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Toby Israel Ph.D.
Toby Israel Ph.D.

Our Secret Life in Bathrooms

Transform your space as you transform your 'self' into an older, wiser soul.

I am in my bathroom. You can come in. I’m not doing anything private or personal. That is, unless you consider redesigning a master bath an intimate act.

Others already have joined me here: My plumber who announced, “You need a new faucet to stop this dripping.” My mother (ever the interior decorator) who insisted, “Rip out those horrible pink tiles.” Charles Rennie Mackintosh is in here, too, arguing, “Not so fast. Those tiles are the same pink color I used in my famous designs.” And then there is Houzz and Dwell and HGTV and...

Photo Toby Israel
Source: Photo Toby Israel

I politely asked everyone (except you) to leave. You can stay while I think through how to renovate this space. My plumber had a point. Yet I hadn’t come all of this way as a design psychologist to listen to others insist upon “should,” or “musts.” I wanted to design my bathroom as a place that was meaningful to me.

Sounds a bit much for a bathroom? Think about it. What do you do there besides the obvious voiding and washing and (maybe) sex? Here’s my quick list:

  • Stare into the mirror and evaluate
  • Weigh myself and “things” up
  • Read old magazines
  • Think
  • Shower and brainstorm and realize
  • Float in water and unwind
  • Sing
  • See the full moon rise through an open window
  • Hide away
  • Wash dirty things by hand
  • Begin and end my day

Mundane acts but also intimate acts as poetry when the bullet points are removed:

Stare into the mirror and evaluate

Weigh yourself and “things” up

Read old magazines


Shower and brainstorm and realize or

Float in water and unwind


Through an open window see the full moon rise


Hide away

Wash dirty things by hand

Begin and end your day

Just by removing bullet points our mind shifts past processing a list of words to diving into deeper experience and recognizing: The bathroom is a space where we are most often authentically alone with our "self."

We can go deeper. This ROOM of WATER can conjure up images of birth, of the beginning, of water which we must cross, of water in which we may be purified; the bathroom of mythic proportions, as archetypal story.

Yet now I’m simply at the wallpaper store sifting through hundreds of books trying to find a wallpaper pattern for the bathroom that moves me. I thumb through wallpaper books labeled by ROOMS: “Bathrooms and Kitchens”; by STYLE: “Country,” “Modern,” “Art Deco”; by IMAGERY: “Florals,” “Stripes,” “Abstracts.” No sample books are labeled “Self” or “Authentic” or “Birth” or “Beginning.”

How do we best use the power of visual imagery versus words to express the essence of our "self"? Musing over this, I thought about mythologist Joseph Campbell who pointed to the primal, universal, symbolic story of the hero’s journey as expression of self.

For Campbell, the hero’s journey is a mythical, spiritual one in which everyone is a hero in his birth “from water creature in amniotic fluid to adult.” Once born, the hero embarks on “the soul’s high adventure.”(1) He goes through trials as he moves from childhood to adulthood—from psychological dependency into psychological self-responsibility.

In the process the hero experiences a kind of psychic “death”—a transformation of consciousness. Although often expressed as the need to change the outer world—really what the hero works toward is to be “alive within oneself.”(2) Campbell believed that consciousness (often represented by water as something dangerous that needs to be controlled) “must give itself over”(3) to more unconscious sources.

Could I find a wallpaper pattern with imagery or symbolism that makes me feel alive, perhaps a pattern of a journey’s winding road or of water wildly flowing fast to carry me away? Even if aesthetically appealing, the conventional patterns I kept combing through felt emotionally dead. I thought of psychologist Carl Gustav Jung’s lament, “ our civilized life, we have stripped so many ideas of their emotional energy, we do not really respond to them anymore...”(4)

What was there in my bathroom to respond to? Back in the space, I realized that the room was unquestionably, ubiquitously PINK. Jung (who’s in there with us, too, now) asked, “What does pink symbolize?”

I grew up with a 1950s pink and grey-tiled bathroom so in terms of design psychology, the pink had a familiar (not jarring) echo for me. Stereotypically in our culture pink = female. So why would Charles Rennie Mackintosh, arguably the most the most original architect-designer working in Britain in the first years of the twentieth century,”(5)(6) use pink in his designs?

