Force Behind the Throne

A St. Louis barber-chair maker weathered the Depression, succumbed to Japanese competitors and adapted to changing fashion

Certainly it helped that American women began flocking to barbershops to have their hair "bobbed," as the short style was called. Barbers started adding extra chairs, and Koken's business increased to the point that assembly plants were established in New York City and Oakland, Calif. Meanwhile, Walter Koken, weary of paying up to $1,000 per day to the local Liberty Foundry for the manufacture of castings, decided to build his own facility in South St. Louis. The Koken Foundry, opened in 1926, could produce 100 barber chairs a day.

From 1922-1927, Koken was the leader in barber-chair production and sales in the U.S. The Koken catalog of 1926 is a gorgeous display of the regal chairs of postwar America. Across the country, in the finer hotels, men sat for grooming in Koken's flagship Congress Pedestal Hydraulic Chair ($65-$80), a beauty of quarter-sawn oak, upholstered with mohair and plush leather. In the days of shave-and-haircut-two-bits, this chair made one feel like a Carnegie or a Rockefeller. There were many variations on the same basic design: The Congress One-Lever Chair No.132, for example, had a cane seat and back. "The Chair for Cuba and the Philippines," read the caption.

For the next 40 years, the company would sail through changing trends, nearly foundering at times, jettisoning cargo and replacing captains when necessary. Timing was everything. Chisholm was criticized for failing to meet the demands of the emerging beauty industry. By the time the company devoted a sales force to peddling permanent-wave machines and hair dryers, the Great Depression hit and the orders dwindled. Chisholm resigned, and Walter Koken decided that the only course was to diversify. The company started making golf clubs with molded Bakelite heads. Refrigerators and commodes were enameled. Embalming tables were wrought; baseball bats were turned on Koken lathes.

When chief engineer and product designer Michihiro Hirayoshi is not designing new 
products, he is planning ways to make the manufacturing floor more efficient.
Jennifer Silverberg
When chief engineer and product designer Michihiro Hirayoshi is not designing new products, he is planning ways to make the manufacturing floor more efficient.

Still, the company could not get back to flush, and in 1934 creditors asked Chisholm to rescue the company. He agreed, under the condition that Walter Koken be bought out. The scion left with just $3,000 and the trademark rights to a new hair dryer in the design stages. The company held on until World War II, when business boomed with orders for barber chairs to army camps and war-effort contracts for glider wings, tool chests and cartridge cases. After the war, Koken cashed in on the prosperity, introducing the barrel-style President and Premier series of chairs, becoming fixtures in the swankier barber shops of the country's hotels, train stations and airports.

Sterling Lee, octogenarian barber at the Happy Medium Styling Salon, commonly known as the Dogtown Barber Shop, recalls working in the mid-'50s in the basement of the old Statler Hotel (later the Gateway Hotel) downtown, where 10 barbers barbered behind a battery of 10 barrel-style President chairs. For his own barbershop near the brewery, Lee would later purchase two President chairs and a shoeshine stand from Koken. "They were very stylish and very modern," says Lee, an alum of the old Moler Barber College.

Koken was on top once more, paying out dividends for the first time in decades, when, in the early '60s, a pall fell over the scene. The Takara Co. of Osaka, Japan, entered the market with a highly styled, low-priced chair, trade-named the Belmont. The upstart Belmont gave the stodgy Koken a run for its money. Even loyal Koken dealers were switching over to the sleek, contoured Belmont, which was reminiscent of a dentist's chair (which is what Takara had been making all along).

To make matters worse, the hairstyles were changing. "In the '60s, the Beatles were fab and long hair was in," says John Rauckman, regional vice president of sales with Koken. "Back then, barbers wore white smocks and worked with clippers. They didn't know how to cut long hair, so guys started going to beauty salons, which changed their name to "unisex salon.'" Haircutting became hairstyling, and in this new, primping world the Koken chair was nearly obsolete.

"The old-type barber chair was not conducive to laying back for a shampoo," says Earl Roach. "You had to buy the shampoo tray separately, from Koken or someone else." In short, the gulf was becoming wider between the corner barbershop -- with its well-thumbed copies of Argosy and Popular Mechanics, a repair-garage calendar on the wall -- and the salon, all glass and chrome, where there are no customers, only clients, and the receptionist offers a glass of zinfandel while you thumb through Passion, checking out the latest coifs from New York and London.

What was a barber-supply company to do? Koken management and their American competitor, the Emil J. Paidar Co., joined in an appeal to the U.S. government to increase the import tariff on Belmont chairs. The court rudely told Koken that the company could damn well afford to update its plant and product lines to compete effectively against Takara. Instead, Koken sold out to its competitor in 1969. Under its new honcho, Eeson Inoue, Koken introduced the chic and tony Decorator line of beauty-salon furniture and Customod line of barber furniture. After a duration of healthy profits and several award-winning trade-show exhibits of salon furniture, Koken was recognized as an industry leader once more.

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