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A Game of Trone at Station F’s Big Mamma Restaurant

20 April 2018

Toilet designers Trone are to inaugurate their first-ever customized toilets in the heart of the Station F startup campus in central Paris. Eight thematic spaces will nestle in one of Europe’s biggest restaurants, the soon-to-be-opened Felicita, instigated by the Big Mamma culinary empire. Trone flowered under HEC’s incubator program a year ago thanks to its four co-creators. According to these toilet musketeers, this first series heralds a “new era” for global toilet design.

c Trone - ICONE 01

Four years ago, the notion of toilet space was described by Venice Biennale curator Rem Koolhaas as “the fundamental zone of interaction – on the most intimate level – between humans and architecture”. That 54th edition elevated toilets to what a critic called a “corporeal union with the mother of all arts”.

HEC alumnus Hugo Volpei, and his three fellow-travelers who constitute the Trone startup, have decided to integrate such a union into the latest - and arguably most ambitious - creation by the Big Mamma restaurant chain. In mid-May, Felicita will become the seventh restaurant Victor Lugger and Tigrane Seydoux (who met at HEC in 2007) open in the French capital. The 3,000m² restaurant will host eight distinct toilets, collectively called ICONE 01, designed by Trone. They harbor intriguing names such as “Origines”, “Le Sacre”, “Arc-en-ciel” and “Chalet”.


Toilet Inspiration From London Restaurant

“This is an ideal occasion in which to publicly launch our company,” explains the company’s efferverscent CEO Hugo Volpei, who began working on the Trone concept in March last year, just before finishing his Entrepreneurship Major. “Big Mamma has known a phenomenal success since it hit Paris in 2015. And there’s obviously something symbolic in working with two former HEC students on the launch of our first toilet designs. On top of that, the HEC incubator at Station F is where we developed our startup and brought it to fruition.”

Volpei had always nurtured dreams of allying entrepreneurship with his penchant for architecture. His two years of work experience, sandwiched between his three years at HEC’s Grande Ecole, had also fortified his interest in the restaurant business. When he met architecture students Romain Freychet (coincidentally, a childhood friend) and Antoine Prax, they began shaping ideas around toilet designing. “The notion actually came to me in London,” pursues Hugo. “I went to a restaurant called Sketch, an invention by the Algerian Kabyl Mourad “Momo” Mazouz and I was dazzled by the latrines! The restaurant has the oddest shaped toilets, these egg-shaped giant pods straight out of a science fiction movie!”

Since its 2002 opening, the toilets have indeed been one of the drawing points for the lavish restaurant tucked in behind Picadilly Circus. It was this notion of honoring a human concept born some 5,000 years ago in places as diverse as the Orkney Islands in Scotland and what is today Pakistan, which grabbed the then-student. “Toilets have an amazing history! And it’s so central to our lives. There are studies showing that in an average lifespan a human spends an entire year in this space. And yet we spend more time choosing our sofa or cupboard than the toilet we use so often. There and then, I decided this was an opportunity I had to explore.”


Toilet Taboos Fall, Even in France

Volpei persuaded student engineer Camille Mourgues to join the trio and for a year they honed the design, focusing on the reservoir, bowl and seat, as well as the surrounding walls and floor. “The idea is to make this object desirable, identifiable and differentiable,” reads the startup’s press package. It continues: “We break taboos to make toilets an object of desire, an object that resembles us, an object we want to buy and to show off.” Their approach has pricked the interest of major French entrepreneurs like Julien Callède, cofounder of Made.com as the quartet seeks to transform this private space with  reinforced glass reservoirs, elegant toilets seat made of shellacked ash, ceramic toilet bowls, personalized floors and walls; etc. “We’re taking a leaf out of the Mad Network philosophy,” explains Volpei, “which focuses on the client’s DNA and provides her/him with a holistic experience.”

The HEC 2017 graduate acknowledges that the project is all the more fascinating in that it touches deep cultural and societal particularities. “Toilets and their contents are an age-old issue with taboos and health issues that have dominated humanity for millennia,” says Volpei. “We know of the obsessive need for toilet cleanliness the Japanese have, for example. What is less known are the differences within Europe. Take the Dutch for example: they put the evacuation hole at the front so they can examine their excrement to see if they have any disease. That’s unthinkable in France where we prefer to see as little as we can.”

It seems attitudes are evolving, however. The entrepreneur points to the huge success of Giulia Enders’ book “Le charme discrèt de l’intestin”, translated into English as “Gut: the Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ.” The 2015 book by the young German scientist enjoyed global success including in France: “Trone obviously gives priority to French habits, but we’re exploring an international market so all cultures will be taken into account. Enders’ work also highlights the negative impact sitting at a 90° angle can have on the body, so this could also impact our design strategy in the future.”

The firm offers three toilet styles: simple unified models, original and the made-to-measure kind ordered by Big Mamma for their Station F restaurant. In 2019, Trone hopes to integrate a second generation which will use AI, digital technology and robotics, as well as essential oil sprays: “The former will facilitate self-cleaning mechanisms, with integrated cameras picking out spots to clean up. This will cut down on water usage. Our priorities are cleanliness, smell and sustainability,” Volpei concludes. For the moment, the toilets are 100% made-in-France.

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