Sunday, May 25, 2003

Studio adds culture to coasters, mosaics


Enterprise insight

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] President Mark Schmidt at his company Studio Vertu on Central Parkway, near Music Hall. Behind him is a mural printed on lightweight urethane tile.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
Studio Vertu is a study in theme and variations. Starting with a simple square of marble, the company's owner Mark Schmidt has fashioned a wide-ranging product line of wall art and home decor items.

The enterprise, which prints a variety of designs on marble and urethane squares it calls Fresco Tiles, was Schmidt's answer to "What's next?" a question he asked himself in the mid-1990s when he closed his art gallery, Vertu. But like a good piece of artwork, the business has required both passion and skill to perfect.

"I wanted to print on marble," the University of Cincinnati DAAP alumnus said. "I did some research and then started working on marble squares."

The entrepreneur developed a process for transferring images onto 12-inch marble surfaces, but the material didn't cooperate.

"I had a ton of breakage, and the holes always seemed to be in the wrong places," Schmidt said.

So he switched to plaster tiles, a move that was successful at first.

"I ran plaster for almost a year, and then it completely stopped working. I still don't know why, but the tiles all broke," he said.

But because Schmidt had the molds, he decided to experiment with a urethane mixture, which set up quickly and was durable. After working out a few bugs, he was ready for production by early 1997.

Because they were lightweight and could attached to wall surfaces with Velcro, the printed urethane squares lent themselves to use in murals. The company's first big coup was creation of a mural for the National Football League headquarters in New York City. Since then, Studio Vertu has designed and installed sportscapes for the Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles.

VERTU-AL PRODUCTS
The tile printing process begins when the marble squares are delivered to Studio Vertu's production room. The squares are sorted and then printed individually from computer-scanned images. A "secret sauce" bath gives the tiles their aged appearance. After they are dried, the squares are packed and shipped.

Currently, Studio Vertu's catalog contains about 150 images. The company can also produce tiles with customers' artwork or logos on them.

Retail prices can vary, but magnets are about $25 for a set of four, and coasters about $40 for four. An eight-inch wall clock is about $50, a glass plate $80, and a Roma-framed decorative tile is $150. In the Cincinnati area, Studio Vertu products can be found at Nest, 3184 Madison Road in Oakley.

Studio Vertu is at 1208 Central Parkway, 241-9038.

But Schmidt hadn't forgotten his first concept. He found that smaller marble squares took images well and didn't break easily. He launched a limited line of Studio Vertu Italian Marble Coasters in mid-1997.

"I signed up and got into the New York Gift Show that summer," Schmidt said. "I had the worst booth - back by the bathrooms - but did $20,000 worth in five hours. We decided we'd better get into the coaster business."

After defining and refining its niche, Studio Vertu has expanded its portfolio of images as well as its product line. Its tiles bear designs from artists such as Guy Buffet and from institutions such as the New York Botanical Gardens and London's Victoria & Albert Museum. Studio Vertu was the first company to license images from The Vatican Library Collection. Each year the company adds to its collection: Most recently it introduced five sets of Hawaiian-theme coasters that feature tropical blossoms, retro hula girls and native fishermen.

The printed tiles are made into magnets, clocks, trivets, framed art, address tiles and covers for photo albums and journals. Marble-patterned urethane tiles with decorative molding are sold as bulletin boards.

But coasters remain the company's central product.

"I'm sitting here today as coaster king," Schmidt said. "We've sold over 3 million tiles, and this year we're up 20 percent over last year with about 2,300 active accounts. We ship anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 coasters a day."

Schmidt's wife, Heather, sells Studio Vertu products at Nest, her home decor specialty shop in Oakley. After helping Mark establish Studio Vertu, she opened her shop largely to market those products. They still make up about one-fourth of her inventory and 20 percent of her sales.

"Mark and I knew a long time ago that people were responding to the 'aged' look," Heather Schmidt said. "What he's done is focus on something that's successful and desirable, and then fan it out to other kinds of products."

It's taken persistence and patience to make Studio Vertu profitable. The company, whose $20,000 start-up cost Schmidt financed with credit cards, achieved $3 million in sales for 2002. But growing sales didn't always mean the company operated in the black.

"Even up to two years ago, we had all the business we could handle and were close to being bankrupt," explained the owner. "We had to grow or die."

Before the company could grow, it had to reduce its costs. Schmidt arranged to purchase his marble directly from Italy, rather than buying it from importers. Studio Vertu also set up a European franchise that now produces the Fresco Tiles for customers abroad, saving shipping costs and giving the company greater credibility in the European market. And, while Schmidt is proud of his labor-intensive operation in Over-The-Rhine, he's planning to have the bulletin boards produced overseas so that they're more affordable for mass markets.

Schmidt constantly experiments with new product ideas. The tile images are now available on curved, square glass plates, taking Studio Vertu into a new realm.

"It's a huge growth area," Schmidt said.

E-mail jcallison@zoomtown.com



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