Kohler, WI sits sandwiched between farmland and road houses, slightly west of Sheboygan. It’s deposited in an area once so thick with trees that early white guys had to use Indian trails to get their Manifest Destiny on — before growing tired of all that and chopping everything down for the paper mills.
Flush forward a bit, and in comes John Michael Kohler, a 19th century Austrian immigrant who pitted his teutonic rationalism against the rough midwestern terrain. Pristine rows of flowers and trees, picturesque houses from a hundred years ago. Golf courses. A massive foundry. Up sprung Kohler, a perfect company town, cranking out perfect metallic things at a perfect rate, from hog scolders to the Numi toilet, and now, the next generation of Sheik-like hygienic excess: the VibrAcoustic tub. Kohler flew, drove, and coddled me all the way to the middle of the middle of nowhere so I could experience the thing. It was surreal.
Welcome to the product junket, an all-expenses-paid PR pitch masquerading as a trip that we, as a rule, do not participate in. Junkets make us feel icky; they compromise our objectivity. But like some sort of journalistic influenza, junkets are everywhere — tech, sports, cars, and of course, gadgets, maybe the most crooked of all trades. This is a peek inside of the industry staple that produces everything from exotic car-test cover stories to exclusive interviews with company execs.
This was my first trip into the corporate gravy pit, but it certainly wasn’t the first offer: skiing trips to test jackets, luxury towers in Shanghai to leer at desktop computers. It is the science of corporate control. At any given point, the companies you buy things from are giving writers vacations on corporate home turf: perfectly choreographed, all-expenses-paid commodity lapdances that attempt to produce Manchurian Bloggers. It was my turn. The VibrAcoustic looked cool! And come on, it’s not like we could have a bathtub review unit sent to our office.
And Joe must have been drunk or something, because he said I could go.
But why had Kohler even emailed me in the first place? Was this a mistake? Had I been mistakenly placed on the masthead for Plumbing & Hydronic Contractor News Magazine? (A real thing, and no, I am not qualified to work there.) No. It all came back to an event last year in which I sat upon the Zeus toilet — and written about it more effusively than most people propose marriage.
Given your previous interest for Gizmodo, we wanted to personally invite you to be one of the first to experience the new VibrAcoustic bathtub in Kohler, WI on April 18-19 (we’ll pick up your travel and lodging expenses). While you’re in Kohler you can experience a number of other recent high-tech bathroom products Kohler has launched including the Numi Toilet and DTV Prompt digital shower (more info on each below my signature).
Digital showers. A tub that apparently vibrates. Say no more, Matt from Kohler. I may die having accomplished little, but I won’t be rolled into the grave having turned down a free trip to an obscure town for the express purpose of dipping myself in a $US5000 bath. Several days later, I was on my way. On my own — unlike most press trips, I was headed into Kohler’s watery embrace alone. I don’t know if nobody else was invited or if nobody else accepted the trip, but there I was on a junket of one.
To make sure his Old World factory fodder would stay happy in the plumbing biz, the elder Kohler created a massive dormitory to house, feed, and comfort the labouring FOBs. That dorm is now the American Club, where I arrived to check into my deluxe suite after an hour-long car ride south from Milwaukee.
The Club sits just off the main drag of Kohler, directly across the street from the company’s corporate HQ and massive, dilapidated factory complex. The whole structure is a wonderful structural cliche — an anglophile mansion that mixes the psychological remoteness of The Shining with cookie cutter cheer halfway between a Thomas Kinkade painting and the interior of the Lucitania.
If it’s hard to imagine a modern day company providing its employees lavish housing festooned with portraits of Washington, antique vases, and intricate woodwork, it’s because they don’t — and they didn’t. The American Club was polished harder as a business than it’d been for any immigrant worker. After years of retrofitting and masterful renovation, the entire place is now a luxury resort for lonely midwestern wives, golfers, and me.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Biddle,” murmured a man in a red velvet coat and top hat. Had I drowned in the bathtub already? Was this my hereafter? This must be purgatory, no? How did he know my name? I smiled and walked into reception: up winding stairs, and past wood — just so, so much wood. Everything was paneled. Would the bathtub be paneled? Was my king bed just a pile of oak? I now understood where all that Indian trail wilderness had gone.
