Makers and Manufacturing: A Visit to Kohler in Wisconsin By Barbara Schmidt, studiobstyle, inc.
It’s hard work. Watching two men pour 2350 degree molten metal into sand molds looks hot and dangerous, too. Both Maria Retain, topsailstrategies.com, and myself were invited to visit the Kohler Companies factories last Friday and it was so much more than we expected.
First, we wandered the Kohler Design Center for about a half hour. One of the vignettes that caught our eye was the Mick De Gulio-designed kitchen with Metal Boy cabinets. We are working on about 8 kitchen projects at the moment and those metal cabinets are great inspiration.
Next we saw the Artisan series Bouquet near the front of the Design Center. Everyone keeps asking us if gold finishes will stay or go as a trend. For the moment they will stay. Gold hasn’t had its full turn in the spot light yet.
Once we grabbed a Kohler branded bottle of water, safety goggles and a headset (so we could hear over the factory noise) we headed over to the row of factory buildings.
First we toured the Foundry, which was the start of the Kohler business from 1873. The industrial factory was dark and noisy but all the equipment was very organized and labeled. Yellow lines mark rows of walkways and forklift paths.
Here is where we saw the cast iron sinks manufactured from molten metal. There are many other parts made here for engines and others outside businesses. We walked rows and rows of patterns tagged and waiting for their next round of production.
It was hard not to photograph the history, the grit and all the workers. We were not allowed to have our cell phones on so I’ve grabbed a few shots from the Kohler Industrial Castings website to feature here. We saw a lot of large machinery, including the Osborn and the Herman but what impressed me the most were the workers grinding parts by hand.
One worker waved to us and then lifted a heavy piece onto a workbench. He started shifting his grinder all over the edges smoothing out the metal tags left from the mold process. The way he moved from side to side and then over the top of the piece part was so coordinated that I realized I was watching an artist.
There were several assembly lines working during our tour. We saw bathtubs swinging from hooks moving across the foundry floor. We also saw shower bases enameled by robots and then cooled without human interaction.
Toward the end of the tour we walked over to the Pottery factory, a 1920s building made from Wisconsin “Cream City” bricks. This multilevel factory houses a giant kiln that is the length of a football field. Inside we saw workers hand finishing chinaware with sponges and buckets of water. They swiped each bowl to finish off the edges of the seam where the bowl meets the base.
Around the corner we walked in the Arts/Industry section of the factory and met visiting artist Mary Anne Kluth. She was working on topographical forms to be fired in the kilns. She mentioned that she was a digital artist and that working with clay was new for her. Appreciative of the artisan program she shared some of her techniques for creating pieces that will be featured at Kohler, the Kohler art gallery, and for her own collection.
What was the very best part of the day? Chatting with our tour guide “Jim” or maybe “John”? He was so knowledgeable about Kohler’s history including the successes and the struggles of this privately held company. He’d worked there more than 30 years and his insight and storytelling was remarkable. He appreciated his years at Kohler so much and we appreciated every minute of his time with us. We could have spent many more hours if we’d had the chance.