How Artists Teach Kohler Best Practices in Innovation

A notable number of companies have artist-in-residence programs.  American manufacturer Kohler Co., based in Wisconsin, is one of them.  Since 1873, Kohler has been producing household equipment, including plumbing fixture, furniture, tile and stone.  Seen as a renowned leader in this area, Kohler is at the forefront of design, craftsmanship, and innovation.  One way they sustain a high level of innovation is through an ongoing collaboration between art and industry, and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  Founded in 1974 it remains unique among all American artist residency programs.  It has provided artists with an entrée to an industrial setting through two- to six- month stays in the pottery, foundry, and enamel shops at Kohler.  Up to two dozen artists per year have the opportunity to learn new ways of thinking and working.  Here they are able to produce entire bodies of work that would otherwise be impossible to execute in their own studios. Sophisticated technologies, unlimited access to technical expertise, materials, equipment, studio space, housing and transportation, plus a weekly stipend, create an unusually supportive environment.  Over time, hundreds of arts and industrial employees have built rapport as they work side by side and learn from each other’s approaches to work.  Through the arts program Kohler aims to give its employees the opportunity to learn from the proximity of artists at work.  They can observe the artists’ creative process, see how hard work has to become play to produce a creative outcome, and develop a better understanding of how to inspire creativity.  They can deduce best practices about managing the creative process and see their value in real life:  the role of giving oneself permission to fail, the necessity of trial and error, and the importance of a space conducive to creativity.

Excerpted from The Intuitive Compass, Jossey-Bass, 2011.

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