His mosaics go beyond the bath
by Meaghan Agnew
Boston Globe Correspondent
30 July 2009
On a recent morning, against a backdrop of squawking seagulls,
Artaic founder and CEO Ted Acworth guides a visitor through the company’s
Fort Point offices, his energy level undiminished by the previous evening’s
10:30 pm knock-off time. Meanwhile, in a back room, a robot is already
hard at work, methodically assembling thousands of tiny marble tiles to
create an arresting three-story image of a sailboat.
It’s a glimpse into the city’s most recent marriage of art
and technology - and if Acworth has his way, it’s a relationship
that will revolutionize the way people think about mosaic.
“I always knew I wanted to find something to combine
hardcore technology with something very creative,’’ said Acworth,
40, a former NASA engineer and onetime director of research at the Cambridge-MIT
Institute. “I always had a real inclination toward building things
and solving real-world problems.’’
So how did a rocket scientist become obsessed with mosaic tiles, something
most people never give much thought to unless they’re installing
a kitchen backsplash or a bathroom floor?
The Long Island native’s passion for the millennia-old art form
was first kindled after a visit to an exhibit of Roman mosaics at the
Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid when he was still in college.
“I went in and walked through and saw these things and was completely
blown away by the beauty and the level of the art,’’ Acworth
recalled. “It’s tangible, it’s durable, it’s physical
- as a mechanical engineer, it’s the kind of art form you might
Years later, while building a vacation home in Lake Placid, N.Y., Acworth
and his wife, Matti, considered installing a mosaic in their foyer. It
was then that Acworth realized the limits of the medium.
“I realized firsthand how long it takes, how expensive it is, and
what a complicated process it is,’’ said Acworth. “So
we didn’t do it. But that’s when I realized there might be
a market here.’’
In June 2007, after earning an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management,
Acworth launched Artaic, with a mission “to make beautiful, custom
Typically constructed of tiles, or tesserae, the size of a fingernail,
mosaic is singularly labor-intensive. One square foot of mosaic paneling
requires about two hours of manual assemblage. To execute his plan, then,
Acworth knew the challenge would be to compress the labor to reduce time
Acworth, who also has a PhD from Stanford, came up with a solution. A
robot - specifically, a “pick and place’’ robotic system,
similar to those used in industrial plants, that could position mosaic
tiles about 10 times faster than the human hand.
“I considered simpler mechanical systems, but I soon realized that
using a robot was, all in all, the right choice,’’ said the
Beacon Hill resident, who commissioned a company in Westfield to build
With the help of Artaic’s creative director Paul Reiss, Acworth
then designed an original software program that could take any image -
a photograph, an oil painting, an original graphic design - and reconceive
it in mosaic form with pointillistic precision.
“It’s customized - it’s not out of a catalog,’’
The duo immersed themselves in the world of tile, sourcing high-end glass,
marble, and porcelain tesserae as well as unusual materials like leather
and coconut shell.
Acworth bankrolled some of Artaic’s costs through the unlikeliest
of sources: the History Channel, which in early 2007 recruited the scuba-diving
scientist for a new show called “UFO Hunters.’’ Over
26 episodes, “Dr. Ted’’ and two fellow scientists investigated
purported UFO sightings around the globe.
“I’m not a believer, but I am trained as a scientist, and
I like to explore interesting questions,’’ Acworth said. His
15 minutes of fame ended up boosting business: “We’ll go to
sales meetings with a client and they’ll go, ‘You’re
Dr. Ted!’ It opens doors.’’ Acworth bowed out after
the second season, wanting to spend more time with his son E.J., now 18
Artaic began taking commissions in early summer 2008. One of the company’s
first commercial projects was a wall-sized mosaic for Salem Five Bank
in Reading based on a painting of Salem Harbor.
“It’s pretty spectacular,’’ said Janis Dodge,
senior vice president of consumer banking, who commissioned the piece.
“It really pops.’’ Artaic has since taken on both commercial
and residential commissions, creating everything from customized kitchen
backsplashes to a decorative mosaic for an in-ground swimming pool.
To those who might accuse Artaic of automating, and thus corrupting,
a creative process, Acworth is firm is his response.
“It couldn’t be further from the truth,’’ he
said, adding that local mosaicists have toured the space and voiced their
approval. “We’re just a complement and creating a bigger market
© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.