In 1988 Nawal Motawi, the owner of Motawi Tileworks in Ann Arbor, MI, took a tile production job at the legendary Pewabic Pottery in Detroit. Motawi, who studied ceramics at the University of Michigan, was trying to “find my way,” she says. She found inspiration at Pewabic, where she fell in love with the pottery’s Arts and Crafts-style works.
In 1992 Motawi struck out on her own and in a 600-square-foot garage began creating the historically informed tile designs that reflect the work of Pewabic, Grueby, Rookwood, the Roycrofters, Ernest Batchelder and William De Morgan, as well as the architecture of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.
In 1993 her brother Karim, just graduated from Michigan, joined her. “Karim was at the beginning of his finding-his-way period,” Motawi explains. “He started helping me, and I asked him if he would work for me. He replied that he would not work for me but that he would work with me.”
It was a struggle in the beginning. “Who knows the depths of their own ignorance when they start out?” Motawi says. “The biggest challenge was one I understood from the beginning—I didn’t know who my customers would be, where to find them or what a tile business without 90 years of history behind it looked like.”
After nearly a year of showing at a local farmers market, the company had a breakthrough. “I was sort of holding my breath as I asked my first fireplace client for a $250 non-refundable design fee,” Motawi reflects. “She said, ‘Okay!’ I designed it, Karim pressed it, I glazed it and I still like it.” When the customer’s neighbors saw the fireplace, they soon became clients. “We were on our way!” Motawi says.
Drawing from the different Arts and Crafts styles, Motawi has worked closely with her team to develop a striking combination of color and design that reflects her own sensibilities. This can be seen in the company’s two distinct decorative formats—the relief tiles that have a sculptural quality in low-relief and are colored with a single glaze and the polychrome tiles that have many colors separated by tiny ridges of clay, a mosaic-like effect.
“I am very fussy about the tile designs. I will keep working a visual idea until I get it right,” Motawi says. “Sometimes I’ll think something isn’t great, but the employees love it. When I’m the only one who loves a design, I know it’s time to scrap it.
Motawi Tileworks has now evolved into a 30-employee business that creates custom-designed residential installations, sells tile through galleries and showrooms, and makes one-of-a-kind murals for public and private buildings. Things continue to change; Karim has decided to leave, so Nawal has the extremely challenging but exciting job of being solely responsible for the company. She is well prepared to take on any bumps in the road. Remaining focused on her mission of exploring new design while honoring the past has been the key to Motawi’s success. “Realistic reproduction doesn’t interest me,” she says. “Art allows you to see things through a different lens. Part of what my tile artwork does is present and accentuate a motif in such a way as to show off its inherent loveliness. It’s vital that at least some of our work is functional. Per the old axiom: I feel it’s important to produce things that are either useful or beautiful, and ideally both.”
Arts & Crafts Potteries
A few potteries have survived from the turn of the 20th century, or been revived recently. Among those extant are Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown, PA, and Pewabic Pottery. In addition, ceramics in the style of the now-defunct Rookwood, Grueby and Gates (Teco) potteries are being made by various businesses—many of them also producing original designs: Tile Restoration Center, Seattle; Mission Guild Studio, Mount Vision, NY; Pruckler Ceramic Design, Ferndale, MI; North Prairie Tileworks, Minneapolis; Prairie Arts, Lisle, IL.