36 Hours in Kohler, Wisconsin

Our factory tour guide Lowell discusses how the company’s vitreous china products are made. Before he retired, Lowell worked at Kohler as a grinder for over 44 years. Image courtesy of Kohler.

Last week I spent some time in Kohler, Wisconsin to attend Kohler’s first-ever Bloggers Conference along with 17 other design and lifestyle bloggers from around the country. We were invited to come out as guests of the company to learn about product and design trends, visit the Olmstead Brothers-designed Kohler Village, and tour other Kohler properties including the factory. This of course also included enjoying samples of Kohler’s hospitality business, including two nights at the American Club hotel (originally built to house, feed, and entertain single male employees), a spa treatment at the Kohler Waters Spa, and meals at the River Wildlife and BlackWolf Run restaurants. The crisp fall weather added an extra level of beauty to this town, which I first visited in back in 2003.

Our first stop was an evening reception at the Kohler Design Center, which displays the latest products in vignettes by renowned designers. Downstairs, there is a small museum detailing the remarkable history of the fourth-generation owned and operated company. Kohler started out as a farm equipment business until founder John Michael Kohler entered the plumbing industry in 1883 when he decided to enamel and add feet to a cast-iron water trough, creating the company’s first bathtub.

Flags outside of the Kohler Design Center. Image courtesy Kohler.
This display of tubs and toilets at the Kohler Design Center reminds me of all old Hollywood set. © Rita Catinella Orrell

The next day Kohler presented several sessions, where we learned the company will be introducing DTV+, a new digital showering product offering “spa experiences”, as well as a fancy new bidet seat for the toilet. They also announced that the company— which has pledged to be Net Zero by 2035 globally — had just received its second EPA WaterSense Sustained Excellence Award. They will also be launching an new Environmental Product Declaration program, which I will learn more about at GreenBuild next week.

What I found most interesting however, was that their toilet prototype in India created in collaboration with Caltech is now under a field trial. This photovoltaic toilet, created as part of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, includes a self-contained water purification and disinfection system that allows water to be reused and does not require wastewater disposal. Kohler’s Indian team assisted in choosing region-specific plumbing products as well as guidance on the overall décor to ensure that the Indian communities who will participate in field testing of the units will be more accepting of the new technology.

KOHLER_Reinvented Toilet_Back End System
The back-end system of the public toilet. Image courtesy Kohler.
KOHLER_Reinvented Toilet_Container Interior
Tile and fittings were selected to appeal to the local community. Image courtesy Kohler.

After the presentations, we toured The Beacon, Kohler’s 79,000 square foot communications office designed by Gensler two years ago. The LEED Gold office building works as a full-fledged advertising agency, complete with a massive back room filled with sets for photo shoots. It was pure magic to see how they can take an pine-framed set and make it feel like a naturally-lit room in a seaside home. 230 employees work in the modern, bright building, which includes an impressive library of magazines, books, and samples with its own librarian, an open working area, as well as private offices and meeting rooms.

The front lobby for the office includes a quote by John Ruskin. “The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love color the most.” © Rita Catinella Orrell
The Beacon’s magazine collection. I could have spent a few hours browsing here. © Rita Catinella Orrell
A section of the office library is dedicated to samples. © Rita Catinella Orrell

I first visited the campus during an Editors Conference 11 years ago while I was Products Editor for Architectural Record. From that trip I took away the very strong image of a neon-orange cast iron tub emerging from the kiln, which I was excited to see again on this tour. Our tour of the Cream City brick-clad factory was led by Lowell, a retired employee of the company who worked as a metal grinder for 44 years. He proudly took us through the vitreous ceramic factory, which was toasty from the heat of the kilns, and though very clean, had a powdery feeling on the floors and walls (some shirtless workers looked like they had been baking bread). We saw sinks, urinals, and other products in different states of manufacture, and toured the Pottery Art Studio, where artists stay for three month residencies. We also toured the noisy brass plating facility, and finally the iron foundry, where everything from fire hydrant cores to high-end bathtubs are transformed from molten iron into solid metal.

Iron worker pouring molten iron into a pressure-treated sand mold. Bloggers were not permitted to take photos inside of the factory. Image courtesy Kohler.

After leaving the factory we headed up to the office building to learn more about Kohler’s Artist Editions decal process. While I was under impression these sinks were hand-painted (which I now realize is crazy) they are actually created with carefully positioned decals by skilled artisans. An organic glue burns off during the firing process, leaving only the pattern in place. In a flashback to third grade, we all sat around tables decorative ceramic mugs with decals. I have to tell you, it’s not as easy as it looks. It took me a while to realize I put mine on backwards, which was pretty embarrassing, but easily fixed.

An artisan in the Kohler factory applying a decal to a ceramic sink. Image courtesy Kohler.
The tools for the Artist Editions process are quite simple. Squeegee, sponge, and water. © Rita Catinella Orrell
A group of blogger-created mugs ready for firing. Yes these folks are quite crafty. The pink and yellow bits will burn off, leaving the patterns behind. © Rita Catinella Orrell


Disclaimer: Kohler sponsored my trip but the opinions in the post are entirely my own.

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