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A model temp job

The Baltimore Sun

With his frizzy brown hair, pale skin, thin sweater and worn jeans, Yuri Zietz looks every bit the indie rocker. Some nights he'll share the stage with band mates and fill venues like the loud, smoky Lo-Fi Social Club with choppy, angular guitar riffs.

But weekdays, Zietz retreats to the calmer, cleaner studio of Development Design Group Inc. to help build miniature architectural models. Depending on the project, he could be gluing down tiny people, putting together minuscule stores or constructing fake shrubbery with green fuzz.

"You want to make it very clean," Zietz said. "When you do flower beds, it takes a lot of time."

When not touring or recording, most Baltimore band members land temporary jobs as bartenders, servers, substitute teachers or construction workers. They often seek out jobs they can leave at the drop of a hat.

Zietz is one of a number of local musicians and artists who make scale models of housing and retail complexes for Baltimore-based design firms. Some of them are full time, but most are temporary employees. The job involves short periods of intense work - sometimes as many as 60 or 70 hours a week - followed by free time they can use to perform around the country. And many of the skills they have as musicians also apply to model-making. The job is a natural fit, said Ken Waddell, the model-studio director for DDG, a firm based in Brewers Hill.

"It's a creative outlet for everybody involved," Waddell said. "We're pretty flexible when it comes to time. It works out for them."

The model-building process starts with a computer-aided design conceived by one of the company's designers. The scale for most of the models Zietz and his crewmates construct is one-eighth of an inch equals one foot.

Sometimes the initial layout is little more than a rough sketch the designer must hash out with the model builders. Because a few of the designers speak English as a second language, it can be tedious at times, said guitarist Chris Donoghue, a model builder and member of the experimental band the Financial Group. But having a musician's skill set comes in handy in this sort of situation, he said.

"In order to play music with other people, you have to infer what they're doing, the shape of what they're doing and where they're coming from in a way that can't necessarily be expressed in words or on paper at all," Donoghue said.

"Around here, we have to infer what the designers want - a geometry they may not be able to explain," he said.

After the initial plans are solidified, the model makers use a computerized laser to carve buildings out of foam core or acrylic board. The pieces are stood upright and affixed to a baseboard.

If the model features a streetscape, little lampposts are installed and wired to light up. Then come the miniature fake trees, bushes, cars and people. They are ordered from model-train suppliers of HO-scale railroads. The more high-end models might even feature a small flat-screen TV displaying information about the model.

When building a model as a team, the musicians are able to draw on their experience writing songs and playing in groups, Donoghue said.

"If four guys are sitting around playing music, there's four different ways to do things," he said. "In the end you have to let somebody's ego win the battle. The same thing happens here."

The builders use the right side of their brain to help visualize the layout of a model, and the left side to handle the geometrical details, said guitarist and singer Roman Kuebler.

Kuebler, who fronts the acclaimed indie rock group the Oranges Band, got his start in the model-making business at DDG about five years ago. He now works for Model City Models, a company based in Clipper Mill. Songwriting, like model-making, draws from the left and right sides of the brain, he said.

"It takes a little bit of both," Kuebler said. "Music is artistic overall, but when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it there's a lot of [time signatures] in it."

Building models can require stretches of all-consuming concentration, said composer Ryan Wirth, who works for DDG.

"You have to push everyone else out," Wirth said. "It's like when you work on music - you concentrate on the smallest sound played over and over again making layers to get this one final product."

As final flourishes, the builders might put the pint-size model people in precarious, humorous or romantic positions. The driver receiving a traffic ticket and the lesbian wedding immediately spring to mind, said DDG's communications director MJ Dame.

"The clients pick up on it and get a chuckle," he said.

Once the models are fully assembled, they are shipped to clients around the world. Though the shopping complex Zietz worked on was for a client in Tennessee, most of DDG's recent work has been in Europe and Asia, Dame said.

When not working for DDG, model builder Billy Gordon plays guitar in J-Roddy Walston and the Business, a rock band that toured the country extensively last year.

Though he's getting paid for putting professional architectural models together, Gordon said it occasionally feels like he's just a kid playing with toys.

"We minimize the outward appearance that we're having fun, but we all really are," Gordon said.

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