Highlights From Kohler Design Affair 2016

For the second annual Kohler Design Affair, prestigious designers traveled from around the world to Kohler, Wisconsin, for a three-day summit hosted by Interior Design and Kohler. Interior Design editor in chief Cindy Allen set the tone for the event in her introduction on Wednesday night: “This is about how we can move forward as an industry—together.” Featuring thought-provoking speakers and inspiring settings, the event sparked stimulating conversations about how we can work together to propel the design industry into uncharted territories.


That notion of innovation has been a fundamental part of the Kohler company history, a fact that became clear as president and CEO David Kohler gave an introduction on the first day. With his father and predecessor, Herbert Kohler Jr., sitting in the front row, Kohler spoke to the entrepreneurial spirit that has allowed the company to grow so significantly since the early days, back when a Kohler bathtub was sold for the price of one cow and 14 chickens. The village of Kohler itself is a testament to the 143-year-old company’s success, hosting five-star hotel, spa, and golf facilities owned by the brand. 


The speakers throughout the event encouraged attendees to expand their boundaries and think outside the box. Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist and Harvard fellow, spoke about how we can avoid technological overload, while Dominic Wilcox, artist and inventor, delighted the audience with a presentation of his outlandish ideas.


On day two, Cindy Allen presented a roundup of industry trends, noting the importance of branding for today’s top companies. “Even Coca-Cola knows their message has to run through the entire company,” she said. Branding has been fundamental to Kohler’s success, explained the next speaker Elizabeth Brady. Brady, the SVP of global brand management at Kohler, shared some of the company’s iconic advertisements and creative marketing campaigns. Leading designers Jordan Mozer and Jeffrey Beers took the stage to provide insight into their respective creative processes, while artist Phil Hansen spoke about his rule-bending artistic approach.


Opportunities for guests to socialize and take in the scenic setting punctuated the program. On the first night, guests were treated to a cozy dinner at the Riverbend club and a surprise fireworks display outside. The day two lunch at the log cabin–style River Wildlife Sporting Club was followed by a choice of afternoon activities, from exploring the famed Whistling Straits golf course to making Kohler original-recipe chocolates. To wrap up the second day, guests enjoyed dinner at a super long table that stretched through the Beacon, a Kohler communications building designed by Gensler and previously featured by Interior Design.


Speaker Phil Hansen said in his presentation, "We need to first be limited to become limitless." Despite the host of challenges that the attendees face running their practices in Singapore, Peru, the U.S., and other countries, the pervading theme of the event was how designers can tap into creativity at all stages of the design process. In fact, that ingenuity has become a requirement in the industry. As Allen put it: “The unexpected is now expected from you.” With its inspiring conversations and rock-star designer attendees, the second Kohler Design Affair surely unleashed some of that creative thinking.


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