has been done so many times, both by TOTO and all other plumbing manufacturers? How are TOTO products different from your competitors?

I think that the general function, expectation, and use of plumbing products and sanitation equipment are the same for TOTO and others, and so that general concept never changes. The design of any TOTO product always comes second to factors such as water quality, conservation, regulation, and so on. TOTO products encapsulate a harmony of what we call “High Design and Progress Function.” We put a lot of thought into that because we want all our products to be user-friendly. It doesn’t mean very much to have a stylish fixture that doesn’t function the way a client would want or expect. That’s our principal focus at TOTO.

Q.    Many simple and familiar products in our homes are being designed with smart features and complex technology. How do the mechanics inside the fixture affect the shape and look of any product?

The simple answer is that one will follow the other. But, admittedly, that is both a difficult and unusual task because the innards of our fixtures are very technical. We must design something that functions but also looks appealing. We need to grasp the essential function of the final product. Technology has advanced so much that we can get maximum use out of the tight spaces in a fixture, so that helps us with how we shape our products. To that end, form and function must be in balance. Lean too far either way, and one of the attributes will be lacking. We believe that the best way is for a designer and a technician to cooperate and coordinate with each other to make better products.

Q.   Then how closely do TOTO designers and mechanical engineers work in tandem on any particular product?

As part of the design team, I can say that we work very closely (as in physically) with the engineering team located near our work place. That helps us to communicate very well. There is a factory near our work place in Tokyo and Kitakyushu, and we can make prototypes easily. That way we can work out the vital details and improve quickly. Also, this maybe a typically Japanese story, we sometimes discuss work at lunch and/or dinner with sake! It helps with our relations, and we can make decisions easily and promptly.

Q.   What tests are done to ensure the quality of a TOTO product? What tools does TOTO have to test plumbing fixtures both during development and before the product leaves the factory?

TOTO has and continues to conduct many, many tests to ensure everything with a TOTO label meets our high standards, even if customers, and those outside of the company, never have an idea of what those are. They probably wouldn’t believe what we do to our fixtures before it leaves the factory.

Here’s one example: In our facility, we have a certain durability test that repeats a flush over ten thousand times. It surpasses general usability, and normal usage. At TOTO, we want to create and serve products that are easy for everyone to use. So TOTO only ships products after they’ve passed many thorough tests. We have products that provide service to users of all ages, sizes and means of accessibility. And we communicate with those people to make better products and to provide better usability in our “Universal Design Laboratory.”

Q.   How has TOTO taken steps to design products with focus on conserving the environment? Is it driven by governmental standards, or standards which TOTO establishes?

At TOTO we are focused on conserving water as well as electricity. For example, our “Air-in Shower” technology can save customers up to 35% in their utility costs. The way it works is that the fixture increases water volume by adding air to each droplet compared to existing products. It provides comfort and water savings with a user-friendly function. It is easy to use, and helps protect and preserve our environment.

Q.    When it comes to codes, or cultural expectations, what design difference exists in products that are designed for and installed in different regions or territories?

There are different preferences and tendencies that customers/citizens have in each region. In Japan and Europe, the design preference for many customers is generally a contemporary style. On the other hand, in America, customers prefer classic or traditional. In China and Asia, “bigger” is preferred, so the size and quantity of fixtures tends to be more than other markets. Each region’s preference and trends vary depending on demand.

We recently streamlined a number of our lines to something we consider “neutral” to gain further acceptance worldwide. We also present color variations that are more commonly accepted, and our size variation is tailored to certain markets. For instance, we offer small toilets for children – which is universal – but we also have large toilets that are designed with our Sumo wrestlers in mind. Regardless of the fixture, we aim to create harmony with each surrounding design space.

Q.    How far out do you and the Toto design team look for inspiration and to observe trends?

Our team keeps watch of design trends worldwide. We attend exhibitions periodically, and keep watching our transition in different markets as well as here in Japan. Then we start on new business while anticipating a design trend. Furthermore, we regularly conduct extensive interviews with clients and interior designers to deeply understand the diverse perspectives.

Q.    What are the easiest and most difficult parts of design? What is the most fulfilling for you? What is the last product you’ve designed?

I like sketching: I find it fulfilling to work with something when it comes from my mind. It is fun for me to sketch, but, on the other hand, it is tough to adapt design requirements/criteria and to find a price-point that applies for the market needs. It is a long process for any product in our lines, but we always focus on our core goals to improve the company strategy. That does take time and can be difficult.

My latest achievement in design is the “ZL series faucet.” It is a world-class fixture, as well as the thinnest faucet design that champions the latest TOTO technology.

Thanks to Shogo-san for his time. You can learn more about TOTO Ltd. on their website, and you can browse the latest products here. The company has built a revolutionary museum in Kitakyushu (based on a drop of water) where they showcase the company’s history. They also display other products in their home/residential line such as cabinetry. They’ve got plenty to offer, and it’s worth checking out for kitchen ideas!