Finding Beauty in Signage and Business With Ion Art
It’s not surprising to stumble upon random objects with artistic merit while walking around Austin. A city with residents devoted to creativity and innovation, Austin’s every corner seems steeped in ingenuity. But what you might not know is that a lot of that orginality is coming from one place—Ion Art.
From the red Austin City Limits guitar to the multi-colored “atx” outside the Whole Foods flagship store, Ion Art is responsible for some of Austin’s best known—and most unique—signage. But, as Ion Art President Sharon Keshishian tells us, she didn’t set out to be the city’s most iconic sign designer. “We don't really consider ourselves a sign company. We're a design company. We've expanded to build a lot more than signage, including sculpture, environmental pieces, and lighting design for residences and commercial buildings. It never started off as simply a sign company; it just evolved through the years because we were doing whatever we could to pay the bills.”
The life of an artist is gratifying, but it’s often entirely misunderstood by well-meaning loved ones. That’s why Sharon started out with a degree in forestry and biology with a minor in sculpture. “My whole life I've been an artist but my parents kept telling me to pursue a ‘real’ career, so I thought, forestry's a real career! When I graduated, I ignored the forestry focus and just started making art. I did art for shows and then I was asked by a friend who owned Manuel’s Mexican Restaurant if I could make him a neon sign. I made those neon arches that are still in the restaurant’s window today. That’s when I recognized that I could be an artist but make things that are functional. It just expanded from there.”
Not only did her business expand after she saw neon signage as valid for both art and business, but so did her future. She met Greg Keshishian, now the company’s vice president and Sharon’s husband. Fate might have brought them together, but not without some challenges. Greg explains, “I was born in France and raised in Germany. When I came to America in 1985, I lived in Montana for six months, working as a lumberjack. Then the winter came, and Montana was incredibly depressing. You couldn't log anymore, so there was no work. I decided to move to Austin where my older brother and sister were. I sold everything I had and headed to Austin with 330 Christmas trees on a trailer. My idea was to sell the trees and make my first fortune. I didn't have a credit card, and I miscalculated how much money I’d need to get from Montana to Austin, so I ran out of money in Albuquerque. From that point on, I had to start trading Christmas trees for gas. I drove my ancient Ford Galaxy towing this ridiculous, 16-foot trailer, pulling into little gas stations and offering them their pick of a tree for a tank of gas. That's how I limped into Austin. By the time I arrived in Austin, with a few less trees, it was late in the season, and I only sold enough to break even.”
Once in Austin, Greg got a job at Balcones Research Center (now known as the J.J. Pickles Research Campus) at the University of Texas. His focus? Developing drilling equipment for pore samples. This may seem like a far cry from a career in art, but as Greg explains, his experience laid the perfect foundation for an artistic partnership with his future bride. “Sharon was an accomplished artist and I had a strong technical, mechanical background. Joining these talents enabled us to build things.”
After quitting his job at the University of Texas and waiting tables at night, Greg was able to work with Sharon at Ion Art. It wasn’t easy, or profitable, but as Sharon explains, they made it work. “We somehow always came up with something and sold it and were able to pay whatever bill needed paying. Back then we would do commercial sets and work like 24 or 36 hours. We had to be up and going all the time, and Greg and I always supported each other. So when one of us would feel tired and want to quit, the other would motivate them to keep going. Our early motto was, fake it 'til you make it. We would confidently tell customers that we could build whatever they needed and then, once we’d won the project, we’d ask each other how the hell we were going to build it. But ultimately, we've always believed we can do anything.”
One thing they didn’t fake was their growing interest in each other. “There was always an attraction between the two of us," Greg says. "Then we had the opportunity to make a bunch of neon for the movie, Lost Angels, and we finally began to date.” In 1993, the two married and in 1994 they saw the birth of their first child.
The Growth of a Family and a Business
In those days, Greg and Sharon worked without a computer—drawing out each design and using hand tools to create them. It was a struggle, but they persevered, and despite being poor for years, they eventually got their big break when Whole Foods Market ordered signage décor packages for 40 new stores around the country. Greg remembers it as a lot of work, but well worth it. “Every package was custom, we'd have to build it and put it on these big cargo trucks, and we'd drive it across the country to whatever city. It was an unbelievable amount of work, but that was the first time we were able to claw our way out of poverty. Not only was the money good but it also gave us the long-sought-after credibility. Proving credibility was a big challenge in trying to elevate the company, so Whole Foods was a big stepping stone for us.”
