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ENTREPRENEUR PROFILES

10.15.98  
Portrait of the Artist As a Successful Entrepreneur
Claudio Cesar's quest for impervious images became a high-tech glass company

A huge, luminous panorama of a Japanese fake-beach theme park glows from the courtyard of a gloomy, downtown Manhattan space. A red-tinged Madonna and Child by Andres Serrano, the controversial photographer, sits on the floor. Winged cicadas painted in fantastic detail hover over a rotten log, swarming with ants.

This isn't some avant-garde art collector's lair. It's the office of Claudio Cesar's latest venture in architectural glass technology. The images -- reproductions -- are locked in thick slabs of safety glass, using a process the entrepreneur patented. The point: to allow architects to integrate art into a building's structure.

Cesar Color's product lines consist mainly of geometric patterns, colors, or textural effects, such as sandblasting, used for partitions, wall coverings, or curtain walls. In six years, Cesar's company has gone from being what he calls "a product-development incubator" to a supplier to such prestigious projects as the Jim Mao building in Shanghai, one of the world's tallest towers designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP; the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, another mega-building; and James Stewart Polshek & Partners' Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center in Connecticut. For the latter, color photos of a spruce and cedar forest were embedded in glass. The Burlingame (Calif.) company, which pulls in $10 million to $12 million a year in revenue, has two plants and around 100 employees.

Now Cesar is promoting the use of his technology for limited-edition art reproductions. Making big money isn't the idea. He says: "Working with artists really pushes the envelope of technology, and they're forerunners of design trends." For example, there are artists who want to design airport floors using his glass. "We're seeing cutting-edge architects who want to do the same thing," he explains.

WEATHERPROOF IMAGES. The 42 year old founded Cesar Color Inc. in 1986 to develop a new medium for exterior murals. With help from Dupont Co., he devised a technique in which images are digitally reproduced on plastic film. The film is then sandwiched between layers of plastic and glass and fused at superhigh temperatures. The result: Color images that are impervious to weather, colorfast, and meet standards for safety glass. The product "became commercial" in 1992, after the company felt confident it had enough data to know it could withstand weathering.

"Other people try techniques to color or paint glass and laminate it. But no one can match the design flexibility and precision of images that Claudio does," says John Turnbull, technology manager at Dupont in Wilmington, Del., to whom Cesar, originally an artist who painted on glass, turned for help translating the idea of glass embedded with permanent images into a viable building material. Dupont makes the film that carries the images. It's a proprietary product, says Turnbull, one of a number the company makes to further the development of high-margin applications for laminated glass.

David Lloyds, who manages Cesar Color's Fine Arts division in New York, says the company is now recruiting prominent artists -- Alexis Rockman, who painted the cicada image, is one -- to create works that can be reproduced or "published" in glass. The idea is to produce 10 new works of art in editions of five each. Will they sell? "Everyone who sees the Serrano loves it," Lloyds says. The company is still finalizing plans for an edition with Serrano, who's probably best known for his image of a crucifix in a jar of urine that made him a lightning rod for U.S. conservative politicians and religious groups some years ago.

FULL CIRCLE. The venture takes Argentine-born Cesar, who came to the U.S. at 7, full circle. "It was my dream to create a medium for artists for public art. Then I started marketing it to architects to see if they would be interested in collaborating with artists," explains Cesar. "Then architects came to me to say, 'Can I use this technique?' "

A high-school dropout who made his own oil paint at 13, Cesar got his first job in the world of art technology at 16 as an ink-mixer for Pantone, the company that produces standard colors used worldwide in graphics, printing, and textiles. "I was always interested in color," he says. At 19, he was selling his own work.

He ran and owned a restaurant in New York's Greenwich Village for 10 years. In 1986, he decided to go back to his first love, art and color. He sold the restaurant, which gave him enough money to start a new business.

His first objective was to make a permanent painting medium for exterior murals. That drew him to glass. "I thought if I could just solve the problems of colorfastness, you'd have a corrosion-free surface," he says. It was an elegant concept with "big problems," says Dupont's Turnbull. They were: making a product with a safety requirement that couldn't be compromised and trying to add color that wouldn't bleed and would survive the high-processing heat to last 25 years or more. "And, you have to have the ability to make perfect optics -- no distortion in the glass," Turnbull says.

HEADING EAST. The move was also a big business risk, financed with the usual small-business cocktail of personal funds, family money, and credit cards. In 1990, just when Cesar was starting to launch the product, the New York construction market tanked. Around that time, he met some California architects through his architect father-in-law, who told him they had work in Asia. "So I decided to launch the product in California and use it as a springboard to launch in Asia," he says.

Cesar built the Asia market up to about 40% of his sales, learning "from the ground up how to do business there," including the cultural perils of color. In the U.S., "all architects want white and 15 shades of gray. That looks chic. In Asia those are death colors, and no one wants them," he says. After all his effort, the Asian economic crisis hit last year, forcing Cesar to quickly redirect his efforts to the U.S. and Europe. "We rebounded in two months from Asia," he says, adding that he doesn't consider the effort he put into developing that market a waste and that some publicly funded projects are continuing. "We have lifelong relationships." The company also has production arrangements with French glass and construction materials giant Compagnie de Saint-Gobain.

He says the biggest issue for the company is "where do we go from here? We have a proven technology [and] 50 reps around the country that market it. We're in some of the most prestigious buildings anywhere. We're too big for venture capital and too small to go public."

Cesar says he's not concerned about economic conditions, "because we're such a high-end product.... Even in a downturn economy, people who build buildings look for ways to differentiate them when they're leasing."

That sounds like entrepreneurial bravado under the current economic conditions. Still, with only six years of production behind him, Cesar's company, like his glass, has already withstood some heavy weather.

By Julia Lichtblau in New York
julia_lichtblau@businessweek.com

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