BY CHRISTINE SCHRUM
Annie Aalto, Jim Bellilove, and Harri Aalto of Creative Edge stand on the marble floor made of hundreds of thousands of piece for a client in France. (Photo by Mark Paul Petrick)
Suppose you were a wealthy Armenian banker living in a palatial home in France and you wanted to cover your entire ground floor with ornate, custom-designed marble flooring. Would you head next door to Italy, a country historically renowned for its exquisite marble and skilled stone carvers? Nah. You’d probably make a phone call to Harri Aalto, Creative Director at Creative Edge, in Fairfield, Iowa.
Within the unassuming blue walls of the 100,000 square foot building in Fairfield’s Industrial Park lies a remarkably cutting-edge (pardon the pun) industry. Creative Edge is the largest and most experienced independent waterjet fabrication and design company in the U.S. Using high-tech computer-controlled waterjets, the company rolls out a wide range of specialized architectural and industrial products each year, serving a vast array of clients in the U.S.and beyond.
Creative Edge’s pioneering waterjet technology has won them an international reputation because they’re able to offer highly cost-competitive design work in just about any medium, from plastic and wood to stone and titanium. Further, their unique technology enables them to cut complex shapes and intricate designs that would otherwise take much longer to create—and be potentially cost-prohibitive.
The company’s client list makes for a pretty impressive Rolodex. They’ve contributed to a number of landmark architectural projects in venues like the O’Hare International Airport and the Kennedy Space Center, and their list of satisfied clients includes Disney, Sea World, Ralph Lauren, Hard Rock Café, and Caesar’s Palace Hotel in Las Vegas, in addition to a host of homeowners.
Which brings us back to the Armenian banker (whose name will be withheld for privacy’s sake). In the summer of 2006, Creative Edge completed a landmark project contracted by an ambitious homeowner residing in France: the design and fabricationof the entire ground floor of his remodeled palatial home.
“As far as we can tell, it’s the most detailed floor produced in the world today,” said Annie Aalto, daughter of Harri and a lead designer in the half-million dollar project. “That’s why he came to us all the way from France. He couldn’t find anyone in Europe able to tackle it.”
The project entailed the design and fabrication of wall-to-wall flooring in predominantly marble onyx, with a great deal of intricate patterning in traditional French florals and fleurs de lis. Chat with Annie for awhile, and you’ll discover it was a process much easier conceived of than executed.
First, there was the design-approval process. Harri Aalto worked closely with the client to create a series of hand drawings to satisfy his vision. Once those were approved, the drawings were painstakingly rendered by hand in pen and ink. At that point, each intricate segment (some down to an eighth-inch in size) was colored and numbered, and then the entire layout was given to the programming department for use in Cad/Cam, a 2- and 3-D model computer program.
Thereafter, stone-cutting technicians cut out hundreds of thousands of pieces of stone using the company’s 12 waterjet machines, which spray a line of high-pressured water and garnet sand from a tiny nozzle at approximately 20,000 PSI.
“From there it was like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” said Annie. First they assembled the myriad pieces face-up on numbered paper diagrams. Then the colors were approved, and any necessary adjustments made. Finally, the entire “puzzle” was sub-assembled into hundreds of two- to three-foot pieces and shipped off to France, where it would be installed according to specific instructions by flooring experts. The entire process took about three years in total and was executed by about a dozen of the company’s 35 employees.
“We’re all pretty relieved,” says Annie with a smile. “It’s our most detailed job so far.”
Apparently, the design-approval process alone took a year and a half—incredibly lengthy by Creative Edge standards. (By contrast, the crew recently churned out all of the public-area floors for the new Four Seasons hotel in Westlake, California, in about six months.)
For Annie, the design process was the most enjoyable aspect of the experience.
“The most fun part for me was working with the monochromatic yet colorful palette,” she said. “The customer wanted a kind of antique look. It’s a very old home so we used very variegated stones, ones that in other projects wouldn’t be appropriate because they have so many color differences in one tile.”
Creative Edge has been in business since the mid-80s, when entrepreneur (and now company president) Jim Belilove and artist Harri Aalto purchased Creative Glassworks, a then-struggling waterjet machinery company.
“When they first started the company,” recalls Annie, “they always joked that if they pulled up in the morning and they could hear the machines running, it was a good day. That’s how archaic the technology was at the time.”
Together, Belilove and Aalto set about refining their equipment and pioneering the use of waterjet cutters in the field of decorative architecture. Along the way, master installer and contractor Robert Sawyer joined the team in sales and technical service, along with Annie and her mother Catherine in layout and design.
Today, the company enjoys booming business at a relatively sane pace. “We’reonly ever working on a dozen or so projects at a time,” says Annie. “It’sbecause the work is very in-depth, very custom.”
Creative Edge also has a powerful Internet presence, and one that generatesmany project leads, including the recent Parisian flooring contract.
Yet in the face of widespread success, Creative Edge remains firmly planted in Iowa. “Being in Iowa is nice because we can service both coasts equally well,” says Annie. “Also, Iowa has a really strong workforce and we have people who have been with us since the beginning. They really know their work and have gotten to the point where they’ve become true artisans.”
See more info at Creative Edge