“Hello, Mr. Biddle!” chirped a beautiful blonde plump-faced concierge. “Welcome to the American Club. Would you like a glass of champagne?” NO NO I WOULD NOT GO TO HELL PR SPAWN YOU DON’T OWN ME. “Wow, yeah, that’d be great,” I managed. I couldn’t look directly at her perfect line of white teeth so I looked at the champagne glass. It was covered in an intricate floral design and I drank it. Karen, or Kari, or something handed me an envelope alongside my room key and the flute. “Here’s a message from Vicki. She’ll be waiting for you in the Heritage Room at five to two.” She simpered and I walked away in a daze.
Vicki. Of course, Vicki. I had no idea what or where the Heritage Room was, but it sounded like it was probably paneled with a lot of wood. Vicki. Vicki is the lynchpin of any junket: the handler. Kohler, WI is a lot like Pyongyang — the streets are near deserted; monuments, plaques, and corporate slogans encrust the grounds. The luxury is reserved for a few, and your time there is carefully controlled. Reminders of Glorious Austrian Leader’s generosity were made impossible to ignore. The difference between Kohler, WI and the DPRK was Vicki — a lovely, friendly woman, who would not march me to a DMZ firing squad if I looked behind the wrong door. Vicki’s letter stamped out my itinerary for the next 24 hours; I had 50 minutes until bath time. I might never be the same after this, so I needed to spend that time carefully.
My room was, of course, distended and beautiful, like much in Wisconsin. Sheets spread wide, more cushions than any midwestern arse could command — the room was a sprawl of resources, a jumbo fried curd of oak and marble. The bathroom, expectedly, was larger than my apartment in New York, and packed with the Lavatory King’s state of the art: The shower had more heads than the room had furniture. There was a sink outside the bathroom, in case you couldn’t make it all the way inside? I didn’t dare turn it on.
Across from the enormous bed stood a gift basket: two locally-bottled beers in a bucket of ice, and a wrapped basket filled with exquisite roasted nuts and a box of golf balls. Sure, why not. Nothing could have been more decadent than this gift nonsensical gift basket — it was like an Menominee chief laying out a spread of sparkling beads and flutes as a welcome gesture. I drank one of the beers, paced around the room, slurped down the rest of the champagne, and sat in silence punctuated only by a room service-delivered cheeseburger. It arrived on a giant folding table that required a team of two. “Shall we turn on the TV, Mr. Biddle?” I had a TV? “No thanks, that’s OK.” No time for TV. Soon, I’d be washed in a touchscreen, Bluetooth bathtub.
There’s never just one handler, of course. Every junket has a staff. On our walk to the vacant, mid-renovation wing of the American Club that held this prototype bathtub, I was part of a phalanx. Vicki was now flanked by a trio of handlers and observers, there to handle and observe me and only me. There was a strong-faced construction manager with a name like Jeremy or Stephen, Engineer A, and Engineer B.
It was a long walk, deeper into the building than I thought possible from the outside, and disorienting enough to further the control that’s essential to a junket. Where was I? I had no idea — lodged in a vast wing of a vast hotel in a vast state.
We reached the room. “Pardon the mess.” What mess? The room was empty save for a massive mattressless bed frame. I rounded the corner into the bathroom. I was warned it would be a little rough. It was spotless.
And there was the tub.
It seemed less a tub than an alabaster cavity in the Earth itself, a pearly sinkhole that could suck us all in. White Engineer and Indian Engineer droned on about the tub, about its innards (six speakers divided above and below the waterline with discrete volume control), about its genesis (dozens of test subjects reporting vibration conditions), about its features (Bluetooth, aux-in, splashproof full colour touch controls). But the VibrAcoustic tub can be explained with few words: it’s a near-offensively large tub with speakers built into its walls, cycling rainbow LCD lights, and a touchscreen to control these things. You can play one of a handful of pre-programmed softcore porn-ish tracks, or input your own via any device with a 3.5mm jack or Bluetooth.
The sound, I’m told, ripples directly into your naked body, lulling you into a state of serenity. Each pre-loaded song lasts exactly 20 minutes — the duration of a scientifically ideal bath — Engineer B nodded solemnly, citing a piece of research that surely took several hundred thousand dollars to cement. But I’d have no 20 minute splish — my itinerary blocked out two hours for bathing. Six times Kohler’s calculated ideal. Fuck an ideal. The ideal bath never ends — ideally you die in a warm bath, with Drake reverberating gently through the water and into your crotch as you lull in and out of consciousness.
