As the saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” The employees at Christie Lane Industries, the sheltered workshop operated by the Huron County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities in this northern Ohio community, have a different take on that adage. When the going got tough, the tough elected to make stylish ceramic tiles.
The economic downturn has been difficult for Christie Lane and other sheltered workshops around the state. As industrial and manufacturing companies left Ohio, so did the jobs they supplied to the sheltered workshops. Many struggled to keep employees with disabilities busy.
However, Christie Lane showed its entrepreneurial spirit and launched its own company, cliTile, which makes custom tiles for the home that are not only functional, but exquisite pieces of art. Many of the pieces contain crushed glass recycled at Christie Lane. The process creates beautiful tiles of bright blue, green and yellow.
The company has created a marketing brochure and is taking orders at its production facility at Christie Lane Industries, 306 S. Norwalk Rd. A Lakewood retailer, Thomas Brick, is currently offering the tile to customers, while other orders are coming in through word-of-mouth. “It is an incredible success story,” said Dr. Dee Zeffiro-Krenisky, superintendent of Huron MRDD. “We have provided a sheltered workshop for decades, but it is increasingly difficult to find piece-work for our individuals. By starting the tile venture, we took the issue into our own hands. We’re making the effort to be self-supportive and sustain work for individuals with disabilities. The individuals with disabilities have embraced the work at cliTile. It gives them both the opportunity to be creative and entrepreneurial.”
John Schwartz, director of adult programs and facilities at Huron MRDD and general manager of cliTile, said the idea for the business stemmed, in part, from a personal interest in glass art. He once worked in a Toledo glass studio.
In 2006, Bill Young, a Norwalk artist, was hired to assist with the ceramics program at the Artists’ Open Studio, a non-profit studio founded by Christie Lane School art teacher Lynda Stoneham. The studio was created to assist artists — with and without disabilities — to create and sell art.
Seeing the potential in ceramics program, Schwartz asked Young for assistance in creating ceramic molds for recycled glass tile. The project took off from there.
“Bill got real excited about the project,” Schwartz said. “Bill said it was similar to 17th Century Dutch tile making. He and some of the artists with disabilities began experimenting and it wasn’t long before we realized that we had a potential business opportunity on our hands.”
In June 2007, cliTile was launched to develop and market a new line of ceramic tile and recycled glass tile. By August, cliTile hosted a contractor open house to roll out its new product line. A product brochure was created and Schwartz now spends a portion of each week seeking sales opportunities for cliTile. Young handles the product development end of the operation.
The products include ceramic tiles that sell under the names of Depot Street, a red and white combination; Olive Street, a leaf green, orange and peach combination; Hunter’s Glen, which combines tile with green and brown glass; and Christie Avenue Palette, a series of ceramic tiles highlighted with melted-glass.
The company’s products were recently featured at Norwalk Chamber of Commerce Home & Business Show, and the Kalahari Home & Garden Show.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for our individuals,” Young said. “I don’t think we’re destined to mass manufacture tiles. I think we’ll take custom orders so that individuals with disabilities and the art remain the focal point of the operation.”
This article was reprinted with permission from The Norwalk Reflector