Design icons: the butler sink


From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.

The butler sink was broadcast on 4th December 2021. You can listen to the audio here.

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Whether you’re installing a country-style kitchen or something more hi-tech, chances are you’ll consider a butler sink. The chunky white ceramic kitchen sink is a classic. Although popular for at least two centuries, it’s only relatively recently that they’ve become truly fashionable. The question why is answered by their pleasing practicality.  Despite being seen as something of a luxury today, in the past they were pretty much all that was available.

They were made from fireclay, a heavy kind of mud with a high aluminium oxide content, and then baked with a thick enamel finish. Cheap to produce and hygienic, too, they were used in hospitals and schoolrooms as well as in the home. They go under several other names, too, each denoting a subtle difference, such as the Belfast sink which is the deepest and has an overflow built into its edge, which signifies the abundant water supply of Northern Ireland. Or the London sink which is much shallower and showed that London’s water supply was a more valuable commodity. Water consumption didn’t matter for the butler sink which was designed expressly to be the right size for the special items that only the butler of a grand house would clean, like delicate crystal decanters, away from the clumsy hands of the scullery maid who washed up everything else.

The sinks show the move in the western world to indoor plumbing and a gradual sophistication of fittings. With improved plumbing and sanitation in towns and cities, by the end of the nineteenth century most middle class homes had a proper kitchen for cooking with a scullery off it for the more basic tasks. The big square sinks were also perfect for bathing pet dogs and even small children. And when the enamel gradually began to wear, or some ham-fisted dolt had chipped the rim by accident, the sink would find a second life as a plant container in the garden, sometimes even pasted with cement so that it looked as though hewn from stone.

The butler sink joins a select group from the past, like claw-feet bathtubs and sturdy brass taps, which evoke the perceived quality of another era. Its industrial look emphasises its heritage and utility, too. Nostalgia plays a huge part in design today but it’s a fickle thing: things you might have loathed as a child are suddenly ultra-cool. Just as owners of the smart new homes of the mid-twentieth century rejected the unsophisticated enamel sink, embracing instead the gleam of stainless steel or aluminium, today these same outcast objects are not only welcome in the kitchen but happily paid for with a premium.

The butler sink goes beyond being simply an item of domestic faddishness thanks to its enduring practicality. Deep and capacious, it may no longer be used to wash the dishes but it’ll definitely elevate the task of washing the soil from your organically-grown vegetables. A touch of Downton Abbey, perhaps, in the what’s-old-is-new-again world of today.

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