Although the Willis Music Co. has been around for 104 years, the corporation is continually evolving to maintain a fresh image. One of its latest innovations can be observed at its newest location, which opened recently in a shopping mall in Louisville, KY. The storefront of this new outlet consists of laser etchings of guitars, music books and other musical equipment on black granite - making for a unique approach to retail design.

"With the type of industry they're in, they have to grab people," said Jim Smith of Laser Imaging & Design in Lebanon, OH, which fabricated the stone etchings. "They wanted something new and exciting to get people to come into the store. They have to 'wow' people and arouse their curiosity to get them inside."

Smith explained that Dan Herbert, vice president of the Willis Music Co., introduced himself to them at the Cincinnati Home & Garden Show last February. "Dan Herbert was at the show and saw our booth," he said. "He approached us and threw out the idea. We said that we could definitely do something like that. We didn't hear anything until six months later, when we received a phone call from him, and he refreshed our memory."

Currently headquartered in Florence, KY, the Willis Music Co. opened its doors on April 1, 1899 in downtown Cincinnati. Charles H. Willis, a 27-year veteran of the sheet music industry, founded the business. Through the years, the company continued to expand, with changes in ownership and locations as well. Today, the corporation is owned by members of the Cranley family, and has eight retail stores throughout Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.

"I was just blown away by the details of the images," said Herbert. "We do about one store a year, and I said, 'Next time we do a complete remodel, let's get [Laser Imaging & Design] involved.' To help with the expense, I then had the idea to show the work to our vendors and get them to contribute."

In total, seven of the company's vendors agreed to participate. These included two of the largest guitar manufacturers, Fender and Gibson, as well as Takamine and Seagull. "In some cases, the stores have a 10-year lease," said Herbert. "We're using all national brands that will be around for 10 years."

While some vendors supplied Laser Imaging & Design with their own artwork, all seven supplied the money to defray the cost. "It was so new when we sold the idea," said Herbert. "We were showing people a 12- x 12-inch tile. It was a hard concept for the vendors to grasp at first. In our industry, there's not a lot of money for this type of thing. We did a little arm twisting. Typically, a store is not put together like Willis. It's usually a storefront 'mom and pop' operation. All of our stores are in malls. It's more of a typical shopping experience."

Creating the designs

According to Smith, Willis Music presented Laser Imaging & Design with most of the ideas. "Dan knew that he wanted guitars around the entry," he said. "It transpired from there. He went to a national music convention where he met with his vendors and sold this whole job as an advertisement."

After Willis Music had its vendors on board, it put Laser Imaging & Design in contact with them. "We worked directly with their artists," said Smith. "It was a combination of our work and their work. With the exception of Gibson, which was completely us, they sent us ideas, and we would say, 'That would work' or "That won't work.' We'd let them know what was acceptable as far as laser etching."

In total, 600 square feet of 12- x 12-inch Absolute Black granite tiles - supplied by Color Stone International of Atlanta, GA - were employed for the project. The store design included five laser-etched murals, which totaled 160 square feet. The mural over the storefront stretched nearly 15 feet in length and 3 feet tall. This section of the project depicts a wavy keyboard incorporating music lesson books, since Willis Music is well known for its library of books on music. All of the murals were etched using a Vytek MLS 4496 laser (2001 model) with a working area of 44 x 96 inches. Computer equipment included a Dell 530 workstation.

Laser Imaging & Design also had to collaborate with the project architect, Randy Plikerd of Butlerville, OH. "I went to look at Jim's shop," said the architect. "It's pretty interesting watching the flatbed laser. I really enjoyed it. I had seen that kind of work in cemeteries, but never realized that was how it was done."

According to Plikerd, he has worked with Willis on several of its other stores. "This is the first one with elaborate stonework," he said, adding that the new store is about 5,000 square feet. "It's an expanding mall store that needed more space. This store is two times bigger than before."

Beating a timetable

As it often goes with fast-tracked projects, Laser Imaging & Design ran into a few challenges along the way. "This gave us our first chance to work with multi-million-dollar companies," said Smith. "We got a sense of corporate 'red tape.'"

At times, the laser-etching process was stalled sometimes as long as a week, while waiting for approval from the various company officials. "We knew we had a deadline, and they kept dragging their feet," said Smith. "We did not shut the machine off. It was running at night and all day in order to meet that deadline." The total production time is estimated at 50 hours, while the total design time was between 80 and 100 hours, according to Smith. When the work was completed, workers from Laser Imaging & Design actually put the murals in a truck and drove them to Louisville themselves, in order to meet the timetable.

