The New York City restaurant Motel Morris, which opened its doors last April, closely resembles a 1950s motel. Tamara McCarthy, who owns the restaurant with her husband and a childhood friend, wanted patrons to feel like they were sitting in a classic American diner. A graphic designer, McCarthy expected customers would be enamored of the old-school touches like authentic family photos on the walls, vintage diner plates and napkins, and dishes like “meatloaf and mash.” Instead, she was surprised to find that they were the most taken with its bathroom.
She told me that a few weeks after the restaurant opened, waitstaff began notifying her out of concern: People who went to the bathroom were taking their time.
“We believe some people didn’t even have to go to the bathroom but just wanted to stay inside and take photos,” she says with a laugh.
McCarthy had designed the bathroom to look it belonged in someone’s grandmother’s house five decades ago. It’s completely covered in floral wallpaper and pink tile, and features pink props like vintage motel lounge chairs, an old hair dryer, and a mounted telephone, courtesy of a bartender who likes to collect old trinkets.
In order to get a (not creepy) glimpse of what was going on behind closed doors, Motel Morris wrote the hashtag #PeeinPink on the mirror to encourage people to share their photos. Selfies in the bathroom of Motel Morris are now just as common on its Instagram geotag as shots of the restaurant’s food. (“After seeing an instagram of Motel Morris’s bathroom, I knew I had to come here,” one Yelp review admitted recently. “I know that’s a weird reason to decide to go to a restaurant but I’m glad it happened because Motel Morris was a delight.”)
Maybe you haven’t seen photos of people in the bathroom of Motel Morris, but you likely have noticed photos in other novelty bathrooms. Blame it on the Instagram museum experience businesses are looking to cash in on, but today, people expect everything to be interactive and Instagrammable; bathrooms are just the latest corner of our lives to become highly stylized for the aspirational lens of social media.
Businesses from restaurants to hotels to coffee shops to yoga studios want their bathrooms to attract as much attention as possible, eager to grab customers. And so they are turning to cute wallpaper, flashy light fixtures, tiles, and other kitschy decor — along with ample mirrors, of course.
Attractive bathrooms are now a draw in and of themselves. Vogue has a list of the most Instagrammable bathrooms in London (including at Yotam Ottolenghi’s Nopi, whose bathroom resembles a Yayoi Kusama exhibit), while Architectural Digest has a roundup of which hotels you should book, based on the bathroom’s Insta potential. VinePair has identified the bars with the most Instagrammable bathrooms in the US, and Eater has determined where the best toilet ’grams can be taken in cities like in DC, Austin, Chicago, and LA.
Novelty bathrooms have become such a phenomenon that places are even paying to redo their bathrooms solely for social media, says Noa Santos, the founder of the interior design service Homepolish. And some businesses have gone to great lengths to ensure their bathrooms are photogenic, like the London nightclub Annabel’s, which hired makeup artist Charlotte Tilbury as a consultant to make sure its bathroom design was attractive enough to serve as the selfie background for its posh attendees.
“Places are designing for Instagram because they know that people want to capture moments at every place they go,” says Santos. “Five years ago, commercial spaces weren’t thinking about applying their branding to the entirety of their space, and so the bathroom was an afterthought, but the expectations are totally different today.”
Designing a bathroom with something like flashy wallpaper is essentially low-hanging fruit, says Jonathan Schnapp, the owner of the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club. His Brooklyn location, which opened in 2014, has become so synonymous with the bathroom’s pink flamingo wallpaper that when Schnapp opened a second location in Chicago a few months ago, he knew it too had to have the wallpaper because “it’s part of the experience.” Sure, patrons like shuffleboard; they also like flamingo-laden selfies.
“A well-designed bathroom means something today,” Santos notes. “If you put effort into something behind closed doors, it signals you’ve given extra thought to your branding, and it’s probably special.”
Bathroom selfies now flood news feeds. One Instagram feed, iluvbathrooms, run by Everlane social media manager Isadora Sales, is solely dedicated to the bathroom selfie “movement,” as Sales calls it.
“Bathroom selfies are the better version of your regular selfie,” she says. “You get to use all the stylistic elements of these cool bathrooms and have all the privacy in the world to get the pic you want. It’s a highly stylized photo without too much effort, and you’ll notice that a lot of these photos also have sexualized elements to them. These branded bathrooms really give people a chance to take photos where it’s clear that they feel themselves.”
“I have noticed that even shitty dive bars have Insta bait,” adds my colleague Rebecca Jennings, a fervent bathroom selfie supporter. “Pine Box Rock Shop has my favorite: The wallpaper is literally just laminated cutouts of porn magazines. Beautiful.”
To the bathroom selfie cynic, it might seem odd or even gross that people are willing to take photos of themselves in such a private place. But Instagram has destroyed many illusions of privacy, and bathroom selfies are pretty much status quo. A museum exhibit about self-expression at the Saatchi Gallery in London last year even had a section dedicated to them.
Plus, the trend of highly stylized bathrooms ’grams isn’t actually related to, say, bowel movements. Take a look at the account Bathrooms of Insta: With more than 300,000 followers, the account is nothing but whitewashed subway tiled walls, pristine porcelain toilets, monogrammed towels next to Aesop soap, and extravagant light fixtures. These images might even help you forget what people are actually going to the bathroom for.
Like all social media trends, stylized bathrooms and their selfies come with backlash. Last year, the Waldorf Astoria in Dubai pleaded for women to stop posting provocative bathroom selfies since it didn’t want guests to “see our geolocation on photos of girls in semi-naked and erotic poses.” Some have lamented that Instagram, and the subsequent baiting of patrons with stylish bathrooms, is ruining restaurants; art featuring the text “No selfies in the bathroom” is a trending category on Etsy.
Still, the elevation of the bathroom continues apace — not just in the commercial space but now at home too (one recent headline: “9 Ways to Make Your Bathroom Look More Expensive”).
“Spending money to make home bathrooms feel luxurious is a huge trend,” says Santos of Homepolish. “It’s become just as important as investing in the main space because of the photos that are taken there.” Luke Sherwin, one of the co-founders of the mattress company Casper who just started a new home renovations startup, Block, calls updated bathrooms “sanctuaries.”
According to a recent report from HomeAdvisor, more homeowners today are choosing to renovate their bathroom over their kitchens, a reversal from home renovation choices of a few years ago. Millennials are also twice as likely as baby boomers to remodel bathrooms, HomeAdvisor found.
This study focused on millennials who actually own a home or have the means to renovate their bathrooms — a luxury many don’t have, especially considering homeownership among millennials is down.
The upside, though, is that in order to get the same experience, we can just keep visiting hotels and restaurants, our smartphone cameras cued up and ready for that novelty bathroom ’gram.
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