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Icons & Innovators: Kohler: Design of the Times

Mike Nolan

In 1913, Kohler hired Frederick Jr. and John Olmsted, sons of the designer of New York’s Central Park, to devise a 50-year plan for the company’s namesake village in Wisconsin. Their blueprint for the community, which was one of the first planned garden villages in the country, called for limiting development and protecting the village from urban encroachment. To this day, the town of 2,000 citizens a few miles inland from the shores of Lake Michigan remains a rural haven marked by fields of wheat and stands of oak trees, which makes the presence of the contemporary Kohler Design Center all the more surprising.

Sitting directly across the street from Kohler’s manufacturing facility and corporate offices, the 36,000-square-foot center, which opened in 1985, greets visitors with what the company calls the “Great Wall of China.” The display towers three stories high and has scores of Kohler sinks, tubs, and toilets arrayed like paintings on a museum wall. Whirlpools, custom showering systems, and a Sok bath, which features a continuous flow of water over the four sides of the basin and an ever-changing lighting pattern, line the floor below the wall.

On the mezzanine level, the Design Center’s manager, Cindy Howley, remarks on the 25 complete kitchens and bathrooms on display. “We work with noted interior designers from around the world,” she says. “They take Kohler products and work them into their designs, which we display here. It is of great value to Kohler designers to work with people with such radically different perspectives.”

One of the more radical rooms on display at the center is Clodagh Design International’s City Spa. The space employs principles of feng shui, with poured concrete and stainless steel echoing the calming sound of endlessly running water from a Kohler Greek bath whirlpool, which has 18 different settings for its four water jets. The entire display is illuminated with distinctive uplighting. “We provide visitors with ideas they can implement in their own home,” says Howley. “We have people fly in here with their own architect or designer and plan a new bathroom.”

Each year, the Kohler facility draws more than 160,000 architects, builders, interior designers, and consumers. The center also works in collaboration with the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, which sponsors the company’s Arts/Industry program. To participate, artists from around the country propose design projects to Kohler. The company invites a few of the artists to its headquarters, where, in a large space in the factory, they complete their designs, using the company’s materials. Previous projects range from the ceramic teapots of Texas A&M professor Barbara Frey to Rob Neilson’s large cast-iron portraits of Los Angeles community members, which will be installed in a light rail station in that city.

Artists who participate in Kohler’s Arts/Industry program receive a stipend and are asked to leave one piece of work behind to be displayed in the center. “Our design people get to observe the entire process of serious artists creating fine works of art,” says Howley. “It has a very positive effect on their own work.”

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