In the Business of Beauty

By Church and Art Network
Published in Church and Art Network

Conrad Schmitt Studios, Inc. is one of the oldest interior decorating, stained glass, and restoration firms in the United States. For over a century the company has been promoting quality while respecting fine art, working hand in hand with owners, interior design firms, consultants, and architects, conserving and creating some of the most ornate and stately interiors evidenced by man.

In 1936, Bernard O. Gruenke began working for the Studio, and in 1948 he purchased the Studio from the Schmitt Estate. The company has been managed by successive generations of the Gruenke family ever since.

What types of projects does the company take on?

About 45% of our projects are interior decorative paint restoration and new decorative schemes in traditional churches and other historic buildings such as theatres, hotels, state capitols, and train stations. Another 45% of our projects are related to stained glass, most specifically the re-­-leading and restoration of historically significant stained glass windows and the design and fabrication of new stained glass windows. The last 10% of our projects are for other accessories and fitments such as statuary repair and restoration, furnishings, altars, Stations of the Cross, mural and mosaic conservation and creation, and other artistic touches. We work in approximately 40 states each year, and at any given time we have about 30 projects of varying size and scope underway.

It is spiritually uplifting to be able to enhance church spaces across the nation, thereby affecting the hearts and souls of so many people. We provide a meaningful service to not only individuals, but entire communities, and so we act as servants of our Lord in our own way. A satisfying part of any project is attending the dedication or rededication of a church we have completed, seeing the faces of the people in attendance, and experiencing the power of our work. We feel that the most rewarding part of any project is when we realize toward the end of the project that our clients are no longer just clients, but our lifelong friends.

How do you prepare the client and manage expectations?

We enter the project with the understanding that this is the first time and maybe the only time that this group will be taking on such a project. A major component of our effort is educating and guiding the client through the process in a way that makes sense for their unique needs. Each individual client always adds a unique perspective and valued benefit. Although this is a process we’re regularly engaged in, every project is individually customized, so none of us can be entirely prepared in advance. Our combination of individual talents and ability to coordinate the team is the most valuable asset that we can offer. If I had to choose one single message to convey to clients, it would be that “it can be done.” We invite anyone interested in the project process to tour a work in progress, as well as our studio, in order to gain a better understanding of how the process unfolds.

How can those responsible for historical buildings care for them well?
What needs to be referred to professionals?

The first and most important item for historic churches and other buildings is to seal the envelope of the building, making sure that the roof, flashing, gutters, and tuck pointing are 100% waterproof. It is also essential to make sure that you have insulation, minimum fluctuation of temperature and humidity, adequate sealant around the windows, and proper storm glass, which has breathers installed to prevent heat build-­-up and allows for the maintenance of the frame.

Those with responsibilities would benefit from performing the necessary research and consulting with professionals prior to attempting anything that they have not done before. And while all of the technical details of caring for a historic building are important, perhaps even more important is to have exciting, inspiring, and rewarding celebrations there, which i crease engagement and membership, thereby increasing the pool of talent and resources within the congregation or community. While all of the technical details of caring for a historic building are important, perhaps even more important is to have exciting, inspiring, and rewarding celebrations there.

Who performs the work contracted with your company?

We have approximately 50 artists and craftspeople on our full time staff, each with unique talents. Many have historic preservation degrees,
masters’ degrees in art, and years of hands on experience passed down through generations of working in the trades.

At our studio, an expert in conservation of a mural must also be an artist. An artist of stained glass must also be a restoration specialist. By cross training in conservation, the individual talents of our artists are greatly enhanced through working on the brush strokes of the greatest artists of the past. What past artists have mastered become the building blocks for new artists today.

Conrad Schmitt himself was an interesting blend of talented artist and skilled businessman.
How has it impacted the company?

Conrad Schmitt’s background as an artist gave him respect for many of the greatest artists, and his passion in art allowed him to direct and coordinate some of the finest talents of the time. We have always looked to Conrad’s ideals as a source of inspiration. He has been our greatest mentor and we aspire to his original vision.

Our team at the studio today represents many of our original founder’s talents while also growing and expanding upon them through the development of state of the art techniques, which improve production and economies while maintaining 100% of the artistic quality.

Is your own background more in “art” or “business”?

I am personally much more of a businessman than an artist, in the formal sense of the word “artist.” I am more of an artistic visionary, and I can critique art and extract the talents of associates. Quite often we are able to communicate the client’s desires in a way that the artist can understand and appreciate, as opposed to running into resistance or frustration in critique.

Our internal relationships have developed to the point where the artists, our many national projects directors, my sister Heidi
(company Vice President), and I work together seamlessly to execute the highest quality artistic vision. Together we have grown into a rare breed of artists and business people, in that we are all one team, working for a common goal of perfection.

On the business side of things, we have been working to develop our archives and databases. We have been finding incredible turn of the century tools in our archives such as stencil designs, renderings, and altar designs. We continue to build our database of these materials,
which is available at our fingertips to provide us with inspiration and allow us to offer a wider range of options to our clients.

As president of the company, what is your vision for it?

My vision is to have every pastor, priest, and religious leader know who we are, what we do, and that we are a committed staff of good people with worthy goals who are available to assist with the needs of their church.

If a reader has a need for your company’s services, how can they start the process?

Call us! (800-­-969-­-3033) We can provide support through the entire process, including developing the tools needed to raise funds, creating excitement and momentum in the congregation, walking through the process of the entire project, and providing an understanding of where resistance may arise and how it has been successfully overcome in the past. Gunar Gruenke is the President and a Master Craftsperson at Conrad Schmitt Studios in New Berlin, Wisconsin,
overseeing all facets of studio operations including managing and supervising restoration and renovation projects throughout the country. He has authored numerous articles on stained glass and the decorative arts, spoken on television news features, and addressed audiences such as the Restoration & Renovation Conference and the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Mr. Gruenke has worked for Conrad Schmitt Studios since the age of seven, under the tutelage of his grandfather and father,. both nationally recognized ecclesiastical artists, as well as other fine artists from around the world. He holds a Business Administration degree from the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater.

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