Photos: DTKindler Photography
A handcrafted piece awakens something in human beings.
It was almost inevitable that Ian Schneller, a musician who trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, would wind up creating Specimen Products, a Chicago studio that creates handmade instruments, amplifiers, and horn speakers noted for their beauty and functionality.
Specimen Products employs six artisans along with 24 apprentices and interns, but Schneller’s hands are on every product. In the past 30 years, he estimates he has created 600 pieces. “This sounds corny, but I really see them as my children. They are a part of me no matter where in the world they have gone,” he said. “They’re my stab at immortality.”
Although completion time varies, a typical project from start to finish absorbs the better part of eight months. Because each piece is one of a kind, Schneller not only does a custom design, but often is called upon to find creative sourcing to get the piece exactly right. Take, for instance, a guitar he’s working on for Alex Kapranos of the Scottish band Franz Ferdinand, who asked him to make a guitar that would reflect his love of entomology. Schneller rose to the challenge by securing 600 pairs of iridescent beetle wings from Bangkok that will be incorporated into this guitar.
Schneller began making string instruments like guitars, ukuleles, mandolins, and even the occasional violin. Over the past decade, Specimen Products has branched into audio equipment such as horn speakers, tube amplifiers, and subwoofers. Using high-quality materials and high-level craftsmanship ensures good sound, and also longevity. And longevity, Schneller maintains, is all too rare in this era of mass production.
Repair work comprises about half of Specimen Products’ business. “I hate to say it, but poorly made, mass-produced instruments have kept me in business,” he laughed. “The repairs also have helped me become a better designer, because I am very aware of common design flaws and know how to avoid them in my own work.”
In the end, Schneller is convinced that thoughtful, handmade products are in such high demand because the contrast with most factory-made products is so great. “As mass products have become even more watered down, people have aha moments when they see something of quality, something that’s made with love,” he noted.