Vicki and Engineer A and Engineer B asked me to lie in the tub with my clothes on before they filled it up — so I could get the full experience. A dry run. Who was I to say no? Nobody would ever know if my throat were cut here, tipsy from free champagne, beer, and cheeseburger. I lowered myself in and stare up at them. I asked if someday all baths will be like this. Yes, Engineer B nodded solemnly again. “People need this.” People need this tub. It is needed.
The quartet left; I stripped down, popped two Klonopin and a tall glass of water, and slid in. It was a literal slide, as the tub holds an obscene 473L of water. That’s almost enough water to quench a human for half a year. Or soothe one for 20 minutes.
The VibrAcoustic is the first bathtub to require a learning curve. You don’t just lie down in it — you’ll drown. One must sit in it like some sort of space throne: back straight, arms thrust outward, leaving enough room for several other people. You’ll need to grab ahold of something — especially if you want to contort yourself around and tap at that touchpad. With my arm anchored across the side of the tub, body twisted, seal-like, I swapped through songs on the tub’s touchpad controller. It was more responsive than most Android tablets. “Isolation” looked like a good tune to start with.
The walls shook, subtly. I could feel it in my arse as my body started to loosen up from the pills. Two was probably too many — my mouth was already dry and the water felt too hot. I realised that if I were to fall asleep and slipped under, it could be days before they found my body; Vicki promised me as much time I wanted in the tub.
I imagined missing my dinner tonight, alone, missing my factory tour the next day, missing my car to the airport, my flight. My worried roommate. My sad obituary: Blogger felled by ample tub. I slapped at the touchscreen wildly, switching the music to one of the more “energising” numbers, which Engineer A said was meant to invigorate rather than relax. I felt myself sweating everything out into the water. The tub’s war drums kicked in with repeated thuds — I felt on the verge of an Potawatomi ambush. Panic. This wasn’t comfortable at all. The tub’s built-in LEDs switched to blood red, and I hopped out and ran to the toilet with a glass of ice water. My heart was pounding, my breathing shallow. I’m dripping all over the place. I should call my mother.
I plugged my iPhone into the auxiliary input, hoping a bathtub filled with maternal comfort might ward off junket terrors. Where was I going to eat tonight? How would I eat alone in Wisconsin? She didn’t pick up, and hearing my mother’s voicemail message reverberate out of a piping hot bubble bath made my blood run cold. I slipped back in and changed the song to “Letting Go,” or something like that. They pretty much all sound the same. The Klonopin started to slowly fold itself away, my vessels opened, and I slumped down into the ceramic maw. The water was nearly up to my nose, but that was OK right then. I closed my eyes and gave the thing a shot.
I stayed in the VibrAcoustic for nearly two hours.
Once all worry of pharmaceutical drowning drained off, so did the rest of my anxiety. I was expecting the thing to massage me with sound, to knead knots I didn’t know I had — to pummel me. I wanted sonic hands all over. The sensation was really more like letting your iPhone ring underneath your pillow with the radio on. That was alright. I was relaxed. Putting mid-western remoteness, unneeded luxury and a stomachful of gratis wine and pills aside, I was soothed. I ducked my ears under, and the muddled music was quite nice. I thought about nothing. I felt nothing. No guilt, no finger pruning. Only a little bit of me remained above water — and that’s the trick with the Kohler VibrAcoustic: it requires the acceptance of all possible fatalities. Give yourself to it, and it reciprocates.
A tour of Kohler’s fantasy design centre followed, with peeks at experimental rooms beyond the means of all but few Americans. Polished display toilets in every imaginable colour were stacked to the ceiling, as if in preparation for some faecal apocalypse. Couples poked around the showroom, prodding sinks and whispering to one another. I asked about the Kohler spa, shamelessly. Did I want a massage or a facial? Or anything? Vicki said anything. I said a massage, and in a few minutes, my $US200 appointment was set. I lay prostrate in a robe, naked underneath, and stared at old Wisconsin women and their daughters. I ate an apple. I was rubbed down by an older woman who spent 10 minutes outlining her variety of oils. I was ready for dinner.
