Lifting the lid on lavish loos
- Credit: Archant
An unusual collection inspired a far from bog-standard family business, writes Rowan Mantell
Mark Guest grew up in a council house with just an outside toilet. Today he and his partner, Kelly Allnutt (childhood bathroom inside, but avocado-coloured) live in a home with seven loos, and run a business creating and selling quirky and beautiful toilets around the world.
They design and commission toilets decorated with delicate flowers, loos and cisterns in matching metallics, and lavatories lavishly painted with bold Mexican pictures.
The unusual family business began with Mark's toilet collection.
'I began collecting old toilets about 15 years ago,' said Mark. 'I was interested in ornate and decorative things and saw these beautiful old toilets.'
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He was working as a management consultant but his real passion was in restoring old houses and as he visited auctions to source items, he developed a new appreciation of the humble toilet.
Today his collection sits alongside examples of the brand new loos they have inspired.
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There are Victorian porcelain pans, festooned with foliage and flowers, and given names such as 'deluge.' There are art-deco designs, and modernist models from the 1930s. There are also antique sinks and basins, ornate brass flush pulls and toilet roll holders, serpent-shaped taps. And the collection has inspired a new range of replica bathroom furnishings, and a new business for Mark and Kelly, called The Remarkable Toilet Company.
Their 21st century replicas of some of the loveliest lavs, are joined by a collection of new toilets made in Mexico and painted with pictures of vibrant lilies climbing up the pedestals, pans, seats and cisterns, or desert scenes including cacti and birds beneath a baking sun. More replica loos, lurk in cabinets, chairs and chests. A toilet is concealed beneath a Gothic-style wooden throne, and within a military-style mahogany 'thunderbox,' part of a made-to-measure range created by expert woodworkers.
For the past two years Mark and Kelly, who have children aged five and almost two, have been perfecting the reproduction of their toilets so that they will fit modern plumbing and withstand 21st century cleaning fluids and methods. They had to find kilns big enough to fire entire toilet pans, dyes and glazes which retained their colour at high temperatures, and manufacturing methods which would not shatter the toilets. 'There's a lot of science in it,' said Mark. And Kelly, who used to run her own public relations business, said: 'It's like being on The Apprentice every day!' Five-year-old Oskar is also helping spread the word about the new business, telling classmates that his dad is a toilet cleaner.
The toilets of the Remarkable Toilet Company are also becoming talking points in homes and businesses across the country, and as far afield as continental Europe, Iceland and New Zealand. 'It's affordable luxury,' said Mark. 'People send us pictures of their toilets after they've been installed!
A restaurant in Southend has installed seven of their golden toilets and the most popular designs so far are the Victorian Floral (Mark's favourite) and the Metropolis (Kelly's favourite.)
Kelly said that it was Queen Victoria who popularised the idea of having a toilet in a private room, and thousands followed her lead to the loo. 'She wanted everything to be as nice as possible and she didn't want people knowing about each other's ablutions.'
Toilets were installed in homes not just around the country, but across the globe. 'When I started collecting you used to be able to find Victorian toilets and cisterns in skips,' said Mark. Today antique toilets are more likely to be fetching good prices in auctions.
Prices for their own replica toilets, from bog standard to lavatory lavish, range from £250 to £2,800.
At home in Wood Dalling Hall, near Reepham, Mark and Kelly have an impressive seven toilets, but they are all more normal than ornate, because the couple rent the house, after falling in love with the history and architecture of the house, which dates back to 1582. In the 20th century it was used as a Muslim retreat and then a pub and restaurant before being converted back into a private home.
'Norfolk is a beautiful, unspoilt part of the world,' said Mark. 'We had been up here to auctions in Aylsham and Diss.'
Mark and Kelly still love auctions, and regularly loan out some of finds for television and film sets.
Now their showroom is open by appointment and they are nurturing a family and a business in Norfolk.
The Remarkable Toilet Company is based at Wood Dalling Hall, near Reepham, and online at www.beautifultoilets.com
SOME MORE REMARKABLE LOOS AROUND EAST ANGLIA
Norwich Castle has four-berth Norman toilets tucked within its thick outer walls, helpfully sited in companiable groups so that doing one's business did not need to interrupt any other business, and waste matter was conveniently expelled to ditches below.
Holkham Hall. Communal toilets were still the height of sophistication when Holkham Hall was built centuries later. It had double toilets installed just off the main dining hall.
The Wee House, Sheringham, is a beautiful sea-front bed and breakfast, convenient for the beach and town, converted from the town's former public conveniences.
A disused 98-year-old urinal in Norwich is a listed building. On St Crispins Road on the busy inner ring road stands the oldest prefabricated concrete urinal in the UK.
Orford Castle in Suffolk has an even older urinal –dating back it Norman times. It is built into the thick castle wall of a private room used by the constable of the castle.
Audley End House in Essex was one of the first country houses in England to have flushing toilets. The first was installed in 1775 with another four arriving a decade later and costing the equivalent of the annual wages of two servants.
At Weybourne Station, near Sheringham, the reconstructed and restored Edwardian toilets won an award from the National Railway Association.
At Major's Corner in Ipswich a 21st century toilet block features a cartoon sculpture of a Sergeant Major swatting flies.