What happened to... Home Futures

The shower curtain

To mark the Home Futures exhibition, guest authors take stock of some of the changes that the contemporary domestic interior has endured in the last two decades. What happened to the TV, the telephone, the bed? Explore more of these essays in the official exhibition catalogue.

Today, bathroom design is aimed at opulence and ease. In a world of heated mirrors (to avoid fogging) and heated floors (to avoid chilly feet) the shower curtain is persona non-grata. It is a negotiated compromise: it turns a bathtub into a cumbersome and sometimes treacherous shower cubicle. Form follows finance. In a time when expertise is required either to find innovative solutions for shrinking space or to capitalise on the luxurious potential of large bathrooms, the shower curtain has lost its role. It belonged to a different era, one more attuned to improvisations and provisional compromises, where those who liked both showers and baths would have to make do with the shower-bath and its requisite and ad hoc curtain. It could never compete with the solidity of the fixed shower cubicle or the delightfully amorphous space of the wet room.

The shower curtain was often unpleasant: not only did it seem to attract indelible patterns of mildew, it also demonstrated an uncanny magnetism towards bare flesh. In cold bathrooms, the effect of a spray of hot water often created a semi-vacuum, in which cold, dank shower curtains enveloped and clung to showering, cowering bodies. In films, it seemed to attract a salacious misogyny that drew on the erotic potential of the combination of opacity and nudity, and the psychological terror of being so utterly vulnerable. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho captured this tone most completely – not the screeching violins and the endless knife thrusts, but the silent crumpling of the Janet Leigh character’s body, clutching the shower curtain for support as the plastic hoops at the top give way one by one. While the shower curtain seemed to speak of inexpensive utility, it also exhibited idiosyncratic tendencies. Your shower curtain could make it seem as if you were showering deep underwater among brightly coloured fish. It could present your shower as if it were surrounded by gnarled, old wooden doors. It could even, if your humour tended towards the macabre, offer you a version of the Psycho shower curtain, with streaks of blood and grim, bloody hand prints.

If in the future we are bereft of shower curtains, it will be because we have moved into a more efficient realm of bathroom fittings that also reflects the disparity between those for whom luxury seems to be taken for granted and those who struggle for necessities.

—Ben Highmore

Related exhibition

Home Futures

Explore today’s home through the prism of yesterday’s imagination. Are we living in the way that pioneering architects and designers throughout the 20th century predicted, or has our idea of home proved resistant to real change?

Find out more

Home Futures

Alongside original essays by leading voices in the field, this richly illustrated book features more than 200 colour images, organised in six thematic sections exploring privacy, the smart home, compact living, self-sufficiency, nomadic lifestyles and the idea of the home as an idyllic landscape.