Niskayuna native’s Empire Exhibits brings concepts to life for museums, businesses

Owner Craig Koehler is seen inside the Empire Exhibits & Displays plant in Mechanicville.Owner Craig Koehler is seen inside the Empire Exhibits & Displays plant in Mechanicville. (Erica Miller)

KAREN BJORNLAND
For the Daily Gazette

MECHANICVILLE — At Empire Exhibits & Displays, one can touch the rough bark of a tree, inspect the skull of a racehorse or see exactly how Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a famous speech.

The 6-foot-tall blowup of FDR’s handwritten Infamy Speech, which he read to Congress after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, hangs in a conference room.

“Half of our work is trade shows and events, the other half is for museums, historical societies,” says Craig Koehler, an industrial designer who is Empire’s CEO and owner. “I enjoy the projects in our community. They are very rewarding.”

Empire is known for its custom designs of kiosks, displays and exhibits. For their clients, it’s a one-stop deal, from concept and fabrication to delivery and installation.

FDR’s super-sized penmanship, with its cross-outs and corrections, was part of “The Day of Infamy: 24 Hours That Changed History,” an exhibit that Empire worked on at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, Dutchess County.

A few feet away, you’ll see the horse skull. Its display case, which has a mechanical part that allows the jaw bones to move, needs to be repaired.

“We do a lot with the racing museum [National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs],” Koehler says.

The gnarly tree trunk? That’s for folks with dementia at the Home of the Good Shepherd in Saratoga Springs. Empire is fabricating a fake landscape — trees, a homey porch and a post office — hat will help residents find their way around the nursing home.

At Empire, even the office desks are unusual, made with leftover faux rock from a display for The Original Muck Boot Co.y and paneling from an exhibit case the company made for the New York Knicks of the National Basketball Association.

Off Route 67, in a 14,000-square-foot building that was once a DiSiena Furniture showroom, Koehler commands a staff of eight full-time employees and a few part-timers.

He moved Empire to Mechanicville three years ago from Watervliet, where he leased space in an old ladder factory.

“We’ve kind of outgrown it already,” Koehler says of the Mechanicville building.

Empire is now planning to expand into a second building that will be constructed next door. The new building, about 8,000 square feet, will allow for more production space and storage of clients’ displays.

In our region, you’ve seen Empire designs in museums, historical societies and other familiar places, including Albany International Airport, Grant Cottage, miSci in Schenectady and the New York State Museum.

“Museums want to update their displays. As the economy goes, we go. As there is more growth and spending for upgrades, they are reaching out to folks like us,” Koehler says.

Museums want touch screens, interactive exhibits. And the next big thing, he says, is iPhone apps that guide visitors through exhibits. “Technology is moving so fast.”

Businesses in their portfolio include SI Group in Schenectady, Townsend Leather in Johnstown, Plug Power in Latham, Monolith Solar in Albany and Fortitech in Schenectady.

While most of their work is in the Capital Region, Empire also serves clients across the nation and internationally.

“Our web page draws businesses to us from all over the world,” Koehler says.

For trade shows and events, companies need wall systems, screens, lighting and special effects. Creating them can be challenging, Koehler says.

“Usually if we are going into a controlled environment, a gallery, we know what to expect. With our events, there are a lot of moving parts and you have to think on your feet.”

Empire has made dispensers that emit powder for a medical display about asthma devices and cryogenic dispensers that emit smokelike steam for rock shows.

“We work with a lot of materials and woods and plastics. We do a lot with lights. You have to be creative. Not only in just designing things but how you’re going to build it and how you are going to get it there.”

The biggest space in the building is the workshop, where, a few weeks ago, cabinetmakers were making display cases for the Kittery Trading Post in Maine and displays for a plastics expo in Orlando, Florida.

Empire is also working with the FDR Museum on a new exhibit, “The Art of War: American Poster Art, 1941-1945,” which opens April 21.

When Koehler grew up in Niskayuna, he was always drawing and building things. His father, John, an electrical engineer, encouraged his three sons to use the woodworking shop in their garage.

After graduating from Niskayuna High in 1985, Koehler studied industrial design at Pratt Institute in New York City.

During college, he worked as a cable TV installer. After he got his degree, he was a draftsman at General Electric Co. and then got a job at a GE spinoff, Creatacor, a custom designer and fabricator of trade show displays and exhibits.

In 2001, Koehler started his own business, Koehler Industrial Design, and in 2005 purchased Empire Exhibits, an Albany company that dated to 1959.

Nearly 30 years ago, when Koehler started in industrial design, there was no Internet or cellphones. Renderings were photographed and sent to clients by snail mail.

“Today, with the computer, you can show them a red version, a blue version, a green version, basically by hitting a button. And then you can distribute to a hundred people by email.”

At Empire, every idea still begins with hand-drawn sketches. “It still takes time to develop it. The art and the creativity is still the same but you just have a different set of tools.”

Even though he’s the boss, Koehler describes himself as “a hands-on guy” who really enjoys working on “the nuts and bolts” of projects.

Like his employees, Koehler comes to work dressed in a gray shirt with a bright orange logo that suggests a Viking ship.

He came up with that design.

“We’re always off to new adventures,” Koehler explains. “We want to keep moving forward. We never know what’s going to come in the door next.”

About the Author

Erin K. O'Neill
Erin K. O'Neill is the Web Editor at The Daily Gazette of Schenectady, NY.