It’s hard to walk around a jobsite these days without running into one of those tan toolboxes advertised with a big orange K. This month, Knaack LLC celebrates its 50th anniversary helping contractors lock up their stuff.
There are many legends about the company and its founder, Howard Knaack, who started up the business in Crystal Lake, Ill. What was once a small, 2,000 sq-ft factory has added another 398,000 sq ft and now operates under St Louis-based industrial giant Emerson, which bought up the business about 10 years ago.
Last year, while reporting a story for The New York Times, I had a chance to sit down with Ken Weger, a Crystal Lake resident, small-car collector and retired Knaack vice president of manufacturing and R&D. As it turns out, Weger, who started working at Knaack in 1971 as a draftsman, takes credit for being the chief architect of the company’s logo.
Weger stands next to one of his bizarre cars. Photo by Tudor Van Hampton
“Howard didn’t want his name big,” said Weger, who went about sketching up the new brand in his living room in the late 1970s. At that time, Knaack’s brand was nearly invisible. Weger wanted to make sure the logo stood out on a messy jobsite.
“We wanted everybody to see them from 200 ft,” Weger told me. So he blew up the decal to about 2 ft, the biggest he could get printed at the time. This was a radical departure from the company's understated style.
When he showed the mockup to Mr. Knaack, ”I thought he was going to lose it,” Weger said.
Apparently, Mr. Knaack (pronounced kuh-nak) is not the type of person to toot his own horn. “He would say, ‘I don’t care how you pronounce it as long as you make the check out correctly,’” said Weger.
“I said, ‘Howard, we need to promote the name. That’s the business.’” Knaack agreed, and the newly-branded line of toolboxes rolled out in 1980.
Still prominent today is the big orange K. The company even owns a trademark for its “Knaack Tan” paint scheme.
Speaking of trademark colors, Weger has another connection to a famous “brand.” At his home in Crystal Lake, he has built a 23,000 sq-ft, private museum he calls “Small Wonders.” Among the minicars and microcars inside is a little Crosley convertible painted Taliesin Red.
An original Frank Lloyd Wright Crosley. Photo by Tudor Van Hampton
That’s right: Taliesin Red was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s custom colors. In the 1950s, he owned a fleet of little Crosley Super Sports. Wright’s architecture students would pile into them in cross-country caravans.
This one in original, unrestored condition, has Arizona plates and special air shocks to handle the weight of the caravan’s luggage.
This summer, Weger will host what he is billing as the world’s largest microcar meet. If you plan to make the trek to Crystal Lake, stop by Knaack for a tour of the factory.
You won’t miss the sign.