Hand and Heart at Motawi Tileworks




John Ruskin, the grand Victorian voice of the Arts and Crafts movement, wrote that “all art worthy of the name is the energy—neither of the human body alone, nor of the human soul alone, but of both united…the action of the hand is at its finest when that of the heart is at its fullest.” Admittedly, the always elegant words of Ruskin sometimes seem lacking real-life applications, but Motawi Tileworks in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA offers a fine example of what such a synergy between art and heart might look like. Founded at the cusp of the 21st century, the tilework presents a synthesis of efficiency, technology, and craftsmanship, and its success triumphantly shows that the lofty ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement can be translated seamlessly into the contemporary world.

This pottery studio has received attention from major media outlets (including the Wall Street Journal), and was featured on an episode of Public Television’s excellent series Craft in America, but it began inauspiciously in 1992 as a small business run from home out of a two-car garage in Ann Arbor. Its founder, Nawal Motawi, was born to Kamal Motawi and came to the United States from Egypt to earn his Ph.D. at Michigan State University. Nawal Motawi herself earned a BFA in ceramics and figure sculpture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After graduating, she worked at Detroit’s historic Pewabic Pottery (this now-celebrated studio, interestingly, was itself originally founded ingloriously in a carriage-shed by the enterprising Marry Chase Perry-Stratton nearly a century before). There, Motawi made tiles and was allotted a studio space in the basement to create work of her own.

Determinedly entrepreneurial, Motawi moved to Ann Arbor and set up a makeshift shop from her garage, where she created decorative tiles which she sold on weekends at the local farmer’s market. After a year, a customer inquired about commissioning a tiled fireplace, giving Motawi her first installation commission. More commissions swiftly followed and all advertising was by word of mouth from clients. Soon, Motawi established a permanent studio in a quiet, pleasantly shaded industrial park on the outskirts of Ann Arbor.

To help the fledgling studio accommodate increasing demand, Motawi consulted a manufacturing expert at the University of Michigan and the studio began operating
(as it still does) under the Toyota Process, an ethos of lean manufacturing pioneered in Japan by the founder of the car company. The process ensures that the stock on hand exactly matches (but never exceeds) demand, and that every component of production is as efficient as feasibly possible. The clay is locally made, coming from Rovin Ceramics (also owned
by Motawi), which happens to be just down
the road.

The studio synthesizes craft with technology. Artists create designs for the tiles, who render them on computer and a machine transfers the digital image into a hard wax mold (much like 3D printing). This enables detail otherwise tediously difficult to achieve by hand and is particularly useful for the studio’s rendering in relief-tile of the complex architectural designs by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Its installation tiles (known as Field-tiles) affectionately betray the subtle influence of Pewabic Pottery. Like Pewabic tiles, the colors on glazed Motawi field-tiles intentionally vary, subtly shifting in intensity, making each tile unique. But there’s no mistaking the two: while Pewabic tiles generally tend toward cool colors and gentle earth-tones, Motawi tiles loudly encompass the whole color wheel and at times offer a formidable visual wallop.

Motawi Tileworks ... presents a synthesis of efficiency, technology, and craftsmanship, and its success triumphantly shows that the lofty ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement can be translated seamlessly into the contemporary world.


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