One Size Does Not Fit All, According to Architecture Alumna Kathryn Anthony
By John Wilkens
The San Diego Union-Tribune
15 July 2017
Photo Courtesy of Kathryn Anthony’s Twitter
College of Environmental Design alumna and University of Illinois Professor of Architecture Kathryn Anthony (Ph.D. Architecture ‘81) has made it her life’s work to study and write about how the design of products and places shapes our everyday lives. And what’s more everyday than the toilet?
“It affects everybody,” she said.
So she’s lifted the lid on gender bias in public restrooms, pointing out the flaws that often leave women waiting in long lines at concerts and sporting events while the men “zip in and out,” to use her memorable phrase from testimony she gave to Congress on the subject.
She’s enthusiastically embraced the TOTO high-tech Washlet toilet that’s common in Japan, where she first encountered it on a trip about 13 years ago. Instead of toilet paper to clean themselves, people sitting on heated seats use temperature-controlled water and air.
So she put one in her home, where it’s such a popular curiosity she’s left a guest book nearby for visitors to jot down their comments. And she had two of them installed in her parents’ house in La Jolla.
“My mother says it’s the best gift she’s ever received,” Anthony said, “and she thinks about me every day.”
In academic circles, Anthony is known for research that has led to changes in the way schools of architecture are accredited and the ways their students are treated during design juries. She’s raised awareness about issues of diversity in architecture, a field with low numbers of women and people of color.
Now she’s aiming for a more mainstream audience with her newest book, Defined by Design. Written in a fairly breezy, accessible style, it looks around at the world— toys, skyscrapers, tools, maternity wards, shoes, airplanes, car seats, hair salons — to scold what’s poorly done and praise what’s thoughtful. It points out the often-unseen gender, age and body biases that affect the way things are envisioned and made, which in turn impacts our comfort, self-image and sometimes even our health.
And the book calls for a “seismic shift” in design. “As citizens and consumers, people have far more ability than they realize to harness the power of everyday design,” explained Anthony. “I want to help them wield that power to make a world that is safer, happier and more comfortable than before.”
As a child, Anthony and her family settled in La Jolla, California. She went to La Jolla High School and to U.C. Berkeley, where she majored in psychology. Anthony thought she would go into clinical work until she signed up for a course in environmental psychology, which combined aspects of anthropology, sociology and design to look at the ways places and spaces affect behavior.
After she got a doctorate in architecture at CED in 1981, she taught at Cal Poly-Pomona before moving to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is the longest serving female faculty member — 33 years — in the School of Architecture.
One of the courses she teaches there is called Gender and Race in Contemporary Architecture. She requires the students to interview someone who is different — different age, different race, different gender, or different size — and ask about day-to-day experiences with the design of places and products.
About 10 years ago, Anthony began doing her own interviews in that vein, compiling stories from short men who couldn’t find neckties that fit, tall people who banged into overhead bins on airplanes, children who couldn’t reach bathroom sinks, new mothers who couldn’t find places to nurse their babies, older people who couldn’t open pill bottles, large people who couldn’t fit into car seats.
“All of those things send us subtle messages about who is important and who is not, about who belongs and who doesn’t,” Anthony said. “When it happens, people tend to blame themselves. But it’s not their fault. It’s the design.”
“Fashion, product and building designs shape our lives every day in surprising, powerful ways,” she writes. “And whether we’re aware of it or not, they affect everything we feel, think and do.”