The creative crew at Blue Rhino Studio breathes life into old worlds, right down to each scientifically accurate toenail.

By Robin Pfeifer
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We've all seen museum dioramas. But have you ever stopped to wonder where those lifelike replicas of ancient species or exotic landscapes come from? One answer: Eagan, Minnesota, where Tim Quady (below) and his team craft installations for institutions around the globe. Interview with Robin Pfeifer.

Tim Quady.
Courtesy of Blue Rhino Studio

How did you get started in such a niche industry?

My uncle got me a job working in the warehouse of a small museum services company. It never occurred to me that someone built museum displays. I was enthralled by the idea of it.

How did you go from hauling boxes to running your own business?

After graduation, the company hired me full time doing artistic fabrication. They ended up getting sold to a larger company, so I quit. I knew this is what I wanted do, but on a smaller scale.

You, too, can touch and climb the mammoth that these Minnesota artists built for Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose.
Courtesy of Blue Rhino Studio

What was the start-up process like?

I was 28 and didn’t know any better. I thought, how hard can it be? At first, the company did a lot of retail work, trade shows and stuff at Camp Snoopy [in Mall of America]. As we grew, we decided it was important to determine what we will do and what we won’t do.

Courtesy of Blue Rhino Studio

What kind of work will you do now?

We really love creating artwork that acts as a gateway drug for education. When kids walk into a museum and see a woolly mammoth, it captures their imagination and gets them curious to start asking questions.

Why Blue Rhino Studio? Is there a story behind the name?

I was sculpting a rhino head out of blue silicone at the time. It was meant to be completely arbitrary while I tested out about 200 other options. It ended up being the one people remembered.

You launched in 1998. How has technology changed your process?

Everything relies on the quality and craftsmanship of the people working here. No huge technology boosts will change that. But there have been some massive advancements. Before starting a project, we used to create scaled models out of foam with hand tools. Now we can grid them out digitally and have them milled out at full scale by machines. This saves a tremendous amount of time, but we still have to finish everything by hand.

Courtesy of Blue Rhino Studio

How do you re-create an animal that’s been extinct for millennia?

We source information from an expert. There’s a huge difference between ice age animals that look cool and those that are scientifically accurate. Which toenails you see and which you don’t makes all the difference.

Courtesy of Blue Rhino Studio

How do you approach these massive projects with so much detail?

We always start by asking “How can we bring interpretation into everything we do?” It’s the details that tell a bigger, deeper, richer story. A caveman’s teeth aren’t pretty, but look closely. They’re ground down a bit. Someone will ask why and it becomes a teaching lesson.

Courtesy of Blue Rhino Studio.

This job requires such a distinct set of talents. What’s your interview process like for new employees?

Dude, we don’t interview people. Out of my 17 employees, only three people knew this was an actual job. Each of them were doing something else—working in natural history, majoring in art—and happened to know someone who knew us.

What does a typical day look like?

We’re always excited about the work we’re doing. People disagree with each other all day every day, but maybe have one real argument per year. It’s the dynamic and chemistry of a family.

It sounds like this could be the most obscure dream job.

I’m wildly fortunate and can’t believe I get to be a part of this. If you got to do this five hours a week, it would be a hobby. Doing it 40-plus hours a week is the only thing that turns it into a real job.

Conversation was edited for length.

See Blue Rhino's Work

Bell Museum, St. Paul Ice age diorama.

Field Museum, Chicago Flying pterosaurs, Antarctic dinosaurs, mammoths and mastodons.

Quarry Hill Nature Center, Rochester, Minnesota Exploration Hall full design and build-out.

San Diego Natural History Museum, San Diego Coast to Cactus in Southern California exhibit.

Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Cultural Centre, Kuwait City, Kuwait Prehistoric animal sculptures.