Plastic, disposable and ugly: Why toothbrushes are a crime against design 29.08.19

Written by  Max Fraser

goby four electric toothbrushes in stands in range of colours ICON

What would the Bauhaus have made of a world that dresses up simple tools as high-performance sportswear? asks Max Fraser

Long before the toothbrush became demonised for contributing to the plastic assault on the world, it was already aesthetically assaulting our senses. So conditioned are we to cleaning our teeth that we navigate supermarket shelves without much thought, other than hunting for ‘medium’ bristles on the instruction of our dentists.

Popping a new toothbrush out of the cardboard-backed plastic packaging makes you see the degradation of your ‘old’ one, its faded bristles waning in comparison to the shiny new multi-directional, multi-coloured nylon that will soon be gleaming your smile. But my, aren’t these tools ugly?

Take a close look at the body of the toothbrush and the material complexity of its form is impressive. Thermoplastics have been moulded to ergonomic, slip-grip perfection with bristles angled to tackle the most stubborn of oral plaque. The modern toothbrush, in contrast to the wood or ivory handles and boar bristles of the past, is a feat of computer-aided engineering endorsed by dentists worldwide.

Yet the quest for dental perfection has resulted in an aesthetic not dissimilar to that of athletic footwear, another product that has been honed for performance. The various composites invented by material scientists meld and merge, and are accented through colour to celebrate their complexity. Their chunkier electric cousins haven’t escaped the same treatment.

What would the Bauhaus masters design if they were equipped with the manufacturing and material sophistication of today? Would the meeting rooms of Oral B and Colgate become battlegrounds against the well-defined marketing agenda? As more people aim to reject plastics in their daily lives and bamboo toothbrushes become more popular, there is hope for a modernist material purity to be bestowed on the humble toothbrush.

There is plenty of room for design to improve on home appliances. Kettles, toasters and the like are used for only moments each day but remain a permanent feature of our kitchen counters. They are often created through a complex interplay between plastic and metal that conceals their inner workings, with the aim that they should nestle in the kitchen with subtlety and finesse. Jasper Morrison achieved this with his appliances for Rowenta in 2004, but currently only Muji seems to hit the mark with its signature/no-signature appeal.

The disappointing aesthetic of these everyday items could be partly defined by their short lifespan and our inability to repair them. Surely a more responsible end-of-life which enabled us to live with our appliances for longer would determine a more considered start?

This article originally appeared in Icon 193, the July 2019 edition

Leave a comment

Click to show