Some names endure in a world where trends come and go, becoming synonymous with timeless luxury and uncompromising craftsmanship. This week, we explore Kohler, one of America’s oldest and largest privately-held companies. The brand has endured through time, continuously inspiring and innovating for the past 150 years.

Founded in 1873 by Austrian immigrant John Michael Kohler, the company is headquartered in the village of Kohler in Wisconsin in the US.  Even before it became internationally recognised for its innovative bathroom and kitchen products, Kohler was better known as a farming equipment manufacturer and a foundry for metalware.

Inspired to branch out into the bathroom business, Kohler had the idea of affixing legs onto a cast iron water trough (the kind horses drank out of) and selling it as a bathtub. That became the first of many innovative products to be manufactured by Kohler Co.

Today, the company is helmed by great-grandson David Kohler, a fourth-generation leader who is president and CEO. The brand also creates furniture, tiles, engines and generators and operates luxury resorts and golf courses as part of its Destination Kohler brand.

This milestone year celebrates longevity and is a testament to Kohler’s commitment to redefining luxury living. Kohler has consistently pushed the boundaries of what is possible, from its iconic bathroom fixtures that merge form and function seamlessly to its breathtaking kitchen solutions that combine technology and style.

“The entire mindset and culture of our company is founded upon innovation. We like to champion others to have this innovative spirit, to do something bold, brave, and different,” says Leo Leong, general manager of Kohler Asia.

He refers to Kohler’s range of intelligent toilets like the latest Numi 2.0, a futuristic-looking commode that unfurls like a graceful swan as you approach it. Its tricked-out features include motion detection, ambient-coloured lighting, a built-in speaker system, heated seats and warm air for the feet.

Additionally, there are front and back bidets, automatic flushing, automatic deodorising, an air dryer for personal comfort, an emergency backup flush, and a mist function to reduce residue. It also has built-in Amazon Alexa voice controls so you can check the weather, listen to the news, and order more toilet paper while sitting on the loo.

Another over-the-top product bath lovers will love is the gigantic Fountainhead bathtub with built-in waterproof surround sound speakers and integrated coloured lighting. I love the infinity pool effect where the water disappears into the sides. There are also pre-programmed themes to create an immersive bath experience through sound, water and light.

Inclusivity and diversity

One of Kohler’s core focuses is personalisation, as seen in its latest Anthem and Statement showering collections in four slick finishes. While the latter offers a combination of hand showers, body sprays, rainheads and showerheads, the former presents a selection of shower valves and controls designed to offer users an immersive showering experience tailored to their specifications and needs.

Anthem can control up to six appliances that offer temperature and flow strength control in both analogue and digital control panels. Each outlet can be independently adjusted to suit the user’s specific temperature and flow desires, such as a soft, warm spray from the overhead rain head and a strong, hot massage from the hand shower. Users can mix and match to their heart’s content and then program up to 10 favourite presets to revisit anytime.

As a family business, Kohler also builds products that extend to very young and old users. During my tour of its three-storied Experience Centre at Peck Seah Street, I chanced upon the family display room that featured bath accessories designed to help the little ones be more independent.

To be more inclusive, Kohler is one of the few brands offering bath units for older people. For example, the Belay Walk-in Whirlpool Bath is an anti-slip shower unit with a door for users to sit in while they enjoy a leisurely bath. It also doubles as a jacuzzi with a heated backrest and massage functions.

Big on design

Kohler’s journey is more than just a history of manufacturing. It’s a pursuit of continuous improvement in providing gracious living for future generations through better design, innovation, wellness, and sustainability. Functionality is complemented by high artistry, as seen in its designer collaborations as well as annual Artist Editions featuring bold and beautiful basins in a smorgasbord of colours, materials and finishes.

Leong adds: “We’ve developed many other products that are functional and have a leading edge in design. Aesthetics to us is very important as it’s about fitting into the environment. We draw many designs from what you see in other parts of the home, such as lighting, furniture and interior styles. I think we’ve done a really good job with colour applications, shapes and textures, and the materials that we use. I think that’s where we feel proud.”

To mark its 150th anniversary, Kohler has rolled out a series of special events and activations worldwide, including limited-edition product releases, commemorative apparel, and storytelling through digital content – all captured under the anniversary theme Come All Creators.

To help bring the initiative to life, the company partnered with American artist and innovator Daniel Arsham to conceive commemorative 150th-anniversary logos and marks, typography, and lettering to meld the company’s storied heritage with its “leading boldly” approach to the future. Kohler previously collaborated with Arsham on Rock.01 — an exclusive 3D-printed sink and ‘Divided Layers’, a globally acclaimed installation featured at Milan Design Week 2022.

Kohler also partnered with four trailblazing female artists worldwide who applied their brush strokes manually to a breathtaking range of limited-edition pieces for the bathroom. They include Elle from Germany, Ananda Nahú from Brazil, Pushpa Kumari from India, and Ziling Wang from China.

Earlier in the Spring, Kohler also launched its Heritage Colours collection, the company’s most iconic and best-selling bathroom designs in two signature vintage colours, popular in the 1920s and 1930s.

Environment first

As an organisation that places sustainability at the forefront of its identity, Kohler believes that each positive action taken and innovation developed is built on the goal of leaving the world a better place for future generations. As part of their efforts, they have adopted Believing in Better – a sustainability and social impact strategy built on the brand’s philosophy that its best can always be better, whether it is for the planet, the people, the communities it serves, and the businesses they work with.

At the top of its priorities is creating water-efficient products that help reduce water consumption in homes and businesses. Its newer hand shower models are fitted with a Katalyst air-induction technology, which infuses air into the water for bigger, warmer and voluptuous water droplets capable of embracing your body like an invigorating rainforest waterfall. Customers are incentivised with a discount on these new hand showers if they bring in their old hand showers as part of a trade-in programme at the Kohler Experience Centre.

“We break apart these components and send the recyclable parts to a local recycling company, while the rest are crushed. In our factory, we also actively recycle waste products. Some are recovered for further manufacturing use, while others are put back into generating more energy. Instead of cradle-to-grave, we think about cradle-to-cradle. It’s all part of being a responsible organisation,” says Leong.

“Almost all the products you see here are designed with sustainability. Water is very scarce, and we put a lot of effort into R&D on how to save water. In fact, around the region, we help several very prestigious commercial properties to achieve LEED Platinum status,” he adds.

As part of its corporate objective to be net zero by 2035, Kohler also actively participates in community programs in remote areas to supply people with clean water. In India, for example, it is helping to build a proper water management system for the locals to enjoy clean filtered water.

Thinking ahead

As it celebrates a significant milestone, Kohler aims to explore innovative ways to inspire its customers in the future.

In its remarkable journey, Kohler has set the gold standard for excellence in plumbing fixtures and power solutions and left an indelible mark on the world of design and sustainability. Kohler’s legacy is a testament to its unwavering commitment to innovation, quality, and a vision that has stood the test of time. As we look to the future, we can only anticipate that Kohler will continue to shape and inspire the world for generations.

“I think we have, over the past 150 years, come up with a lot of what can be, and now the challenge is upon us to further inspire and impact the community for another 150 years,” says Leong. 

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