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The Humboldt Park sculptor with a client list like a Lollapalooza lineup
The Wilco loft is populated with a thicket of guitars dense enough to pose a fire hazard. At least a few of those sprang from the imagination of Ian Schneller, sculptor, luthier and owner of Humboldt Park-based Specimen Products.
Schneller has counted Jeff Tweedy as a client since the days when both were struggling to hack it in artistic professions that aren’t always kind to the bank account.
“I remember Sue Miller, Jeff’s wife and the proprietor of Lounge Ax, coming into my old shop with a jar of tip money, mostly soggy singles, and buying that first guitar for Jeff as a present,” Schneller says.
Tweedy has long since stopped paying for his guitars with a wad of damp dollar bills. And Schneller has evolved as well, harnessing the same sort of diversified revenue stream that Tweedy has used to build up Wilco’s bottom line.
Schneller, who employs a staff of six, runs a four-pillared operation: service and repairs, custom instruments and amps, a line of audiophile speakers ($3,200 for a pair), and the Chicago School of Guitar Making.
“No single aspect of these features would be able to exist on its own in as productive a way,” he says. “The school pollinates the service pollinates the commission.” That collaborative model, in conjunction with a reputation that’s attracted clients from Tweedy to Jack White to Andrew Bird, has enabled him to establish a niche, even with the sort of durable, pricey products that look like they’d be more at home in an era of buggy whips and butter churns.
A native of Memphis, Tenn., Schneller came to Chicago in the early 1980s — not to make instruments, but to study sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1986, he switched his attention from high art to guitars and amps.
Early on, Schneller made a name for himself in the music community as a member of rock bands Shrimp Boat and Falstaff. He parlayed that recognition into some of his first customers, building guitars and shopping them around to friends at the Empty Bottle in Ukrainian Village. He rented a storefront in Wicker Park, supplementing his operation by selling vintage musical gear. When Specimen moved to its current studio in Humboldt Park, Schneller phased out those sales and turned his full attention to handmade custom instruments and amplifiers.
These days, Specimen gear is in high demand among audiophiles, art lovers and musicians around the world. Its amplifiers and horn speakers have been featured in museum exhibits, including the Sonic Arboretum, which is a collaboration between Schneller and Bird that was on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2011.
But like Tweedy, Schneller regards his business as an outgrowth of his art, and his stubbornness. “I’m not a very good businessman. I’m an artist and a designer and a craftsman,” he says. “If I hadn’t been able to delude myself that this is somehow going to work, at certain times, it wouldn’t have remained productive.”
Read our interview with Jeff Tweedy on the business of Wilco here.