Smiling Plump Blonde Concierge was gone, which was a shame. I’d drug-dreamt of asking her to dinner during my two hour soak. She was replaced by a stern-looking man who recommended I try the Wisconsin Room for supper. I changed sweaters in a weak attempt to convince myself this was some sort of occasion, and then called to reserve a table for one. That’s never easy for an ego, but the anticipation of ordering the most expensive things on the menu without remorse sort of canceled it out.
I sat at a large table in an enormous room that looked out onto a garden. A few well-dressed elderly couples talked quietly or not at all. One celebrated a birthday in dignified silence, staring at a candled slice of something. I ordered a beef filet, risotto, chocolate cake, and champagne. It was a death row meal. I gave the waitress a 50 per cent tip with Kohler’s money, smiled and left for the bar downstairs.
Unlike the regal Wisconsin Room, with all its elegance, tapestries, fried foods and quiet wood, the Horse and Plow is the kind of bar one might find inside an airport rather than the basement of the American Club. I ordered a local beer and fried cheese curds. When the latter proved to be noxious I leaned on the former, until lubricated enough to bullshit about baseball. A pretty blonde girl of sweet midwestern face and cruel eastern frame was sitting at the stool next to me. If all the staff in this place were sisters conscripted into the same Kohler toilet cult, I’d have only been half surprised.
She was joking brashly and cruelly with the bartender and some guy in a blazer and I stepped in. “Are the Orioles playing tonight?” They both turned to me with shock and pity. “Even if they were I’d say no,” she smiled, and turned back. I bought them both a round of drinks. Soon we were drunk, and on our way to a roadhouse just outside of Sheboygan. He’d offered to drive, and he swerved pleasantly into the pub’s empty lot.
I was off the rails. I was supposed to be in my room sleeping, or maybe using the two-hour MILF video pass I’d billed to my room after checking in. I had to be awake at 7am for a tour of the Kohler factory — not out slurring and drooling with two kind strangers and a desiccated bartender named Nancy, who could have been one of the original Austrian inhabitants of Kohler were it not for her 20th-century makeup job. We drank, exchanging cheery barbs about each other’s respective stupid accents until I had to lean on the bar. I teased the girl about her phone. She bought me a shot called “The Abortion.” I rubbed my arm against hers. The three of us drove home. She joked about cutting my throat and dumping me in Lake Michigan. I said she could stay at the American Club. She said she wasn’t allowed. I went to my room and lay alone and thought about shower heads.
Kohler had impressed me with her love, but now she knew I was ready to leave. We’d only have a few more hours together, and so she gave me the consummation of any junket: the corporate brainwash. A parting shot. Something to remember her by on the flight back. I peeled myself out of bed, packed hastily, checked out and spent three hours inside a sweltering iron foundry. My tour guide navigated me around bubbling casks of molten metal, shirtless men and drenched women toiling to make luxury tubs, and the robotic arms that would soon replace them both. I was told of Kohler’s generosity to its employees, its help moulding shell casings for the Vietnam War, and its feat of stealing Soviet manufacturing secrets for its most deluxe faucet finish.
The tour concluded with an aerial photo of the town: perfect, white, green and full of toilets. I pressed the guide for more information about how many people those robotic arms had displaced since the days his father worked in that same factory, and he smiled and said nobody wanted those jobs anyway. The robots, those suckers.
The last moment was Vicki. We had lunch by an artificial lake. I ordered another filet, this time floating in cream sauce and pasta, and drank deep red wine until I was ready to lie down in my car to the airport. We talked about the future of bathrooms and their complexity. We talked about how nice the weather had been. I thanked Vicki for every single thing, and I meant it. She’s paid to spoil people like me, like little baby idiots that we are. That’s her job. But Vicki lacked the Terminator, mercenary quality of other PR folk. She just liked Kohler and the things they build there; she liked me, and wanted me as well fed as any of her own children. Vicki was the best thing I saw in Kohler, WI, next to the infinite bath tub of horror and ecstasy.
I slept through business class and a Kohler chauffeur dumped me back in New York where I’d started. I thought about washing off some of the factory silt. My bathroom instantly disgusted me — one faucet, one nozzle, crude handles. Where was the touchpad? Maybe people really did need that stuff.
I very much hated my bathroom and all it’d taken was 24 hours, 2250km and $US1500 worth of silk sheets and steak.