Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

Last spring, as stay-at-home orders set in and consumers cleared out store shelves, we learned something that we probably knew all along: You don’t think about toilet paper until you are desperate.

And if the lowly roll is overlooked, the design of the toilet paper holder is even less considered — until now. The Echo Park gallery Marta is presenting “Under/Over,” an exhibition of more than 50 toilet paper holders by an international lineup of artists and designers.

Some interpreted the task of designing a TP holder with utter solemnity, producing clean, functional designs that behoove the modern bathroom. But many took the commission as an opportunity for self-expression and delight. There are lasciviously sculpted ceramics in bright orange and green. A repurposed Black & Decker drill. “Kraptonite” chains. A game of rock, toilet paper, scissors.

For all the humor, “Under/Over,” has a serious side.

Marta founders and curators Heidi Korsavong and Benjamin Critton partnered with Plant Paper, an eco-minded manufacturer and e-tailer that makes toilet paper from organic bamboo pulp. Wall text hung in the gallery’s windows along Echo Park Boulevard spells out the ecological hazards and politics behind North American tissue paper: It takes 37 gallons of clean water and a cocktail of bleach and formaldehyde to produce that quilted white roll we’ve come to expect next to the toilet, and nearly a third of the market is controlled by Koch Industries, according to the gallery.

The information is eye-opening, but it is the toilet paper holders and stories behind each piece — some personal, some political — that charm. The range of design and material invention is most welcome in the midst of a pandemic and calls for social change here in Los Angeles and nationwide.

Here designers share the inspiration for seven of the entries in “Under/Over,” which is on view by appointment at Marta until Sunday.

Nifemi Marcus-Bello’s “O.pá O.ba”

Based in Lagos, Nigeria, designer Nifemi Marcus-Bello focused on the impact of globalization on design in Africa.

“Unlike most cultures, we don’t shy away from discussing toilet etiquette, but we don’t shout about it either,” he said. “That’s why I wasn’t afraid to design something bold that would stand out in the toilet.”

His contributions to the show, titled “O.pá O.ba,” are made of black and white beads and copper thread over a steel frame. The materials reference the king’s crown and scepter of the Yoruba tribe of western Nigeria. Historically, such sacred objects were made of red jasper beads, sourced regionally, but changes in the market have pushed production overseas. According to Marcus-Bello, increasingly beads are imported from Britain and China rather than from nearby African countries.

“I wanted to create a product that highlighted this phenomenon and start a dialogue on how material use and selection plays a crucial role in socioeconomic growth in maker communities,” he said.

Wrk–Shp (Airi Isoda and Ryan Upton), “Untitled”

Self-described “architect turned clothing designer” Airi Isoda of Wrk-Shp and her partner, architect Ryan Upton, often are inspired by Japan. They named a line of clothing after Japanese landscape designer Mirei Shigemori (1896-1975), and for “Under/Over” they looked to the concept of omoiyari. Roughly translated as consideration for others, the pair saw it expressed in the public toilets in Tokyo, where Isoda grew up.

“There are portable scent products for spraying in the stall after use, and Toto toilets that play masking waterfall sounds,” she said.

Both designers have an affinity for functionalism and honesty in materials, something they attribute to their architecture training. Their painted steel design is essentialist. It screws directly into the wall without any hidden hardware, but it does provide something extra: a matchbox.

“This allows the user to create a bit of smoke for masking certain natural essences that may be unwanted,” Upton said. “It’s our way of practicing omoiyari.”

A.H.O.F. (Chase Biado and Antonia Pinter), Untitled

Chase Biado and Antonia Pinter were supposed to get married in August, but because of the pandemic they instead formed the inexplicably titled collaborative art practice A History of Frogs, otherwise known as A.H.O.F. Their untitled piece in the Marta show, an upside-down clown sculpture with an awkwardly bent leg to hold the toilet paper roll, seems to capture the topsy-turvy feeling of our cultural reality.

Each of the Los Angeles–based artists has an individual art practice. “Under/Over” is their first collaboration. They sculpted the clay together, then made a rubber mold and cast it in gypsum cement.

