Ted Lowitz thought he would grow up to be a painter. “When I was a teenager, the model was to be Matisse,” he says. “As an adult, you realize there are other creative ways to live your life.”
Now the owner of Lowitz and Company, makers of art tile, Lowitz still considers himself an artist; it’s just that instead of his work hanging on walls, it’s stuck to them.
In fact, he counts among his client base many of the same individuals who haggle over Picassos and Monets at auction: Customers for his ceramic and bronze tiles include Brad Pitt, King Abdullah of Jordan and several princesses (the royal kind, plus a pair of Princess cruise ships). Priced at up to $80 per tile, Lowitz’ designs typically are out of reach of the average home remodeler, but on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 3:00 – 7:00 p.m., Lowitz will open up his workshop, located on the second floor of the Lillstreet Art Center, for a rare studio sale. Pick up seconds for 80 percent off retail and overstock items for a 30 percent savings. (Look for me in line. I’ll be the person kicking herself for installing her new kitchen back splash last month.)
Lowitz began designing tile some 20 years ago, frankly as a way to make a living, and moved his operation to its current home at 4401 N. Ravenswood a few years later. The open, sunlit space, with its racks of tiles and electric-powered kilns, more closely resembles a bakery than the medieval smithy I had, for some inexplicable reason, envisioned. Until recently, his fellow tenants included a number of small-scale manufacturers. “There was a high precision gear factory, a leather purse manufacturer, rubber manufacturing. I was the artist,” Lowitz recalls. Then Lillstreet took over the building and suddenly he was the “businessman.”
Actually, Lowitz feels comfortable switching between the two roles. “I couldn’t do either full time. There are times when I think, ‘Enough with the aesthetic decisions,’” he says. “Today I’m going to reconcile my checking account and I’m looking forward to it. It’s very gratifying to do something that has an end.”
During the average week, Lowitz devotes a third of his time to developing new designs or tweaking existing ones and another third to managing the business, which employs a staff of four. “Art making can be a lonely profession,” Lowitz says. “I’m fortunate to work with wonderful people. I’m not a particularly social person, but I like being with people I know really well. Jim [Stevens, general manager] has been here 14 years. We’re a very close group.”
The remainder of his hours are spent at the work table testing patterns and glazes. “I spend a lot of time looking at tiles: What do I want to nurture, what looks like a dead end, is that gray too blue,” he explains.
At the moment, Lowitz is focusing most of his energy on a new line of tiles called “Instinct,” which has been gestating for close to six years. “I’m a really slow designer. For me, it takes a kind of real immersion in the material and process to invent tiles that make sense in that medium,” he says. “I ask myself, ‘What does this material want to be?’ Things are best when they feel like they’ve grown on their own.” He likens the process to composing music; an orchestra calls for a different kind of work than an electric guitar. “I have some ideas that require different materials and techniques that I haven’t explored yet.”
With its flat, glazed style, “Instinct,” just introduced to showrooms this past spring, represents something of a departure from Lowitz’ previous work.
His existing lines of tiles (ceramic sold as “Talisman” and bronze sold as “Bronzework Studio” and “Foundry Art“), although contemporary in their design, have an Old World quality and a complementary “gravitas and emotional weight,” according to Lowitz. While “Instinct” shares the repetitive modules and geometric patterns that are the hallmarks of a Lowitz tile, he describes the new line as simple and quiet. “I want these to be very light, positive, uplifting and playful, but not silly,” he says. “I think the times demand it. People are worried and they want something to lighten the mood.”
Though Lowitz insists, “I’m not trying to read the market; I’m going to make what I want to make,” it’s also impossible for him not to be influenced by the current economic climate.
“There’s almost no new housing being built. That was half our business and that’s gone. It disappeared three years ago and we thought, ‘Maybe this will last a year,’” he notes. “Our business is down dramatically, but it’s still a nice business. Not a great business, but a nice business. I’ve come to grips with it.”
Rising costs of materials (bronze is made from copper, which has become so valuable, it’s illegal to melt pennies for cash) and increased competition from China have also made a dent in Lowitz’ bottom line. “We weren’t trading with China in 1990,” he says. “The Chinese have entered the tile market and they’re making very nice things at a very low price.” It used to be, according to Lowitz, that the Chinese would produce a $12 tile that wasn’t nearly as interesting design-wise as a $25 handmade American tile. Now that $12 tile has dropped to $2.50 and customers have a much more difficult decision on their hands. “That’s become our competition,” he says.
Because let’s face it, whether a tile is mass-produced and dirt cheap or hand-crafted and wildly expensive, it’s still just tile. “My brother says, ‘You can get tile for two dollars a square foot or two hundred dollars a square foot and it does the same thing,’” says Lowitz. “It keeps the water out.” It’s the artist in Lowitz that believes even though tile serves a practical purpose, much like a watch or a pair of glasses, “life is incrementally better because we have the luxury to choose among beautiful things.”
Which is why Lowitz has as much appreciation for a small order from the homeowner around the corner as he does for the Saudi princess covering an entire wall in bronze tile. “It’s gratifying at both ends,” he says. On the high end, he’s gratified that customers who could buy anything they want opt for his tiles. “On the other hand, when somebody who’s on a budget and places an order for four tiles, those are the sweetest orders,” he says. “They’re making a sacrifice because they want these tiles.”
If Lowitz ever harbored any qualms about trading in fine art for a more commercial enterprise, he’s long since made peace with the path his career has taken. “I still do paint some,” he says. “I’m not a workaholic; I’m not [in the studio] from eight to eight.” His abstract oils and acrylics (Lowitz cites Arthur Dove, Joseph Stella and Mark Rothko as influences, adding “my paintings are more modest and maybe a little friendlier”) served as the inspiration for “Instinct.” (To show what I know about art, my favorite “designs” in the line turned out to be color test patterns.) Indeed, Lowitz has been surprised to find the tile work more fulfilling from a creative standpoint. “I’m able to make things meaningful to me as artwork that function as tiles, yet still function as art,” he says. “If you can make things that are integrated into people’s lives, that’s incredibly satisfying.”
Nor is it lost on Lowitz that he’s managed to succeed at endeavor, manufacturing a product figuratively stamped “Made in the U.S.A.,” where other far larger, better-capitalized enterprises have failed. “It’s very important to my crew that they make stuff,” he says. “It’s really concrete. We make a thing, we put it in a box. That’s very cool.”
Now if he could only satisfy the one customer who’s managed to elude him all these years. “I don’t have any tile in my house,” he confesses sheepishly. “My tile making friends and I joke about it. I’ve seen 90 percent of the tiles that exist. I’m kind of an idealist and I want the perfect tile.” Um, Ted, we know this guy who designs tiles….
Studio sale: While many of Lowitz’ tiles can be used as accents, customers will find enough quantity available at the sale for larger installations. If you have a sizable project in mind, bring plans, drawings, measurements and even photographs; Lowitz recommends calling in advance (773-784-2628) to reserve time with a design adviser. Note: Sales are cash or check only.