The following are excerpts from remarks by Kohler Company Senior Vice President
Laura Kohler at NASAA's Creative Industries Briefing:
Thank you for inviting Kohler Company to contribute to today’s discussion telling a story of the importance of art to this 144-year-old company, headquartered in Kohler, Wisconsin—one of the world’s strongest brands that employs over 35,000 people.
The arts are very important to me personally, as well as for Kohler Company. In fact, I am before you as a business executive with 25 years of experience who sits on the top team of a $6.5 billion company with an M.F.A., not an M.B.A. The value of the arts has been engrained in our company’s ethos, and we have been consistent advocates of elevating the importance of the arts in society through education, arts organizations and scholarships.
Art energizes our public spaces, emboldens our thinking, enriches our communities, and inspires pride and interaction with each other. It is a necessary inspiration in our busy world, and a symbol of our collective humanity—an unspoken means by which we can connect across cultures, geographies and generations.
As a company, we remain curious and adventurous and employ associates who have an unwavering appreciation for design and the arts, and a healthy appetite to explore and discover new technologies. We foster a collaborative environment where our leadership sets the tone and encourages all associates to be as imaginative and entrepreneurial as possible—from sketching an initial concept or penning a big idea, to testing a new product prototype or designing an amazing master bathroom suite.
A creative work force, particularly within a design-centric organization such as Kohler, is the backbone to drive product innovation and sustained business success.
Among our 35,000 associates across six continents, we invest heavily in promoting innovation and problem solving, through a cross-cultural and cross-functional team approach—whether it be designing a better process or developing a new way of working in this fast-paced, ever-changing world.
Art and innovation also permeate our efforts in sustainability and social impact. At Kohler, we Believe In Better, because business success doesn’t matter much if we can’t say we left the world a better place than we found it.
The Waste Lab originated at one of our Innovation For Good workshops—an annual convergence where our associates incubate new ideas for social impact products. In this instance, a team comprised mostly of artists and designers brainstormed methods to refine production processes, minimize industrial waste, and reuse waste where possible.
Since 2010, as a company, we have reduced the amount of production waste sent to landfills by 46%, and the Waste Lab team working out of a dedicated space in our enamel shop is trying to find ways to decrease it further. In doing so, they are turning pottery cull, foundry sand and other waste products into beautiful ceramic tiles—a poignant example of how associates are applying creative thinking to waste while designing artistic new products.
Taking inspiration from that goal, our Arts/Industry program was founded in 1974 as a partnership between the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and Kohler Company. It has endured as a unique collaboration between artists and industry in the United States—one that has brought us significant recognition, but more importantly, has brought to the world some beautiful pieces of art that otherwise would never have happened. Over 600 emerging and established artists from around the world have benefitted from this program and have left their mark.
There is no other artist residency program where artists’ studios are located right on the production floor of a manufacturing facility, such as our cast iron foundry or pottery. Artists are introduced to bulk materials, such as slip-cast clay and cast metal, and techniques that give them a new way of thinking and working creatively.
One of the most important aspects of Arts/Industry are relationships that develop between the artists in residence and our production associates. Artists in residence value the expertise and experience of these associates, and the associates in turn are engaged in helping the artists solve creative problems. Associates have remarked that working with these artists has helped them think more creatively about their own work to push the limits of materials, processes, colors and sizes.
Communities rich in arts and culture attract people because of their quality of life, character, and opportunities for participation and investment. Art fosters vibrant communities and allows them to create and sustain social networks, and to establish their identities outside of traditional demographics. Art allows people to learn valuable skills—across all walks of life—and to participate in nontraditional, creative outlets.
And as I have described today, the arts also play a vital role in sustaining and growing successful businesses, by inspiring creative problem solving and successful innovation for consumers.
I appeal to you to take a step back and both recognize and appreciate what the arts and creative industries offer in terms of elevating the American economy, as well as fostering exploration and innovation that lead to better solutions. Let’s come together—private sector, education, government and nonprofit—and ensure that the arts remain relevant and respected today and for future generations. That requires an investment—collectively—of our time, our expertise, our passion and our financial support.
Kohler won a BCA 10 Hall of Fame winner in 2011.