Force Behind the Throne

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

Nothing from the outside indicates just what sort of commerce goes on inside the Koken factory and showroom, just west of the convention center. There are no popular tours like those conducted by a certain brewer on Pestalozzi Street, no gift shops selling miniature replicas, no museum-quality displays of famous products and promotions. Nobody at Koken Manufacturing thought to keep samples of the company's gazillion products -- which, like shoes, booze and baseball, helped put St. Louis on the map.

The only records of their existence at the plant are on the pages of the handsome catalogs the company periodically produced. The 1892 Koken catalog, a tonsorial treasure with lavish full-page color plates, featured not only the famous Koken chairs but shaving mugs of every description, backboard mirror cases, wash stands, shoeshine stands, cabinetry, wooden and brass barber poles, barbers' coats and an impressive array of sundries, among them neck-dusters with French bristles, Spanish Wax Pomade "for fixing" and something called "Hair Fertilizer."

Koken receptionist and payroll clerk Ginny Stebe is a scholar of these catalogs and doubles as the firm's unofficial archivist, fielding inquiries on discontinued products from collectors as far away as New Zealand and Austria. "Usually someone has purchased an old chair and they want to know more about it," she says. "They send pictures along with batches of numbers that often don't pertain to anything. I can research it in the catalogs, maybe tell them the model and the years it was produced. But as far as the value, which is what they really want to know, I'm not an antiques dealer."

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.

Today the company makes beauty-salon furniture, dental cabinetry and, yes, tonsorial chairs, only they're called "styling chairs" and look like something you'd find on the bridge of the Enterprise. The showroom contains many compatible industry-related items, such as the Rollerball hair dryer, sort of a revolving electronic halo, which are not manufactured on site but may be speedily ordered from the New Jersey plant, Takara USA.

A visit to the St. Louis factory, guided by general manager Mike Eichenseer, reveals a curious, if not reassuring, mix of high- and low-tech workstations. Over here, Tom McCosky busies himself with the same basic woodworking that his grandfather might have done, stapling and gluing together the leg of what will be a manicure table. Over there, some 15 yards away, Chuck Tinsley works the control panel of a new $100,000 state-of-the-art computerized Giben saw about the size of two picnic tables. Tinsley sets off a nerve-racking sound, and a series of perfectly cut panels, destined to be part of a JC Penney styling station, emerge from the commotion.

Cabinets are very big at Koken these days. In addition to JC Penney, the company produces handsome wood cabinets and furniture for the hair salons of Sears, Fantastic Sam's, Great Clips, the Hair Cuttery and Wal-Mart. Some of the stores provide their own designs, and some, says Eichenseer, "we create for them using a new computer-assisted design program called CabinetVision."

The most likely new direction for the company to move into, says Eichenseer, "is laminated case goods which can be assembled" -- desks, bookcases and department-store fixtures, to name a few. "In fact, we're looking for this sort of work on a contractual basis with local people," he adds.

Overseeing the operation and training for the sexy new equipment on the floor is chief engineer and product designer Michihiro Hirayoshi -- "Yoshi" to his coworkers. The exuberant mechanical engineer came from Japan to St. Louis in 1970, sent by Takara to steer Koken into the future. When he is not designing new products such as the X-Calibur dental cabinet, which houses the x-ray unit and lights, he is planning ways to make the manufacturing floor more efficient.

From hand-painting fine china mugs to designing salon furniture for the 21st century, Koken has weathered the vicissitudes of a fickle industry. Even the product line has drastically evolved. "At one time this company was 90 percent barber," says Rauckman, a third-generation beauty-and-barber salesman. "Now it's 5 percent barber."

But the Koken chair, as Granddad knew it, is far from extinct. Many worn but functional specimens are still in use in barbershops all over the country. The legacy, it seems, is virtually assured. Says John Anich, a purchasing agent who started with Koken in 1955, "It always surprises me. You go to these little towns, and there's always a shop that has a Koken chair."

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