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A Giant In The Field

Developers, architects, city planners, visionaries. What is it they all need in order to see their dreams come to fruition? Money, of course, but what else? Business plans and schematic blueprints, yes, but what else? The answer: scaled models.

Scaled models grant thier architect the chance to look upon his/her vision in the physical, three-dimensional world without really building it. Scaled models give developers something tangible to sell when there is nothing yet to buy, and buyers something to wrap their imaginations around.

How many times have you walked into a sales center to find the sales agent pointing at a table-top replica of the building they’re selling? With laser pointer, or just an index finger, they guide their clients up the blacktopped streets past little manicured trees, pointing out parking garages, shopping districts, the closest highway access. . . maybe even a boat slip in a marina. There might be sailboats cutting through a shiny blue lake nearby. . .the agent shows the clients the building they would live in, the exact floor they would live on, even the windows they would look out.

These quaint miniatures are reminiscent of the tiny dollhouses fathers would make for their daughters; there’s something endearing about tiny versions of, well, anything. However, the replicas depicting architects and developers’ visions are a monumental undertaking, and it’s rare to find a company that can do it with as much skill, speed and craftsmanship as Columbian Model and Exhibit Works.

Enter Cathy Tinker
When Columbian Model and Exhibit Works’ president, Cathy Tinker, was studying law at Washington University, the last place she dreamed she’d end up working, let alone owning, was at a model making company.

“I practiced law for 10 years, specializing in litigation — mostly aerospace and aviation work,” Tinker says. “I just got burned out on the practice of law.”

At age 35, she was a partner in her law firm and, given that she shared a percentage of her company’s profits, she had the confidence and wherewithal to take a risk; in 1990, she left her practice and bought Columbian Model and Exhibit Works.

Tinker took an interest in model building after hiring the same company she would later own to assist her in creating visual aids for trials. “I had a great deal of fun consulting with them and figuring out what we wanted to make,” she recalls.

She believes, oddly enough, that her lack of experience in model making was the key to succeeding in it. “One of the reasons I found the practice of law so stressful was that I had a hard time delegating; I thought I could do it better myself. This [business] was perfect for my personality type because I couldn’t make a model; all I could do was manage a model making company.”

From Baby Steps to Giant Leaps
When Tinker became president and owner of CMEW over a decade ago, the model making process was tedious. “Everything was designed by hand, cut by hand, put together by hand. We were lucky if we could make three models a year. Now we try to make three really nice models a month.”

Three models a month is an amazing feat, given the man-hours spent on each model, even with today’s technology. “There are between 500 and 1,000 hours that go into each model we create,” says Tinker.

CMEW employs 15 full-time staff members, most of whom hold graduate degrees in architecture or product design. All are enterprising artists in their field. Between her six designers and the rest of her specialized staff, there are over 100 years of model making experience. Tinker credits much of her happiness to being able to work with a great group of people.

Model Making 101
Once the proposal and contract have been negotiated with a client, and the scale and level of detail has been determined for the model, Tinker receives the CAD drawings from the architect and passes them on to one of her senior designers. “They [senior designers] use the CAD drawings to scale it to the appropriate size and then start designing all the parts,” Tinker explains. “Most of our parts are made with a laser, so basically you have to visually take three-dimensional objects, break them into two-dimensions, then put them back together into three.”

When Tinker speaks of a laser, she means an extremely precise instrument that deploys a laser beam to cut and etch different types of plastics or other materials. The instrument can produce the texture of brick or the look of wrought iron for a deck, all the way down to window moldings and door jams.

The company’s 3-D printer is a truly amazing machine, like something straight out of Star Trek. For instance, you can feed\ the computer a rendering of a roof for a circular high-rise, and the 3-D printer is able to process and fully construct a three-
dimensional object.

When asked, it’s hard for Tinker to decide which model is her favorite. “When I was a kid, we use to always say every year was the prettiest Christmas tree we ever saw. Every time I finish a model, it’s my favorite.”

The biggest model CMEW produced was a half-inch scale model that they recently installed at University Commons for the Enterprise Companies. Another project they recently completed was for a development in Detroit, One Water Place. “This project was 16 feet by three feet,” says Tinker, “so it covered a lot of distance, but it was a small scale: one inch equaled thirty feet.”

Though their models are small in stature, their price tag is nothing to laugh at. “It’s sixty dollars an hour plus materials,” says Tinker. “When you figure the time invested in each model is between 500 and 1,000 man-hours, the price can range from $30,000 to $70,000.”

The Big Question
With Star Wars being such a celebrated movie, in part due to George Lucas’ amazing work with models, we had to ask if any of Tinker’s models have been tools for the big screen. “We made the model in the movie Return To Me,” Tinker says. “David Duchovny is an architect/builder who’s building a new gorilla house for the Lincoln Park Zoo, and he has a study model of the building. . . It’s in the movie for at least two or three scenes, in the background.”

Besides building the model for a movie prop, CMEW has models on display in Chicago museums. “We made a model for a submarine that was installed underground at the Museum of Science and Industry,” says Tinker. “We also have three models currently being built that are going to be displayed at the Chicago Historical Society. The models are of three different redevelopments going on in the city right now — Jazz on the Boulevard, Park Boulevard and Hilliard Homes.”

Tinker’s passion for the scaled model business is probably just as enthusiastic as a child’s love for her dollhouse. Few could be so lucky to find success making tiny things for big deals, in a career where their training began with buying the business. C.A.