January 23, 2014

Welcome to Kohler Country: Gensler Adds to the K&B Giant’s Wisconsin HQ

Persistence pays. When Kohler Co. asked Gensler’s Chicago office to conceive an additional building for headquarters in, natch, Kohler, Wisconsin, design director Brian Vitale recalls, “We submitted three schemes. None was accepted. We were sure we didn’t get the job.” Luckily, Kohler saw that Gensler understood the company culture—in Vitale’s words “becoming a global force while staying in a small town.” On that strength, Kohler ultimately offered Gensler the commission.

Vitale and design principal Todd Heiser proceeded to develop a specific scheme for the building, intended to consolidate advertising and marketing staff and to qualify for LEED Gold certification. So the campus, master-planned in 1910, got its first contemporary architecture. Every enviable kitchen and bathroom image you’ve ever seen in print ads or showrooms for Kohler and such subsidiaries as Ann Sacks and Baker Furniture emanates from out here on the prairie. 

Bringing together creative and administrative staffers was the easy part. More challenging was to shift 90 percent of them from private offices and high-panel workstations to the openness of a benching system. But the program’s single biggest component was a photo studio. Not only was it allocated almost half the overall 100,000 square feet, but it also needed extra height for sets and equipment. That’s why a volume wrapped in Cor-Ten steel rises above the rest of the roofline. The steel’s round perforations allude to drops of water, Kohler’s stock in trade.

“Legacy was particularly important,” Heiser explains. Cor-Ten steel—used both perforated and unperforated, inside and out—has a weathered surface recalling the iron cast in Kohler’s foundry. Board-formed concrete likewise provides a strong link between the facade and the interior. 

Running through its center is a wide, gallerylike corridor punctuated by sitting areas featuring the sofas that Finn Juhl designed for Baker in 1951. Walk past them en route to the strongest brand statement of all: the employee kitchen with its Kohler islands and sink fittings and back-splash tile sold through Ann Sacks. 

Project Team:
Charter­sills: Lighting Consultant. Tylk Gustafson Reckers Wilson Andrews: Structural Engi­neer. AECOM: Civil Engineer. KJWW: MEP. Lange Bros. Woodwork Co.: Woodwork. MG McGrath: Steelwork. CG Schmidt: General Contractor.

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