An early model of the Art-O-Graph, 1950s.
An assemblage of auto parts, a garage door track, a bellows, scrap iron and other junk yard remains: that’s how it began in the late 1940s. The entrepreneurs who pulled it together called their crude creation the Art-O-Graph. This machine, which projected an image directly onto a work surface, enlarging and reducing to scale, evolved into the first product of a Minneapolis company by that name that thrived for more than seven decades.
Small businesses are the lifeblood of the US economy, representing more than 40 percent of the gross national product in this country, but they demand tremendous effort. Small firms selling art products have faced especially challenging conditions: a fast-changing market, the digital revolution, the recession of 2008. Any one of these threats could have killed Art-O-Graph. Yet the firm endured, developing an international reputation for high-quality products and responsive customer service. How did it manage to succeed against all odds?
From the start, the founders, John Engel, Edwin Hirschoff, Les Kouba, and Seymour Peterson, set a goal of creating devices that save time. Several early inventions that first year were a flop. Then Kouba, a wildlife artist, articulated his need for a projector that enabled him to sketch from his photographs. With those recycled items mentioned above, the founders patched together the first Art-O-Graph (later known as Artograph), the only machine on the market then that could project an opaque image directly onto the drawing board right side up, enlarging and reducing as needed and saving the artist many tedious hours of tracing or scaling. This invention launched a long and ever-evolving line of products for artists.
Edwin Hirschoff (the father of this writer) took over as the first president and CEO and shepherded the firm through the rough early years. Born in Switzerland, Hirschoff emigrated to America in 1915 at age nine. Art photography became his passion, and cameras and darkroom technology, his expertise. He never had a chance to pursue higher education, but his creative drive carried him into a career in public relations and advertising and later contributed to the creation of Artograph. Years later, Paul Stormo, Artograph’s second CEO, described my father’s role. “[It’s] a slow tedious process [to build a business], but Ed stuck with it. In addition, he did a good job of marketing, presenting the product, and attracting customers. He was the ultimate entrepreneur — someone with great ideas that he wanted to promote,” Stormo said.
By 1953, meeting product demand meant producing up to 100 projectors at a time. Orders came from every state and many countries. Several were shipped to pre-Castro Cuba. During the 1950s and ’60s, Hirschoff devoted himself to building a network of dealers throughout the world and developing newer, sleeker models of the opaque projector. The company soon became a leader in the field of photogrammetry and graphic arts equipment with a reputation for top-of-the-line products. Customers were willing to pay a little more for Artograph projectors because they knew they would get better quality.
Art-O-Graph flyer’s step-by-step directions on how to use the projector.
In the late 1950s, a client reported that he had adapted his Artograph for use in preparing maps, reducing his drafting time by 75 percent. Hirschoff seized on the idea. Redesigning the original projector, he came up with the Map-O-Graph. Updating old maps was a common application. An aerial photo was projected and enlarged to match the scale of a base map. New physical features, such as forests or streams, were traced from the projected images onto the base map. Thousands of Map-O-Graphs were sold in at least 60 countries. Customers included the National Geographic Society, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the National Space and Aeronautical Administration, which used its Map-O-Graph in mapping the moon, and scores of colleges and universities, which used theirs to teach mapping.
By the early ’60s, Artograph seemed like a member of our family. My mother, Marie Hirschoff, kept the company books, working from home while raising four children. I earned part of my college tuition working at Artograph headquarters in downtown Minneapolis (the Sexton Building at 529 South 7th Street) during summer vacation. The firm’s profit margins were limited in part by the need to contract the manufacture of machines to a sheet metal fabricator. In 1964, my father succeeded in procuring a loan from the Small Business Administration to establish a manufacturing plant. The firm became more profitable, enabling him to close his side business in commercial photography. Hirschoff dedicated himself wholeheartedly to building Artograph in part because he had loftier goals.
The projectors, for example, saved time so artists could be more creative. With the Map-O-Graph he aimed to join a global response to environmental challenges. In 1973 he wrote, “Environmentalists and ecologists are using the art of map making to help stem a rising tide of development and exploitation that threatens the very existence of the planet.” A booklet of case studies from 1973 described how the Resources Technology Corporation of Houston, under contract with the Environmental Protection Agency, was using its Map-O-Graph to measure US coastal zones and assess how they were changing over time. New products kept emerging in response to customer suggestions. Another innovative product was the StatMaker, which produced low-priced photostats (photocopies on special paper) for studio artists, expanding the firm’s clientele beyond the commercial art world.