What’s New in Kitchen and Bath Trends: A Visit to the Kohler Design Center

One example of a well-designed modern kitchen inspired by the sensational Kohler kitchen decor.

At the Kohler Design Center, small rooms, or vignettes, showcase how to incorporate the design trends and products that you see into your own home. This vignette, called Crystal Clear, was designed by Chicago designer Mick DeGiulio and uses Kohler products to create a multi-tasking kitchen counter in a small space.

KOHLER, WIS. — It’s the Disneyland of kitchens and bathrooms.

Seriously, for anyone who has actually reveled in the falling-face-first feeling of choosing the myriad products and finishes for a new kitchen or bath, the 36,000 sq. ft. Kohler Design Center
 is a veritable playground of spas and sinks and tile.

Here, the toilets might come equipped with remote controls. A bathtub promises to gently vibrate away your cares. A showerhead simultaneously washes you and serenades you with your favorite jazz podcast. The water to fill a bathtub could pour forth from the ceiling.

It’s all in keeping with consumers’ consuming passions for their homes. The kitchen-and-
bath business — in the higher price ranges, at least — has fed these passions by creating something of a show-biz aura around its products; Kohler Co. didn’t hit $5 billion in annual sales by ignoring it. Although the company certainly isn’t the only one in its field to develop a glitzy showroom, it’s probably the only one to turn that showroom into a tourist destination: About 130,000 people a year visit the Design Center in the little town of Kohler (population: 2,100), about an hour north of Milwaukee, Wis.

Of course, it helps that Kohler adapted a century-old workers’ dormitory down the street from the design center and turned it into the Tudor-styled American Club, which is now a five-star resort. (Kohler also runs four championship Pete Dye-designed courses nearby.) The decidedly upscale hotel manages to pack its guest rooms’ baths with sybaritic razzle-dazzle that’s a de facto invitation to drop by the design center to feast on more.

Just don’t plan to buy any of the company goodies for your kitchen or bath there.

“You can’t buy anything from the Design Center,” explained company spokeswoman Mirjam Lippuner Konsek. “We will refer customers to their local distributor (during their visit), but a client could walk out of the design center with a full list of Kohler products and specifications for their building project.”

The center is staffed with designers who will review your home’s floor plans and design needs and help sort out the myriad products, preferably by appointment. Visitors are also welcome to make an impromptu visit to wander the design center on their own, with designers and staff on hand to answer questions.

Design-wise, the place is divided into two principal areas: The main level is in the vein of a traditional showroom — a wall-to-wall (and then some) array of related products it manufactures among its numerous brands. (In addition to Kohler-branded products, the company also produces Ann Sacks tile, Robern bathroom cabinetry, Kallista 
faucets and fixtures, Sterling bath products and a dozen other lines.)

Then, on the mezzanine level are a couple dozen kitchen and bath “room vignettes” created by leading designers from around the country. (There’s also a small museum on the lower level that’s devoted to the company’s 140-year history and visitors also can arrange free tours of the company’s manufacturing facilities elsewhere in the town.)

The vignettes spotlight Kohler products, of course, and range from the most traditional styling to the most contemporary — even avant-garde — looks. The rooms aren’t meant to dictate what’s hot or to prescribe how a given room should look, according to Travis Rotelli, senior interior designer at Kohler. Rather, they’re a conversation-starter, he said.

“It’s more about trying to show the consumer the different ways you can design,” he said. “It’s meant to open your mind to what you can do.”

Nonetheless, a “gotta find what’s hot” mindset pervades many consumers’ design decisions these days. Among the trend highlights that Rotelli has spotted, based on conversations with designers and consumers who have recently wandered, wide-eyed, through the center:

The Bathroom is Connected

“We conducted a survey, and 75 percent of the people told us they use their smart phones in their bathrooms,” Rotelli said. “One of the biggest trends we are seeing in bathrooms and kitchens has been focused on technology.”

The company was aware that audio-craving consumers long have been dragging their radios into their bathrooms or precariously balancing their iPod docking stations on their toilet tanks.

