"Pieces fall into place for artists"
Baltimore Sun, January 5, 2003, by Chris Guy
Mosaics: A couple has built a business that is drawing national attention from designers while boosting the economy of Virginia's Eastern Shore.
Exmore, VA—Dressed head to toe in black—cotton blouse, jeans,
knee-length duster—Sara Baldwin looks as if she could have stepped from
a New York gallery or design studio.
Instead, the 36-year-old artist/entrepreneur, apparently unconcerned about
the coat of white granite residue that covers the sprawling production floor
at New Ravenna Mosaics, is on her hands and knees with half a dozen workers.
A looming deadline for a delivery to Washington has her husband, Eyre, alternately
pacing and stepping outside to puff on a cigarette, but she carefully dissects
the finishing touches to the intricate pattern of the medallion that will soon
accent a refurbished U.S. Senate fitness center.
“I guess I’m something like a master editor for our design team,” says
Baldwin as she deposits a 1-centimeter granite square into a green, leafy pattern. “I
don’t like to ever get too far from the hands-on.”
In this fading railroad town 175 miles from Baltimore, in the middle of Virginia’s
Eastern Shore, the couple has methodically built a company that is attracting
interest from architects, homeowners and interior designers all over the country.
The Baldwin’s granite mosaics have graced the homes of such celebrities
as Tom Hanks, Madonna and James Earl Jones. The company has completed
a 5,000-square-foot design for a restaurant in Mexico City and tile work for
a casino in Kansas City. One client traveled to Greece to copy ancient
designs that New Ravenna Duplicated for an elaborate bathroom.
In Annapolis, their work is on display as the state seal of Maryland on the
floor in the Thomas V. Mike Miller Senate Office Building.
Through New Year’s week, a team of eight mosaicists installed their
designs for the U.S. Senate health spa.
The couple credits much of the company’s success to a loyal home-grown
staff of artists and craftspeople who have helped it become one of the largest
private employers in a job-starved area where the poultry industry is king. Most
workers start just above minimum wage but can quickly begin earning $12 an
hour. Quick, talented employees earn as much as $20.
“This hasn’t been like on of those dot-com stories where you had
overnight success and no real substance, no real product,” says 40-year-old
Eyre Baldwin, who married Sara in 1997 and officially took over sales and marketing
for the company in 1999. “Sara started out on a kitchen table,
and now we have a staff of people who were working in chicken-processing plants
who are able to express their creativity at work.”
Sara Baldwin, who earned a master’s in fine art at the University of
Pennsylvania, came home to the Virginia Shore in 1991. A single mother
with a toddler to support, she had a plan for melding the artistic with the
“I realized I could teach, I could wait tables and paint on the side,
or I could come up with something that was practical as well as pretty,” she
says. “Everything that interests me in design has that practical
With a $5,000 loan from her parents, who gave her a place to stay in her late
grandmother’s house and a year to sink or swim with the business, she
quickly attracted clients, schlepping her designs to such places as the Fine
Line, a tile and stone retailer in Chicago. It is one of nearly 100 showrooms
nationwide that carry Baldwin’s work. Last year, New Ravenna tallied
about $5 million in sales.
“I was one of the first to carry New Ravenna; Sara and I pretty much
started the business at the same time,” says Fine Line owner Kim Preis. “The
thing that makes her work unique is her art background. It’s a
company now, and she has plenty of design people, but Sara will jump right
in and get her hands dirty.”
Unlike most of its competitors, which use only set patterns, New Ravenna also
turns out custom designs, some from rough drawings sent by fax by customers. Such
work costs anywhere from $50 to $600 a square foot.
“They are the single best mosaic house I know of,” says Rob Morrison,
chief operating officer of Waterworks, a Connecticut-based company with 33
showrooms featuring stone, tile and bath fixtures.
New Ravenna’s growth has translated into a sizable investment in staff-about
130 people-and buildings as the company has taken over two renovated Exmore
landmarks, the old Cameo movie theater and a block-long, 30,000-square-foot
building still known by residents as “the shirt factory,” its former
Granite that arrives from Italy, Greece, Latin America and Turkey is cut by
water-cooled saws into 1- and 2- centimeter tiles (in 50 colors) that are tumbled
and trimmed to give them the work look of old mosaics. They are then
assembled from paper templates worked out by Baldwin’s design team in
a second-floor office above the production room.
Tammy Bailey, who designed and installed the state seal in Maryland’s
Senate building two years ago, had worked at a chicken-processing plant and
a nursing home before hearing about a job at New Ravenna in 1994. She
says the company’s laid-back, first-name atmosphere and decent wages
make jobs there among the most sough-after in the area.
“I take a lot of pride in doing something that a lot of people can’t
do,” says Bailey, 40. “That seal up in Annapolis was one
of the highlights of my life. I want to take my kids up there to see
In the past year, the Baldwins have hired a chief executive officer and controller
to help take the company in new directions—a division that will concentrate
on installations and licensing agreements for a line of designs beyond mosaics,
including flatware and rugs.
One element that won’t change is their home base. With deep roots
on the shore, they live with Sara’s 12-year-old son, Michael, and their
daughter, Gracie, 3, in a Chesapeake Bay waterfront house. The proper
has been in Eyre’s family for 12 generations—the 900-acre farm
owned by his father, former Mercantile Bank and Trust Chief H. Furlong Baldwin.
“We’re excited about the new directions the company could go in,
but we’re very well-grounded here,” says Sara Baldwin. “I’ve
always been lucky enough to hire the right people. We start from that base.”