through the looking-glass

Nearing the end of a four leg part-business/part-pleasure European trip, from Helsinki to Tallin to Berlin to Luxembourg. Sure, I could post about all the marvelous and beautiful things we’ve seen, but I’ve never been much for travelblogue.

Instead, let’s talk design. Because Scandanavians are renowned for it, various slight adjustments that either prefer the aesthetics or functionality of things that might otherwise have seemed to be working pretty well as they were.

When I was in Oslo last year, the hotel where I was staying included these wrapped toothpicks that were slightly thicker and curved on one end and included, on the packaging, why this design was superior to the standard toothpick. And, you know what: they were right, and excavating stray bits from my teeth with an ordinary toothpick has felt substandard ever since.

In Berlin, we stayed at a Scandanavian-themed hotel, which also had various tweaks of design. The bathroom door, for instance, was a sliding panel that doubled on both sides as a full-length mirror. But that led to the curious design consequence shown here:

So we’re clear (tee-hee), this photo is taken outside the bathroom taken with the bathroom door closed. In other words, when you are in the bathroom, conducting whatever business you may be conducting, you are visible to anyone standing in the area outside the bathroom. Moreover, at the very same time, the view from the inside of the bathroom is a mirror, so when inside you have the pleasant illusion of privacy that one normally associates with bathroom doors. Suffice it to say that our own discovery involved parties on opposite sides of the door and somebody shouting whoa!

I recognize that Scandanavians are a bit more liberated from some of the more prim aspects of American culture, but, still: my presumption is that this is a design flaw, and not some reflection (well, or lack thereof) of differences between Scandanavian and American principles about the sanctity of one’s time at the toilet.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

7 thoughts on “through the looking-glass”

  1. I think I may have stayed in that hotel, or in any case one in Berlin that had similar doors.

    I can also vouch for the fact that I have never seen doors like that in any of my extensive travels in the Nordic countries :-)


  2. So this is a two-way mirror, right? So this “design flaw” happens only when the lights are on in the room on one side and the lights are off in the room on the other side. So if you stood in the bathroom with the lights off and closed the door then you could see through the door to the main room if the lights were off in the main room. In the photo you’ve posted, then, the “design flaw” only happens because the lights are not on in the main room, so it’s darkened while the bathroom is lit. And presumably since the effect only happens when one room is darkened, you don’t get this effect during the day, when the main room would be lit by natural sunlight.

    This raises the question of what circumstances would result in this “design flaw” problem. I can think of two types of circumstances, but they both seem pretty weird to me! (Full disclosure: I’m not American, so maybe these circumstances are normal for Americans, but weird only to Europeans…)

    One possibility is that two or more people were hanging out after sundown in an unlit main room (or, during the day but with the curtains drawn) before one person went to use the bathroom (turning on the bathroom light, obviously) while the remaining person or people in the (still unlit) main room went to stand next to the bathroom door, thus being able to see into the bathroom. But who hangs out in a hotel room after dark (or during the day but with the curtains drawn) without turning on the lights???

    If the bathroom is next to the main entrance door to the hotel room (as, in my hotel-staying experience, it virtually always is) another possible (and perhaps more likely?) scenario would be that one person is alone in the main room and then goes to the bathroom, turning off the lights in the main room as he/she moves to the bathroom (to conserve energy?), then someone else enters the now unlit main room, at which point this person is confronted with the unpleasant view of the bathroom, before he/she has a chance to turn on the lights in the darkened main room. But don’t most hotels tend to have lights that automatically come on when someone enters the room, in which case the bathroom door would just appear as a mirror, instead of being see-through. And, more importantly, who turns off the main room lights before going to the bathroom??? Maybe that’s good for the planet, but seems pretty weird to me!

    Maybe the crucial difference between Scandinavians and Americans relate to whether or not they are willing to sit in a dark room with the lights off?

    I think to resolve this puzzle Jeremy needs to provide the readers of Scatterplot with much more detail about the specific circumstances that led to your “discovery”!


  3. Another possibility is that the main room is lit, someone goes to the bathroom, and the remaining people in the main room get sick of waiting for the bathroom-occupier to finish, and move to leave the room, turning off the lights on the way out, but glancing back to the bathroom before leaving — thus making the unpleasant “discovery.” I suppose that’s a plausible situation that could happen to normal people.

    I’ve thought about this way too much! Why didn’t you just ask the hotel receptionist if they are aware of this “flaw,” whether or not it is intentional, and, if intentional, what purpose does it serve? That’s what I would have done.


  4. Hmmm. I find sociologygradstudent’s inability to imagine how the scene Jeremy described would come about to be, itself, rather puzzling. Maybe it is because I’ve been married more than 40 years. To spell out what is probably obvious to almost everyone, people in bonded relationships do often sleep together with the light off and do sometimes have calls of nature in the middle of the night and it is really not an unusual practice to put the light on when visiting the bathroom.

    Hey, I’m even worldly enough to know that some people turn the lights off even in more short term relationships.


  5. The spot where I am taking the photo is right in front of the refrigerator, on top of which is a table-ish thing (Scandanavian design, again) that provides the best place to charge one’s camera/laptop, etc.. Next to the closet, next to the door. So it’s functional space.

    Perhaps more importantly, though, even in the photo above not all the lights in the outside of the room are on–I’m pretty sure one or both of the bedside lamps was on (although the curtains were drawn).

    It’s not like it needs to be dark in the outside room to have the effect happen; it just needs to be dimmer. Check next time when you are in a hotel: unless you are the type for whom lights are either all-on or all-off, I suspect you’ll find that quite often when the bathroom is in use, it’s more brightly lit than the space outside it.


  6. It should be pointed out that the failure of Berliners to properly execute any principles of Scandinavian design should not be held against the Scandinavians.

    This does however suggest that any frugal sociologists looking for roommates during a conference should reconsider if said conference is held in Berlin, or in a German-owned Scandinavian-themed hotel. It’s one thing with a partner, but with a colleague? Eww.


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