Kohler's history begins in 1873, with the first of many bold business moves. Despite a climate of financial panic and the start of a five-year economic depression, 29-year-old Austrian immigrant John Michael Kohler purchased the Sheboygan Union Iron and Steel Foundry.
The firm had a successful start producing cast iron and steel implements for farmers, castings for the city's furniture factories, and ornamental iron pieces that included cemetery crosses, urns and settees. A key turning point came in 1883 when John Michael seized upon another bold idea to improve his customers' quality of life. By applying baked enamel coating to a Kohler horse trough/hog scalder, he had created the Kohler Co.'s first bathtub. Kohler was now in the plumbing business.
Like John Michael, many of the early employees were immigrants. Steeped in a heritage of European craftsmanship, they were eager to achieve success in their new country. Their dedication to excellence helped to forge one of the oldest and largest privately-held companies in the United States.
The value of the Arts/Industry program to the factory can be assessed from both a personal and business standpoint. For some, the experience of meeting artists from all over the world is the most important aspect. For others, it is the bottom line. Over the years, design ideas generated by artists have been translated into innovative new products offered by the company.
Kohler Co. has long encouraged an ongoing dialogue with the art community by opening the doors of its pottery and iron foundry to internationally recognized artists. In a program administered by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center , artists work side by side with Kohler associates during long-term residencies, utilizing industrial technology on projects of their own choosing. The resulting free exchange of techniques and ideas has opened whole new avenues of creative expression for the artists.
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