Plumbing fixture-maker Kohler sues suburban rival over kitchen sink design

Chicago Tribune Lifestyle 9 months ago

Wisconsin plumbing fixtures giant Kohler is throwing the kitchen sink at a small suburban Chicago rival in a patent infringement lawsuit over just that: kitchen sinks.

Kohler’s lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court in Chicago, alleges Hillside-based Lenova is making and marketing a new line of apron-front sinks that look “confusingly similar” to its “original and unique” designs.

The sinks from Lenova, a 10-year-old brand, sprung up “organically” and independently from Kohler’s, said Jay Beaumont, Lenova’s director of sales and marketing.

“We don’t copy anybody,” Beaumont said. “We try to be a leading-edge company.”

Founded in 1873, Kohler manufactures kitchen and bath products and also operates two resorts at its headquarters in Kohler, Wis., about 55 miles north of Milwaukee. Family-owned Kohler ranks 60th on the Forbes list of America’s largest private companies, with annual sales of $6 billion.

“Kohler Co. vigorously protects its intellectual property; however, the company does not discuss particular pending lawsuits,” the company said in an emailed statement Friday.

The lawsuit seeks to stop Lenova from selling the sinks, as well as compensation for Kohler’s lost profits and a judgment award of Lenova’s related profits.

Beaumont said the lawsuit is a David vs. Goliath battle.

“Kohler is like the 800-pound gorilla,” he said. “Kohler is a billion-dollar company. We’re just a 10-year-old brand with 100,000-square-foot warehouse in little Hillside.”

Apron-front sinks, also known as farmhouse sinks, feature an exposed front-facing side. While the sinks have been around for many years, they are enjoying renewed popularity, and both Kohler and Lenova have created modernized versions in recent years.

In July 2011, “after significant engineering and development expense,” Kohler introduced its version of the disputed sinks, filing several design patents, according to the lawsuit. The primary patent, entitled “apron-front sink,” was issued in 2015.

The sinks have become successful commercial products for Kohler, according to the lawsuit.

Lenova began working on its apron-front sinks about two years ago, Beaumont said. The company rolled out a new version this week at an industry trade show, where Kohler was also an exhibitor.

Apron-front sinks sit on their own cabinets in space cut out from the kitchen countertop. Beaumont said the mounting technology is at the core of the patent infringement lawsuit.

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @RobertChannick

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