A stepping stone is only a catalyst for success when you leverage it—which is precisely what Greg says they did when they bought the business park that would eventually become the Design Industry Center on Radam Lane. “The Whole Foods project was the first time we actually made money, and that enabled us to buy the business park we’re now in. We designed it to get creative tenants here so everyone could feed off each other's clients and help each other out, and it's largely worked.” The location also gives Ion Art a workspace with high ceilings, something Sharon says has made a huge difference. “For a while, we were over on Thornton Road, and we only had 10-foot ceilings so we had to make some things out in the parking lot because they wouldn't fit through the door after we made them.”
The Economics of an Art-Based Business
Many people don’t realize what a significant economic driver the creative industries are. The National Endowment for the Arts reported that the arts industry contributed more than $704 billion to the economy in 2013. Still, when things go sour in the economy, both business and personal expenditures in art often drop, as Greg and Sharon found after the Great Recession of 2008. “As an artist, you're making a product that is not always easy to sell because art is not an essential item that people need,” Greg says. “We had a good run until about 2011, after the financial collapse. Many of our clients are developers, and a lot of our projects take up to two years to complete. So we had all these projects lined up and all of a sudden our clients could no longer borrow money, so all everything we had in the pipeline just came to a halt.”
Another hurdle they’ve faced is learning how to price their work properly. This isn’t surprising since pricing is one of the biggest issues facing start-ups today. But with Ion, pricing really does have to be more of an art than a science. “Pricing is a hard thing to do,” Sharon says. “We try to price materials but guessing the labor is always the hardest thing. We've had quite a few projects eat our lunch through the years. Also, when you're smaller you just have to do whatever you can to get the job—including underprice. Now we can be a little pickier.” Ion also has a full-time estimator on staff who helps them calculate materials and labor—but that’s not all. “We have a quality control guy,” explains Greg. “He tracks the time our employees spend on each project so we can make sure our estimates are right and, if not, analyze what went wrong.”
Along with ensuring they’re getting paid enough for their work, Greg and Sharon also keep their company flexible so it can quickly respond to economic slowdowns. “It doesn't take many months of being upside down to get in deep financial trouble,” says Greg.
But there’s more to Ion Art’s ongoing success and financial stability than that. According to Sharon, “you have to stay relevant. In our business, that means you have to stay on top of what's in style, what’s in fashion, and what people are doing.“
Part of staying relevant, explains Greg, is having the most up-to-date equipment and process. “We are constantly buying new technology; we're buying new equipment, and we're upgrading equipment. We like to be in control of our process, and we're extremely proud of the fact that we can build practically anything in-house without having to outsource to other companies, thanks to our huge talent pool and the machinery that we have."
Greg says that beyond inspiration and experience, it’s the wide-ranging talent and equipment that helps Ion Art maintain success. “We have this incredible building and array of equipment. We can fabricate very complicated structures out of many materials that would normally require several companies. For example, we built a huge canopy for a new skyscraper downtown. It's made out of aluminum and Plexiglas and has LED lighting and mahogany wood. It's very complicated and typically, to accomplish this, a client might have to go to a designer and then an engineer and then eventually to a builder. And the builder would need to find a metal guy, a lighting guy, a plastics guy, and the wood guy. That's Ion Art's greatest strength. You can come to us and say: here's our idea, here's our concept. We can then design it, we can engineer it, we can fabricate it, we can permit it, and we can install it, and we can do that entire process keeping the client's budget and deadlines in mind.”
One of the most significant obstacles they face, which isn’t likely to diminish, is handling demand and managing workflow. “A typical business model is to find a way to continually grow your business,” says Greg, “More employees, more growth, more revenue. And that is not, at all, our business model. We are not interested in growing infinitely large because what we do is so highly customized.” Sharon adds to this, saying, “We usually have 200 ongoing jobs at a time, and each is custom. I think the hardest thing in our type of business is keeping the flow even. It's not feast or famine; it's hurry up, hurry up, quick! Followed by: wait, wait! And it's trying to keep 48 people steadily busy all the time without a whole bunch of overtime one weekend and then being off.”
All in all, it seems like a good problem to have.
To see more of Ion Art’s incredible work, visit them online at ioanart.com and follow them on social media to check out what mind-blowing designs they create next!