Pinter noted that play, fantasy and weekly Dungeon & Dragons games inspired their approach, but the perilous orientation of their sculpture perhaps speaks to pathos.

“Maybe the clown is an emotional support — someone who’s there for you when you’re crying on the toilet,” she said.

Carlos Little, “Flush House”

There’s something a bit Flintstonian about Carlos Little’s contribution to “Under/Over,” as if it were a pop-Neolithic prop. The organically shaped toilet paper holder is meant to look like a chunk of wall extracted from the artist-designer’s ongoing project, Flush House. Despite the obvious pun, the house is not a reference to bathroom plumbing. It’s a study in having all functions of the home contained within the walls, leaving the space open as a meditation on shadows.

Little, one of the founders of the nonprofit arts organization At the Center, has a studio that’s a horse barn in a rural New Jersey nature sanctuary. He is straightforward in his use of materials and drew from a palette common to construction: plaster board, plaster, plywood and rigid foam insulation. The only deviation is the sawed-off broom handle that skewers the toilet paper roll.

“[It’s the] same process as making a wall in a house: Construct the wall, plaster the wall, paint the wall,” Little said.

Lland (Rachel Shillander), “Spherical Copper T.P. Holder”

Based in the Topanga area, Rachel Shillander runs the art and design practice Lland and works as an on-site designer for residential builder Tyler Development. While on a job site, she saw how old copper plumbing was stripped from demolished homes and trucked away for recycling.

“It got me thinking about how copper is this beautiful, hidden infrastructure in the walls of buildings,” Shillander said.

For her design of a half-sphere toilet paper holder, she eschewed conventions of bathroom hygiene that dictate that every surface appear pristine. Copper is notorious for changing color when exposed to air and moisture — shifting from shiny like a new penny to darker brown to blue-green verdigris — but she was drawn to it precisely because the surface would evolve with use.

Because the holder is located by a toilet, gets moist with humidity when someone takes a shower and is touched whenever it’s dispensing paper, it will develop a patina “specific to its place and users,” she said, relishing the slightly revolting idea of making visible all the drops, splatters and fingerprints.

Theo Martins, “Keeping You Company”

“I’m not a traditional musician, designer or artist,” said New York City–based Theo Martins, whose hyphenates also include entrepreneur and founder of the East Hollywood cereal bar Cereal and Such. His fluidity between different ways of working combines with a desire to make a curvy sculpture in his piece “Keeping You Company.” Its sinuous lines were inspired by a toy remembered from a childhood trip to a Rhode Island dentist office and an otherwise boring waiting room.

“I wanted to make something beautiful out of a thing that is often ignored, and put it in an unexpected place,” Martins said.

At more than 2 feet wide and over a foot tall, Martin’s bent-steel toilet paper holder is deliberately excessive.

“Everyone has been gorging on toilet paper, hoarding toilet paper,” he said. “This is a flaunt but also a place for proper storage. We don’t consider toilet paper useful unless we really need it.”

WeShouldDoItAll (lead designer Christopher Al-Jumah, Jonathan Jackson, Sarah Nelson Jackson, Adrien Menard, Janet Chan and Courtney Hafer), “Individualism”

“We naturally find ourselves gravitating toward social criticisms,” said Jonathan Jackson of the Brooklyn-based design studio WeShouldDoItAll. To make the toilet paper holder, which doubles as a place to put your phone while you are attending to business, Jackson and his collaborators — partner Sarah Nelson Jackson and project manager Courtney Hafer — hacked a selfie stick. They added a ball-joint to mount it to the wall, and a toilet paper roll slips neatly over the handle.

The design is more than a visual joke. There’s satire in the absurdity, which calls attention to how much we are glued to our devices trying to make sense of an overwhelming flow of information — perhaps about the pandemic, or the Black Lives Matter movement, or the election.

“By designing for the bathroom realm, we allowed ourselves the chance to question our current bathroom rituals and all of the ways that it unites us,” Jackson said, “and we learned how we can all benefit from being a little more mindful and unplugged from our devices.”