The tight timeframe was particularly challenging because the initial stone supply didn't start off smoothly, when the original shipment of black granite had to be replaced. "We're pretty picky," said Smith. "We rejected the first 600 square feet. It had a lot of grain powder, and was very splotchy looking for black granite." But in the end, the supplier was able to get the quality granite that was needed. "We always have an excellent standing with this company," said Smith, adding Color Stone International was very cooperative in rectifying the situation.

Dealing with the large file sizes was also somewhat of an issue, according to the fabricator. "They were reaching incredible proportions," said Smith. "Both me and our other artist have degrees in graphic design. It really takes an artist behind the scenes to make it work. Once you get above a 10- x 12-foot mural, the file sizes can reach 2 or 3 gigs, and without a very powerful computer, images this large would never be possible."

Precise measurements

While the laser-etching process itself is very complex, installing the murals requires just as much precision. Even the construction of the area where the laser-etched work is going to be installed needs to fit the exact measurements, because the size of the decorative tiles cannot be cut down at all.

"We had one issue with the contractor," said Smith. "There are two main pillars. We needed to go down there to get the measurements. We have these drawings set up to specific proportions. The tiles can't be cut."

Although the architect's drawings specified 36-inch columns, the structures were not built to those specifications. "Everything has to be exact," said Smith. "So many variables come into play to make these things right."

According to the installer for the project, the columns were out an inch from the bottom to the top. "The columns were redone twice, and still were not exactly correct," said Tim Chastang's of Chastang Tile & Marble in Cincinnati, OH. "In the end, we were building as we went to ensure that the size was right."

Adding to the complexity of the job, Chastang's Tile & Marble was not the installer who initially started work on the project. "The first installer basically did the floor, and then took a look at these murals and realized he couldn't do it," said Chastang. "He had tried to lay some of it out, but couldn't figure it out. They called begging me to send guys down there. They were literally out of time."

Smith explained that once the murals were completed, every tile was labeled. They ran in grids, such as A1, A2, A3 and so on. "We had never met the installer up to that point," said the fabricator. "We wanted to make it as simple as possible. We spent about 11/2 hours going over all of the diagrams [with the installer]. Later on we got a call that the installer pulled out in the middle of the project."

Chastang's Tile & Marble had originally bid the project, according to Chastang. "I'm not certain if our bid was high or we didn't get it because the job was out of our area, although we do traveling work," he said. "We've done some bigger projects like this at colleges, so we knew the work and challenges with it. It is complicated. You do have to layout [the murals] and get the whole picture out on the ground to figure out where everything has to be.

"The biggest challenge -- especially on the great big one out front -- was keeping it level," he said. "We did have to use a lot of toothpicks to keep it level, and to keep the design together." The installer explained that the toothpicks were used as spacers. "That's literally how much room you have," said Chastang. He also explained that because the tiles are black granite, grout cannot be used because it takes away from the design.

To attach the granite to the walls and columns, the installers used products from Laticrete International, Inc., which were supplied through Ohio Tile and Marble Co. of Cincinnati, OH. "Laticrete 317 Floor and Wall Thin Set Mortar and Laticrete 333 Super Flexible Additive were mixed on site, and provided a bonding agent that allowed us working time to install the granite properly," said Chastang.

Once Chastang's Tile & Marble took over the job, it had eight working days to finish. "We had to follow the regulations of the mall," said Chastang. "They were very particular with the scaffolding. We worked during business hours, but the scaffolding could only be up for so many hours, and a solid partition had to be around everything."

A total of five installers worked on the project. "This one was more complicated [than other jobs we've done], because we weren't involved from the beginning," said Chastang.

Unveiling the artwork

Although complex and not without some setbacks, the completion of the stonework at the new Willis Music store drew quite a reaction. "It was a wise investment by Willis," said Chastang. "So many people came by when it opened. The store is directly across from the food court. People just sit there and look at it."

According to Herbert, Willis Music was pleased with the laser-etched stonework, and has plans to open another store soon. "It turned out better than anyone anticipated," he said. "We were just at the National Music Show last week, and we showed some pictures to our vendors. They were all extremely thrilled."

Originally, the music company had intended to have a design on the floor. "We really wanted to do the floor, but we could not convince any vendor to bite on that," he said. "I think next time will be different - one of the big drum companies is already interested."