“We decided to make (bringing music into the bathroom) easier, as well as put a beautiful design aesthetic about it,” he said.

The result: the company’s new Moxie showerhead, which is an integrated Bluetooth speaker that resides within the center of the showerhead itself. Turn on the shower and water gushes forth, as well as your personal playlist, if you so desire. (The speaker also pops out of the showerhead and can be used in other rooms.)

One of the more “wired” room vignettes at the design center is the Caldera bathroom, shown at right, by Amy Lau, which is a veritable temple of what’s possible in the world of bathroom tech. Here, while you’re shaving or applying makeup, for example, the medicine cabinet will entertain you: it’s outfitted with StereoStik speakers, which attach to the sides of the cabinets and will fill the room with music or news from an MP3, other personal device or radio.

Among Kohler’s numerous fantasy bathtubs that do all kinds of tech-y things, the latest is the VibraAcoustic, which literally can be made to play music, news, podcasts, et al. by connecting to a smartphone, tablet or MP3 player. But it’s not done yet: the tub also produces sound waves that travel through the water and provide a kind of massage, without causing even a ripple in the water.

Then there’s the Numi toilet, which Kohler describes as its “most advanced.” It has a foot-warmer, a heated seat that automatically rises and closes, a built-in music system that can be customized with a personalized playlist and other features, all controllable from a touch-screen remote.

Don’t Be Afraid to Go Gray

Gray hues are showing up everywhere, not just at Kohler, and the color family is becoming sort of a “new neutral.” The latest Kohler gray-ish incarnation is called Dune, which shows up in sinks and tubs and it’s particularly intended for the customer who wants something a little different, but at the same time doesn’t want to be so flamboyant that the choices would hurt the home’s resale value, Rotelli said. (One thing that hasn’t changed: Kohler’s market research suggests that a home’s potential resale value is still a big consumer concern when it comes to making product selections, he added.)

In other color news: brightly hued enameled kitchen sinks are nothing new, but some consumers seem convinced that if they have stainless-steel kitchen appliances, then they have to have a stainless-steel sinks, Rotelli said. Consider a color splash — Kohler designers are suggesting that it’s the one place to add color that works in concert with cabinets, tile or backsplashes.

A Little Maintenance “Cheat” in the Bathroom

Bathroom tiles are getting bigger because one persistent customer concern is the effort involved in re-grouting and maintaining them, Rotelli said. Kohler’s Ann Sacks unit is getting a strong response to tiles that are much bigger than the ubiquitous subway tile that has dominated bath design in recent years, he said. Choosing oversized tiles (measuring 1-foot-by-2-feet) is one way to end up with fewer tile borders in the shower, which means fewer lines to grout and keep clean, he said.

Keep It Simple … Seriously

Plainer, simpler, less-ornamented kitchen and bath fixtures are starting to dominate consumer choices, in keeping with a burgeoning desire for a more streamlined look, he said. “We’re letting the colors and finishes speak for the product,” Rotelli said. 

Rotelli said a prime example is Crystal Clear, a small-ish kitchen vignette by Chicago designer Mick DeGiulio. He stylishly packed a multi-tasking kitchen counter into a small space reminiscent of an urban loft. DeGiulio created the Multiere 45-inch sink (with Kohler’s Kallista unit), which has a corner drain in order to maximize basin space, a sliding cutting board, colander holder, slot to hold a knife and built-in dish-towel bar that doubles as a knife sharpener.

A big “however” in the simplicity trend, according to Rotelli: Consumers still want to pull out all the ornamentation stops in the powder room or guest bath in order to show off a little and to have some fun.

Skip the Match Game

Don’t be obligated to feel matchy-matchy when planning multiple baths in a house, with the same cabinet pulls in each room, the same color palate, etc.

“I tell people no, have fun,” he said. “Make each bathroom its own space.”

NewHomeSource visited the Kohler Design Center with a video crew. Be sure to check out our video, “Inside the Kohler Design Center,” at 
Freelance writer Mary Umberger has covered real estate and home-related products for publications such as The Chicago Tribune, Inman News and other leading print and online publications.

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