Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sinks, Toilets and Art

We had a problem with our plumbing recently and of course Burt was happy to lend a hand. Naturally, as soon as the issue was resolved, he was overcome with a desire to strike a pose as HRH Burt on the throne with his scepter. As luck would have it, our minor inconvenience was easy to fix. Coincidently, a couple weeks ago I found myself visiting The John Michael Kohler Arts Center that exists thanks to the success of manufacturing the fixtures for the smallest room in the house.

It seems like I've been staring at the Kohler brand on plumbing fixtures my whole life. It adorned all the drinking fountains and sinks in my elementary school and beyond. In 1889 the company patented a design for a drinking fountain called "The Bubbler", which they still make today. When I went away to college there was a group of girls in my dorm who absolutely insisted that calling an apparatus that dispenses water solely for the purpose of drinking a "bubbler" was the only correct way to refer to it. They were adamant, it was like a test! Personally, I was in the "who cares" camp and had forgotten all about that strange bit of dorm life until starting this post. A google search turned up way too much information but my favorite was a link to an article titled Maybe We Were Wrong - A Closer Look at Why We Call it a Bubbler in Wisconsin. Ha! It's not like I have anything against calling it a bubbler, I just think there's room for some diversity in our speech. You won't hear me insisting on everyone calling it a wall-mounted, scurvy laden, germ infested illness receptacle. 

The John Michael Kohler Arts Center is located in the city of Sheboygan on Lake Michigan. It has to be one of the silliest sounding town names in the state and believe me, there's plenty of competition. As the self-proclaimed bratwurst capital of the world it's often described in less than glowing terms, although there is a thriving arts community and it's really quite scenic. As I was leaving a peachy pink sunset lit up the Breakwater Lighthouse, seen on the far left. A quest to acquire my son Andy's favorite cheese, Deer Creek Stag originally brought me to Sheboygan. Since I was already in the neighborhood my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to stay and snoop around.

Heading over to the art center I was surprised to see the facade of what appeared to be a once grand building. The complex occupies an entire city block and consists of art galleries, a theatre for the performing arts, classrooms, the Kohler family's Victorian era home and part of the walls of the old Mead/Carnegie public library that were left as a modern ruin to enclose the sculpture garden. 

There were several shows with works done in a variety of mediums on display. Asian and Japanese textiles, outsider art, photography and a small collection of pieces previously owned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made up the bulk of the viewing.  Pretty much what one would expect from a gallery. 

Then I walked into the women's atrium washroom and was completely blown away!
It appears that they take their business seriously enough to commission the washrooms to be entire works of art on their own. This one is titled the Women's Room by Massachusetts artist Cynthia Consentino. Seriously, how did I not see this coming?  

Now I've been lucky enough to visit some very nice "ladies rooms" over the years but this one went way beyond nice, and on top of that it was spotless. Of course it was a Tuesday afternoon and I had the place completely to myself! Every square inch of this fun and delightful room, apart from the stall dividers was done in either ceramic relief or hand painted or both. My biggest regret is that I forgot to take a photo of the ceiling, I was using my phone and naturally the battery was running out.

John Michael Kohler was a child when he emigrated with his family from Austria in the mid 1850's. By 1873 he had found a partner and purchased the Sheboygan Union Iron and Steel Foundry from his father-in-law. Ten years later he put ornamental feet on a horse trough and enameled the inside to create the company's first bathtub. That changed the whole game for them and four years later plumbing products made up more than two-thirds of their business. In 1899 the factory moved four miles out of town and eventually became the town of Kohler, where part of it's operations continue.   

This high degree of decoration is certainly nothing new, I've seen many beautifully decorated sinks and toilets in Europe especially Amsterdam, but they were usually from the previous century or harkened back to it. This took me completely by surprise and made me laugh out loud! Art and utility, humor and function. Guess this is what they mean by "expect the unexpected".

Still trying to figure this one out.
Is it hosiery with strange toes or footless tights with ruffles at the ankles? 

Those are flowers on the inside of the toilet. They were also painted on the back of the stall door.

Each year the center's Arts/Industry Program gives sixteen to twenty-two artists the opportunity to create at the Kohler Pottery or Foundry and Enamel factories for a period of two to six months. It gives the artists access to the technician's and facilities in turn enabling them to create works of art that might not be possible within the limits of their own studios. It was this program that produced this washroom and the five others I didn't have time to explore! I'll be back.

Meanwhile, an hour's drive away, at a much less fancy bathroom but also furnished with Kohler fixtures, Kibitz is apparently trying to tell Burt something.

Point taken, he decided it was time to stock up, the holiday company will be arriving soon!
Toilette paper, now that's another story and a lot closer to home.

So what's the most unusual washroom you have ever found yourself in?

Are you in the bubbler, water fountain, or drinking fountain camp? 

I hate to throw a wet blanket on all this fun but since I first started this post the workers at the factory in Kohler, Wisconsin have gone on strike. The Kohler family measures their wealth in the billions but they are extremely generous and rank among the top ten most philanthropic families in the United States. Not being willing to negotiate with employees who are paid about the same amount for a weeks work as it costs one person to play 18 holes of golf at the company owned Whistling Straights course just seems wrong to me. I hope they can come to a fair agreement soon.


  1. You Hooked me with the Post Title and I'm still Smiling... the Bra Sink was by a slight margin my Fav Image... I think I'd buy one of those if it were for Sale and put it in the Guest Bathroom just for Grins. Glad you got your Plumbing Issue resolved, I remember many a Plumbing Issue when we lived in the Historic Home... you can laugh about it later, but in the Moment, not so funny! *LOL* Happy Thanksgiving... Dawn... The Bohemian

    1. Ha,ha, wouldn't that be fun? Wow, your new house is gorgeous, I'm sure you will all be very happy there. Of course your Historic Home always looked wonderful and like quite a palace, it must have been hard to leave.
      I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we don't have another flood! I can't wait to go back to the museum with Nick so I can get photos of all the washrooms but I want to wait until the strike is resolved.
      Hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. I, for one, appreciate your way of expressing the stranger side of dorm life. Plus, you took something that is generally no fun and nasty and made it entertaining and artistic. Skeletons are an interesting motif and understandably controversial, but I think you express the entire thing in a positive and fun way.

    Nathan Riley @ Steemer Atlanta

  3. I have to say, the skeleton with the plunger is one of my favorite blog pictures ever. What a diverse and eclectic selection of art here. I really felt nostalgic when you were writing about the Kohler fixtures being everywhere. I have a similar memory about Kohler. From the boys locker-room at school to my grandma's bathroom, Kohler was everywhere.

    Gregg Hogan @ American Basement Solutions

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