August 23, 2010

Kohler Design Center.... a place where I was showered with great ideas!

I was so fortunate last week as I was the only St. Louis designer [how does this happen?] invited by the Kohler Showroom at the Merchandise Mart to be taken to Kohler, WI to visit the Kohler corporate headquarters and the Kohler Design Center. Why? To participate in the first interactive meeting between designers and contractors and the top marketing people along with the #2 person [right under Mr. Kohler himself] to talk about design innovation, get our feedback on their current products (and some new things that we saw) as well as what we'd like to see. I'm sharing just a bit of that trip with you as it was just an amazing experience. Thank you Kohler!

Upon arriving we were divided into two groups. There were about 10 on our shuttle and another 20 or so arriving from Glendale, IL. The building shown above is the original corporate headquarters. The clock was installed in and around the turn of the century and still operates today. Under the clock on the fourth floor is Mr. Kohler's office where he can look out on his family's business. Note to all you corporate people.... Kohler, Inc is a global company still privately owned by the family. It will never be incorporated and hasn't been since the 1800s. Family members still participate, work and operate this multi-billion dollar company. The Kohler brand includes bathroom fixtures, but it also includes the Kohler Interiors group: Baker, McGuire, Milling Road, Kalista, and Ann Sacks. Also the company was known for it's motors and generators in the 19th and early 20th century. Click here to read more and get details about each area.

The first stop.. the foundry/factory. Built in and around 1920 (the first one burned to the ground) it was expanded in the 1940s to it's current size of 600 thousand square feet. Oh... I might mention. That's ONE building on the enormous campus. The next two buildings next to that were at least 500 thousand square feet each.

A few production items learned: they can mass produce a sink and bathtub one every 29 seconds. The joke among the designers was "if that's true, how come they tell us it will be 5 weeks?"

One of the other factoids.. their process for enameling. After casting, the still-hot tubs/sinks are sprayed with powder. Powder? Sure that's their enamel. The tub is so hot that the powder actually melts to the item instantly and because it's melting so quickly and bonding directly to the tub/sink... there are no runs in the finish. Pretty cool, huh?

Unfortunately I couldn't take pictures in the factory of the top secret stuff, but I'll try to elaborate as I work through the photographs.

After spending an hour watching all these workers pouring hot molten iron and steel into cast molds (some are done by hand others are automated) We went into the Kohler Design Center (KDC). The center is really an idea place. It is not a store but really a place for imaginations to go wild and a place for inspiration. Divided into four floors, the KDC has a museum on the lower level with a movie presentation, the main and second floor filled with a sample of EVERY product line they offer and a third floor where there are vignettes of bathrooms designed by the top designers in the world. (see below pictures). If you brought your swim suit... this is not a lie, you would be allowed to actually use the products as they have showers and jet tubs so you can actually try before you buy. [they hauled me out of the jet tub.. no suit... the prudes...geesh]

You can see here the view from one angle. See the people up on the third floor? They're looking at one of the designed bathrooms that I have shown below. The place is huge.

I couldn't help taking this photograph of the pedestal sinks and the beautiful bowls artfully arranged on the wall. So great. Below, please enjoy all the hand-painted sinks. These are done on site at Kohler. Due to finger dexterity, 99% of the staff are women that hand-paint all these bowls. Before you ask, Kohler actually produces 41% off all it's products in the United States. That's rare these days and many of the worker's family have worked for Kohler their entire lives. One note about automation. Yes, they've replaced people with machines. But one example of a line that is no longer used is that it was shut down after 75 years. Four of the five people retired at once (they were 65) and that's when the line shut down, but not before. The fifth one got a job elsewhere at the factory. Now when does that ever happen in this cut-throat work environment?

Aren't these two sinks to die for. Both made at the color area of the factory. 99% of all that work in this division are women. Why? Finger dexterity allow them to create these one-of-a kind masterpieces. I have shown just a few of my favourites that were on display.

I'm not a fan of girly girly, but how could anyone NOT like this gorgeous botanical sink. Seriously, the craftsmanship on this was unbelievable. It blew me away.

This is the Pinstripe faucet I fell in love with. A hit of deco, its got perfect handles just right for my hands and details I love.

This photo and the next is of one of the bathrooms on the third level designed by Bunny Williams. Notice the trellis design and the glamorous way everything is presented. Love the skirted bathtub.

This bathroom blew me away with it's sustainable bamboo flooring and recycled flooring. Love the mood lighting in this one.

This bath was designed by Jonathan Adler. He's a hip designer popular for his white ceramics and 70s inspired pop designs and reinterpretations of modern pottery. Know the store Barney's? His partner Simon Doonan is the creative director.

I thought this was clever. This bathroom for kids integrates a shower curtain made of bamboo. Not only do you not have to deal with a curtain or door, it allows accessibility for a child in a wheelchair, but also makes it fun for everyone. The bamboo is suspended by chain and works on the same principle of beaded curtains and deflects a lot of the water from splashing out.

Talk about accessibility. This bathroom allows a person to sit in the chair and actually access the water control with the little island made specifically for them to turn. Sometimes it's hard for people to turn things not at their level or too close to a wall where the wheelchair or chair is not able to get close too. A hose attachment lets the user be in or out of the water as needed.

The lower level was a museum where not only there were tubs/toilets/sinks from a bygone age but also histories of the Kohler family and their inventions.

Thanks for sharing this bit of a tour. If you'd like to see more, please join me on Facebook where I have over 50 photos of this amazing place. I'd love to be friends with you there. Click here to go to my Facebook page.