May 09, 1977 12:00 PM

It began with the sun,” Herb Kohler Jr. says. “I was trying to find a way to effectively apply sun to my whole body in my bathroom.” Out of that modest requirement has come the “Environment,” a self-contained little world in which the owner can be tanned, steamed, showered and dried by gentle winds. All these meteorological changes take place inside a teak-lined cocoon equipped with a chime to tell the sunbather when to turn over, six 24-karat-gold shower heads and a control panel. The experience can last up to two and a half hours, and Kohler is its proud creator.

The Environment costs $10,000 plus $3,000 to install, and for only $2,000 more the true sybarite can add, among other accessories, a stereo AM/FM radio and tape deck. Although inside the apparatus is about the size of a twin bed, the exterior is nine by four feet. “It’s a little place,” says Kohler, “where someone can have an experience privately. Or with someone close.” As the inventor, he enjoys the steam but likes the warm, dry “Chinook winds” even more. “Frankly,” he says, “it’s very sensuous.”

Kohler, 38, is the third generation to head the giant plumbing company his grandfather founded. He graduated from Yale in 1965 and lives with his wife, Linda, 38, and their three children in the model company town of Kohler, Wis. Once a “rebel” who did not want to join the family business, he could not resist when his father said “he would treat me rougher than any other employee. Because I was the son and my name was Kohler, I wanted to prove my worth.”

He admits his own marketing department was dubious about the Environment, which took six years of experimentation and 12 prototypes to perfect. But without giving sales figures, Kohler says his firm has received “more orders than we anticipated.” That explains why Kohler does not have an Environment in his four-bath home. He has to use the one down at the plant.

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