Racks of tiles fill the warehouse at Motawi Tileworks, row upon row of ceramics, each painted or dip-dyed by hand. The one-of-a-kind tiles have added color and elegance to homes, libraries and hospitals across the country. And their distinctive artistry has earned the Ann Arbor-based business a reputation for excellence.
But Nawal Motawi, the artistic force behind the ceramic manufactory, might never have found her way to this creative endeavor had she followed an early impulse to leave art behind.
ART, LOST AND FOUND
“I was ready to quit,” said Motawi, who was at that time enrolled as a sophomore at the University of Michigan’s Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design. Focused on drawing and painting in the university’s Bachelor of Fine Arts program, she grew impatient with what she saw as an overemphasis on — and, in her mind, an ill-placed love of — abstract art.
“So often, I saw artists creating abstract, experimental paintings,” said Motawi, who watched as fellow classmates tried to justify sometimes poorly crafted works with grandiose explanations of the art’s meaning and relevance. “But you can’t talk your way into making art good. Art isn’t objective. I got sick of it.”
Motawi also longed to create something not simply beautiful but also useful.
A visit to Detroit and a survey of People Mover stations helped reignite Motawi’s artistic passion and chart her future course. Many of the city’s transit stations were adorned with ceramic tiles produced by Pewabic Pottery, founded in 1903 and renowned for its hand-crafted quality. In the early 20th century, Detroit’s Pewabic tiles were featured prominently in many of the city’s most architecturally stunning buildings, including the Detroit Public Library, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Guardian Building.
“I was simply blown away by the tile work,” Motawi said of that visit, which redirected her educational course. “Ceramics, ceramic tile. That was the perfect fit for me.”
Motawi’s early art-inspired visit to Detroit marked the mere beginning of her time there. Following graduation, the young ceramist was hired by Pewabic Pottery. And once again, Motawi found a good fit.
“Working at Pewabic was very useful to me,” she said. “I worked in production. I worked in bookkeeping. I really learned the business side of things there. And Pewabic allowed me free studio space, so I developed artistically.”
Pewabic Pottery’s historic emphasis on handwork, vibrant glazes and historically inspired designs also suited Motawi, who still prefers creating images that honor the aesthetics of the art nouveau, arts and crafts, and midcentury modern movements. Following her stint at Pewabic, Motawi built a ceramics studio in her garage, selling art tiles at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market before founding Motawi Tileworks in 1992.
In the ensuing 28 years, Motawi Tileworks (motawi.com) has exploded from a one-woman operation into one employing more than 40 individuals. The company purchased Rovin Ceramics, its sole clay source, in 2011, and currently sells tiles in more than 300 locations in 14 states and Canada. In 2018, Motawi Tileworks experienced its most profitable year yet, earning more than $3 million in sales.
The tiles sold by Motawi aren’t run-of-the-mill backsplash tiles. Rather, the tilemaker produces three distinct types of tile, each handmade in Ann Arbor. It’s a process fascinating to watch, one open to the public at the free docent-led tours, held four times weekly.
Tilemaking begins with Adobe Illustrator, a computer software program used to translate Motawi’s designs first into wax, then into a rubber master mold. Slabs of moist clay, comprised entirely of natural materials, are pressed into the mold, carefully trimmed by hand and checked for imperfections. After drying for 24 hours, the tiles are fired before and after glazing.
Field tiles, which are the single-color tiles that make up the bulk of a typical installation, are somewhat convex in shape, providing an appearance of richness and depth otherwise lacking in flat mass-market tiles. The slightly rounded edges of Motawi’s field tiles have the added advantage of feeling unusually comfortable underfoot.
Motawi’s single-color relief tiles are ideal as accent pieces and bear images of flora, fauna and geometric shapes. Both field and relief tiles are dip-dyed in one of 35 standard glazes, developed and created of all-natural materials by Motawi on-site. The dipping process allows the color and luminescence of the glaze to shine; hand-dipping allows for slight nuances of color, rendering each tile unlike any other.
Motawi’s third variety of tile is the multicolored art tile. Sometimes referred to as a raised-line tile, this method traces its roots to the Middle East and involves the outlining of an image with slightly raised lines. The depressions formed between the lines form tiny, shallow reservoirs, ready to be filled with pools of glaze in something akin to a paint-by-number.
Artisans use stainless steel-tipped bulb syringes to fill in the recesses of the art tiles that have become a hallmark of Motawi Tileworks. Finished tiles are typically hung as standalone art pieces or integrated into larger installation projects with designs that include twisting grapevines and clambering ivy, brilliantly blooming poppies, roses and peonies, or geometrical patterns inspired by the art deco, arts and crafts, and midcentury modern eras.
The company’s most striking art tiles stem from the works of several beloved 20th-century designers. Motawi is the only tile manufacturer licensed to recreate the designs of architectural titan Frank Lloyd Wright, bringing new life to the master’s geometrical patterns and floral images. The designs of Japanese printmaker Yoshiko Yamamoto are similarly part of Motawi’s catalog, featuring images of elegant redwoods, mountain landscapes and colorful birds.
Also popular are the images of Charley Harper, an illustrator famous for his highly stylized images of the natural world. Well suited to a midcentury décor, Harper’s works include whimsical nuthatches and woodpeckers, cats and squirrels up to their cheeks in acorns. New for 2019 was Motawi’s expansion of its 3-by-6-inch Harper subway art tile line, featuring brightly colored cardinals and blue jays, owls and chipmunks.
Homeowners looking for very specific tile installations — customized images or precise color matches — find in Motawi a tilemaker expertly suited to unique design needs. After all, she sees herself first and foremost as an artist.
DESIGNING WITH TILE
It is Motawi’s ability to customize that inclines interior designers such as Justin Sharer to suggest the tilemaker to homeowners planning design projects. The owner and creative director of Plymouth-based Sharer Design Group, Sharer has a personal affinity for the arts and crafts aesthetic, having himself studied Frank Lloyd Wright in college, and that heightens his interest in Motawi’s designs.
“In Plymouth, there are a lot of arts and crafts-era houses,” Sharer said, “so Motawi’s designs are often a very good fit for those homeowners.” And if he recommends the tilemaker to his largely suburban Detroit customer base, many times he doesn’t need to: His clients often arrive asking specifically for Motawi tiles.
“They’re looking for a level of finished product that just can’t be achieved at some of the big box stores, with their cases and cases of identical tiles,” Sharer said.
And in those instances where a homeowner desires a design or color not in any existing catalog? Again, Motawi can satisfy Sharer’s clients.
“I like the colorwork that is standard in Motawi tiles,” Sharer said. “I like their finishes. But Motawi tiles also can be fully customizable, and in a word, that is the great advantage of Motawi Tileworks.”
When asked for her own decorating tips, Motawi urges homeowners to consider the focal point of a room and begin there.
“Think about what grabs attention in the given room,” she said. Typically, it’s a fireplace or a dining nook, but it might be the chronological era or geographical location in which the home was originally constructed. Once you’ve settled on that, she said, narrow in on a specific color, texture or theme to add a visual pop to that architectural element.
“But remember that design projects are very much individual,” Motawi said. “Ultimately, a homeowner should simply focus on the designs and colors that they like. A professional designer will help sort out the details.” ≈
By Amy S. Eckert | Photography by David Lewinski
Amy Eckert is an award-winning travel writer and author based in Holland.
*Photography courtesy of Motawi Tile