There was a Yin to Mackintosh’s Yang. His wife, Margaret Macdonald, was one of a small group of mostly female students at the Glasgow School of Art that Mackintosh, too, had attended. Mackintosh insisted: “I had talent, but Margaret had genius.”(7) Toward the end of his life he wrote to his wife, “You must remember that in all my architectural efforts you have been half, if not three-quarters of them.”(8)

So I’ll stop right now calling Macdonald “Mackintosh’s wife.”

Both MacDonald’s and Mackintosh’s paintings (many of which relied on pink-colored hues) expressed “transcendental emotion.”(9) Their interior designs likewise exuded an emotional/spiritual expression of “soul”(10) as well as a sensual quality. Such rooms had “...touches of deep pink enamel, pale green stencil patterns and the occasional shot of deep red or purple, or mother-of-pearl.”(11) Overall, however, the private spaces they decorated such as those in Macdonald/Mackintosh’s apartment on Main Street in Glasgow were painted an ivory-white hue. Such white space with feminine pink accents had gender associations. They were sensual and “charged with body consciousness.” (12)

The color balance in my bathroom, however, is different. The walls are painted white but the pink tiles cover three-quarters of the wall space from the ground up. Is such a pink-white color equation sensuous and soulful? Is it overly yin without sufficient yang? Does it tell the story of woman’s journey by design?

Regardless of color scheme, the one design element that most accurately reflects back to us our sense of 'self' is...the mirror (13) Surrounded by pink and white, I have looked in my bathroom mirror for the last twenty years. The ‘self’ I’ve seen reflected back is that of a joyful woman in love, a proud mother yet also one saddened by losses. Still, overall, I see the face of a strong ‘woman triumphant.’ It’s my face that continues to muse about ways to best transform this space as I transform myself into (hopefully) an older, wiser soul.


1. Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers. (St. Paul, MN: High Bridge, 1988), audiotape.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Carl Gustav Jung, Man and His Symbols. (New York: Dell Publishing Co. Inc, 1964), p. 33.

5. Lyn Pan, Shanghai Style. (San Francisco: Long River Press, 2008), p. 244-245.

6. Macintosh was originally drawn to the ‘common sense’ values of the Arts and Crafts Movement but later gravitated towards the Symbolist Movement of his day which illuminated the sense of ‘soul’ via symbolic expression, believing “...the genuine artist must seek to represent in his work ‘the soul that lies beneath.’” See Timothy Neat, Part Seen, Part Imagined. (Edinburgh: Canongate Press Ltd, 1994 ), p 21.

7.Timothy Neat, Part Seen, Part Imagined. (Edinburgh: Canongate Press Ltd, 1994), p. 13.

8. Ibid, p. 13.

9. Interestingly, too, Macdonald’s dreamy painting entitled “Eve” (1899) likewise deals with the theme of the hero/ine’s journey discussed above. In this artwork, Eve, “must begin her evolutionary and spiritual journey, must risk the joys and pain that knowledge and time bring—must embrace the generations of men, or man and womankind will not live at all.” Similarly, Macdonald’s painting "The Path of Life" (a watercolor design for stained glass 1893-1894) suggests that, “...we will all, continually, be confronted with choices. Each of us can choose—to live inspired by the rose or the thistle; inspired by love or envious hatred; inspired by creative beauty or selfish defiance.” See Timothy Neat, Part Seen, Part Imagined, p. 64 & 66.

10. Neat, Op. cit., p. 21.

11. David Brett, C.R. Mackintosh: The Poetics of Workmanship. (London: Reaktion Books, 1992), p 107.

12. Ibid., p. 31.

13. In fact, in the Macdonald/Mackintosh Main Street bedroom was one of several large, full-length mirrors that Mackintosh designed:

A man standing before this piece sees himself enclosed in an unmistakable female space; a woman sees not simply herself, but her own contingent figure gathered into the transcendent Feminine. This effect is not brought about solely by the shape of the mirror, but by the thick white lacquer of its surface. Moreover, the self that enters a mirror—like the self in fantasy—is without continuity, and vanishes as soon as the beholder looks away; yet, when present, is fascinating. It is a self without social obligation. (See Brett, p. 109.)

Copyright Toby Israel 2017

About the Author
Toby Israel Ph.D.

Toby Israel is an environmental psychologist who studies design psychology.

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