Kohler Interview: March 17, 2012

Ethan W. Lasser

As part of The Tool at Hand think tank, the Chipstone Foundation invited three former Kohler Company factory workers to discuss their use of tools in the factory setting. An interesting conversation focused on tools, tool making, tool knowledge as well as the difference between the crafting process in a studio setting and an industrial setting, ensued between the Kohler craftsmen and The Tool at Hand artists.

Factory and Studio: A Dialogue


ETHAN LASSER:
What is your most important tool?

KEN:
For me, in the pottery, the whole tool box that they give you isn’t worth ten bucks. It’s a metal rib, or what they call a pallet in the factory, a plastic rib and a peg and that’s it. Other than that it’s water and sponges.

EZRA SHALES:
Could you say that another tool is material knowledge? The tool is learning the clay?

KEN:
The tool is, yeah, I would say that is huge because it changes so dramatically with the time of the year. The higher the humidity level, the hotter the temperature, the faster the clay sets up. For us, we have to cast everything right away in the morning, whatever you are going to make. And then you assemble it through the course of the day and it only gets harder to work with as the day progresses.

But I guess the one tool on hand that would be the most important for me would be the ribbed pallet.

ETHAN LASSER:
Can you describe the rib?

KEN:
A rib is just a very thin 16th of an inch hunk of sheet metal. It literally bends when you flex it in your hand. You use your thumb and your fingers to bend it. You use it to literally shape and sculpt the clay. And even though it comes out of a mold, you have this toilet that was produced by this hunk of plaster basically. When it is all assembled and it comes out, it has to has to be reshaped and every man reshapes their own toilet their way with both hands.

VAL:
You brought some really good points because when I was a caster it was $10 worth of tools. And now I work in Product Development and we built our department on the tools we need at hand. We have over 50 different power tools. We’ve got a chop saw, three different types of band saws, and four different drill presses, and then we have our hand tools. Well over 300 hand tools and everything has a specific purpose. And when Ethan first e-mailed me on what the whole project should be about, one tool, I went to the gentlemen in my department, we have over 400 years of experience in my department, and asked them what is the one tool that you could use that would help you get your job done. And over 85% of them responded it would be the pallet, which again is a little piece of metal. You can bend it, you can contour or curve, you can take it to a file and create a new contour, a new radius, and everyone agreed that would be the tool.

MICHAEL EDEN:
I’ve been a potter for 20 odd years and I’ve had the same WOODEN rib all that time.

KATE SMITH:
I’m wondering if you ever share tools in the factory.

VAL:
I can answer that. In my department of 22 people you do not use other people’s tools. You don’t know how much it took to make that tool. So it is all hands on and it does become something that you cherish because it’s how you get your job done.You want to be better than the rest. You want to have a quality that stands out to the people who look down on you. So these tools are how you get to that point.

MICHAEL EDEN:
I always looked for that rib because it was the best rib. It has aged really nicely and worked the best of any rib I’ve had.

KEN:
And that is huge. I know guys who were extremely protective of their rib. I was like you. I got one and it had the right amount of rust on it on it, it flexed right. Because Kohler wouldn’t get the same ribs every time so some would be stiffer than others and you’d go through 50 ribs in one day and then it’s like this is it.

GLENN ADAMSON:
Can you talk a little bit about tool making and how often that happens?

GREGORY:
I make things to make my job easier and do it quicker. It’s really fun for me. I’m a lefty and a lot of the things that I make are geared toward my left-handedness. Like grinding. I grind a lot and because I’m left handed, all of my shirts have holes in them. So I made myself a special apron covering them up.

KEN:
For me it was piece work so it was all about money. The piece itself didn’t have a whole lot of value because you know that it is not yours. It’s not your creation. You know you try to do the best that you can do with it, but there are so many variables beyond your control in a factory setting. You know, you try to do the best you can. But if you can make an extra piece a day that’s why you’re there, to make money. That’s an extra 18 or 19 dollars. So you can create tools to save time because you have a finite amount of time when you work in a factory floor.

DAVID GATES:
How much of that knowledge is shared amongst the workforce and how much of your kind of innovation and cleverness is taken on or appropriated by the company?

KEN:
It’s kept pretty tightly held. Now that knowledge is being lost because industry income is shrinking so dramatically. I just talked to somebody earlier. The average age on the floor of the factory is 57, 55 years old.

KEN:
I mean, all of the young people are gone. They are all laid off. You’ve got 20 years seniority still working so it’s not going to be passed down. All this knowledge, shop knowledge, floor knowledge, will eventually be gone.

VAL:
Like you said, we don’t have the young workforce coming in who gets to carry on this tradition. I know when I first became a caster, you were a tight bunch. You didn’t want to share any of your secrets. They were the money makers and I wanted to bring this income into my family. They didn’t want to share that with us new guys because all of a sudden we may be bumping them off the floor. You don’t see that anymore. Everything has truly changed. We have a lot more automation in a lot of our departments where it’s just a product that is in front of you for three minutes and it moves on. That takes away from that feeling of craftsmanship and that feeling that I actually did something that is beautiful and I am not the only one who is going to see it that way.

TAVS JORGENSEN:
Is there a real sense of pride at the factory, given people’s skill?

KEN:
Very few guys really think about it. They’re there. It’s a job. They don’t think about the skill that they have, and the fact that they are very talented in that they work with this every day. It’s just what they do. It’s what they do for a living. I mean, some of the guys are family farmers. They have these small family dairy farms and this is just what they do to make that flow.

ETHAN LASSER:
Ken, you opened by saying that you had recently moved from factory to studio. Can you say a bit more about this? What’s different and what’s the same about these two environments?

KEN:
When I learned to blow glass coming from the factory, I didn’t have this reverence. It was just another process.

GREGORY:
The difference is the time clock. The time clock is kind of a haunting thing. I think Kohler is all about the time clock. You’ve got to be at your station at this time. Going into the factory as a technician for even the job I have now, I make a lot of art on my lunchtime. I live for that time. That half hour that I have time to make something at work, okay it’s like now I have to get back to my job.

DAVID GATES:
I think this kind of binary, this has been kind of tacitly established between industry style production and studio style production again through saying this morning there’s a lot more slippery space in between. But studio craft is not this area of, “Oh, it is just so lovely to make things.”. It’s a job and work most of the time. You get up and you get to the studio at half past eight and you work until 6 or 7 o’clock. And you make things because of deadline, and you have to pay the mortgage and eat. So there are undoubtedly moments of huge satisfaction with very similar problem solving: how to make something more efficiently, how to do something in a kind of more appropriate and beautiful sort of way. It’s kind of problem solving, mate. But I probably spend twenty times longer over a spindle monitor machine than I ever do making dovetails.

But there is undoubtedly these kind of moments within that kind of absolute pleasure of having achieved something by working directly with the material.

BETH LIPMAN:
I think one of the differences I see between industrial application of tools, or the crafting process in the industry and working in process as a maker, is that what I witnessed was that most factory associates are pretty divorced from everything except what they’re doing. So you’re an absolute expert caster, no one can hold the torch to you for that. You have absolutely no idea how to glaze something expertly. So the difference that I see for artists is that you have to figure out how to problem solve every single step, from the genesis of the idea to the end result. So if you work at Kohler for ten years or fifteen years, and maybe you change your job three or four times, that still might not give you all aspects of what you are making. So you can only take ownership over what you are doing to a certain extent.