Man and the Machine

Text by Louis Postel

Arty could drive you insane if you keep watching him. “Why doesn’t he stop, just for a minute?” you wonder. He can’t. He is busy at his post at Artaic, making custom mosaics for designers like Peter Niemitz, who works one floor below in Boston’s Marine Industrial Park. Thanks to his relentless work ethic, Arty turned out a floor in a matter of days for the vast, Niemitz-designed Empire Asian Restaurant and Lounge that opened this year on Fan Pier. Without Arty, such custom work would have taken many months—and folks would have waited that much longer for the right to see and be seen.

Nimble as Fred Astaire, Arty is the size of a catering truck, a half-ton of metal and cutting-edge science; a robot that never gets tired, never makes mistakes and works ten times faster than the fastest human.

Founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and rocket scientist Ted Acworth in 2007, Artaic represents the answer to many a designer’s prayer, offering software to create original designs, a huge range of tiles, a unique selection of backlighting options, fast turn-around and installation and prices in the $16-a-square-foot range as opposed to the $200 that prevailed before Arty came to town.

Arty represents what’s called in industrial circles a “disruptive innovation,” a close cousin to other technologies that have come along from time to time: the Model T that made the horse and buggy obsolete; the GPS that made re-folding road maps a long-forgotten annoyance; LEDs that are turning light bulbs into relics while making lighting part of a building’s architecture. The latter brings us full circle to Artaic-designed walls, floors and ceilings backlit with LEDs.

“I have always been attracted to mosaics as an art form: their complexity and the intensity of the labor that went into them,” says the forty-three-year-old Acworth. “When my wife and I were building our first home, I tried to order a custom mosaic. The order would have gone through Italy to be manufactured in China and it would have been very, very expensive.”

The tile industry, he thought, was ripe for a disruptive innovation. “I had an epiphany: combine my technical degrees in optics, image processing and precision mechanical systems with my love of mosaics,” he says.

Acworth quit teaching at MIT to pursue his dream. His work as the telegenic host of the popular TV show “UFO Hunters” helped with the initial financing. Private investors, a $1 million National Science Foundation Grant and a MassChallenge Award in 2011 are taking Artaic to the next level. Research and development is almost complete on Arty II, a robot that will be able to lay tile in curves, not simply in grids like its older brother.

Gadgetry, for all its seduction, can never be an end in itself, though. At Acworth’s twelve-person firm, the human factor still prevails. “At first, we gave designers our software to use as they wished,” says creative director Paul Reiss. “But we found that blank canvas often just draws a blank. Eventually we developed an entire catalogue of design inspirations. While some clients come in with a very specific image in mind, others start with a concept for us to collaborate on.”

New England designers have been duly impressed with both Arty and his human colleagues. “I spoke with their art director on Friday and had a sample board on Monday,” says Boston-based designer Dennis Duffy. Duffy plans to create a mural for a house along the Charles River that will depict the trees and surrounding water “in the practically three-dimensional way mosaics can do.”

On a recent afternoon, Acworth, like many a start-up CEO, was working outside his job description to sweep the floors at his company. “Forgive me if I do a little multi-tasking here,” he said as he plied his broom past examples of backlit mosaics that decorate the walls and around floor-to-ceiling stacks of trays of porcelain and glass tiles imported from Italy.

Meanwhile, the star of the show kept plugging away, one lustrous tile at a time. In a world mesmerized by gadgets, Arty seems a cut above. If his goal is to draw you in, fascinate and seduce you, it can only be for one thing: the very human, very lofty calling of art and design. •

Artaic—Innovative Mosaics, Boston, (617) 418-1928, www.artaic.com

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