A Beginner's Guide to Kohler Co.'s Arts/Industry Program

Apr. 7, 2014
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It is a stubborn prejudice that art and industry stand in irreconcilable opposition. But the success and staying-power of Kohler Co.’s Arts/Industry program evidences a dissatisfaction with their strict separation and an insistence that they be sublated into a higher unity. Why should the useful not be beautiful and the beautiful useful?

To cast the question from a slightly different, but harmonious perspective: why should our makers be alienated from their making? Why should labor not be creatively satisfying? On a central wall of its Design Center, Kohler has emblazoned a quotation from John Ruskin: “Life without labor is guilt, labor without art is brutality.”

After taking a tour of the factories, speaking with a number of Kohler ‘associates’ (the preferred term for any Kohler employee), and viewing the some of the pieces that have emerged from the Arts/Industry program over the past forty years, one becomes convinced that Ruskin would find his conviction heeded.

Since its inception in 1974, the Arts/Industry program has brought artists from around the globe to spend a few months of unprecedented access to otherwise unavailable resources in the Village of Kohler. These artists-in-residence spend from two to six funded months working in the industrial Pottery, Iron and Brass Foundry and Enamel Shop of Kohler Co. The work habits of night owls and early birds are equally accommodated as the artists’ studio space is accessible 24/7.

The benefit of working during the day is the interaction with Kohler Co. associates, many of whom are artists in their own right. Their technical prowess and creative input are both highly valued. Current artist-in-residence, Sean Foley enthusiastically spoke of his on-going collaboration with an associate whose expertise in the dramatic art of casting with molten metal has proven indispensable in molding a Great Dane skull to be a part of a future exhibition dealing with melancholy and depression.

In addition to the Kohler associates, the environments themselves are inspirational. There are a number of almost centenarians among the enormous buildings of brick (a number of which are beautiful cream brick). The dimensions of the factories are unknown to me, but a measurement in terms of football fields would be appropriate. Thus, large tricycles suited for transport and travel are parked throughout the Foundry. The ambiance is further enhanced by the sui generis smell (a mixture of fish, sea, brine, metal, rubber, and gas). Despite the heat and humidity of the Enamel Shop, artist-in-residence Leslie Fry waxed rhapsodic over the beautiful forms she finds in scrap piles of clay and endless rows of toilet bowls (which, my companion quipped, makes the shop feel like a Duchampian wet dream). Fry’s project concerns the theme of ‘supports’ by exploring the intersection of architectural forms and the human body, or, as she described it, “the envelope we’re living in.” The anatomy of a human forearm, for example, will be superimposed onto an architectural bracket. Art/industry. Architecture/anatomy. Rigid dualisms have a tendency to melt like metal in Kohler’s factories.

Supposing you are interested in experiencing the Arts/Industry program for yourself – and, need I say it?, you should be – you have options. Kohler’s “Industry in Action” factory tours are offered every weekday morning free of cost. Duly galvanized, it’s a short trip to Sheboygan to visit the John Michael Kohler Arts Center where the fortieth anniversary of the program is being celebrated with “Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation.” More on the application process here.


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