Ravenna Custom Mosaics: Sara Baldwin"
Chesapeake Home, October 2006, by Andrea Poe
The beauty of nature combined with the beauty of human creativity
inspires Eastern Shore native Sara Baldwin. Her company, New Ravenna,
which creates custom mosaics, boasts a client list that reads like
the Hollywood Walk of Fame – Tom Hanks, James Earl Jones, and
Woody Allen, to name a few – and is one of the leading mosaic
companies in the country.
New Ravenna’s mosaics are sold through showrooms like Urban
Archaeology in Chicago, Renaissance Tile & Bath in Alexandria,
Virginia, and Charles Tiles in Baltimore, Maryland. Baldwin created
her headquarters in a renovated 22,000-square-foot former shirt factory
in tiny Exmore, Virginia, an area known more for its Purdue chicken
plant than for fine art.
“The Eastern Shore is where I got started and where I grew up.
And now this is where my son is in school, so I have no intention of
taking New Ravenna anywhere else,” says Baldwin. “I have
a talented, loyal workforce here.” Every one of New Ravenna’s
105 employees hails from the Eastern Shore, from mosaicists to the
design and sales team – even the CEO.
Ideas are hatched in the design studio, where a three-woman team,
including Baldwin, works on concepts. “We just get each other,” says
Baldwin. “A lot of times I’ll say something like, ‘Let’s
do a paisley,’ and the next thing I know, they’ve come
up with a fabulous design.” This year, New Ravenna has added
a line of mosaics called Metamorphoses that is based on patterns and
textures found in nature.
New Ravenna has hundreds of designs at the ready and also creates
custom mosaics. A recent project was inspired by a client’s idea
to depict a man wearing a suit and carrying a mermaid while a little
dog nips at his heals. “I don’t know what it represents,
but we designed and made that mosaic, as requested,” laughs Baldwin.
Another client in Chicago ordered a bathroom wall mosaic based on
Giacometti sculptures. “Custom orders like these are really fun
to fill, because they challenge us,” she notes.
One of New Ravenna’s most public mosaics is in the lobby of
the Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr. Senate Building in Annapolis, where
Baldwin used over 40,000 marbled stone tiles to craft the state seal
Creating mosaics is a detailed process that begins with the selection
of marble and stone. Baldwin taps suppliers from around the world – China,
Italy, Greece, Spain, Turkey, and South America. To ensure quality,
staff members attend international trade shows, seeking out the little-known
quarries that can provide high quality and unusual colors.
The stone is then cute on-site at New Ravenna, and the pieces are
given to the mosaicists, who work side-by-side in a large, light-filled
production room, some wearing headphones, keeping temp as they assemble
fine bits of stone and marble. Most mosaicists follow a template to
ensure design consistency. Each mosaic takes anywhere from two to four
weeks to create, depending on its size and complexity.
“Our clients really love our obsessive attention to detail,” Baldwin
says. “They are willing to pay more mosaics that we create, because
they know they are all done by hand. You can buy cheaper mosaics, but
you can’t buy higher quality.” New Ravenna’s mosaics
run anywhere from $60 per square foot to thousands of dollars per square
All 50 mosaicists working at New Ravenna learned on the job. Applicants
are put through a basic test. “I’m not looking for skill
initially, just interest and curiosity,” says Baldwin. If they
have that, they’re hired. Mosaicists then go through a two-month
paid training period, in which they work on part of a mosaic until
they master the skills to do entire pieces on their own.
Baldwin has one rule for new hires: “Go ahead and make mistakes.
I’ve made many mistakes in my own life. Mistakes aren’t
inherently bad. You learn and grow from mistakes,” she says. “However,
if you make the same mistake twice, that’s not acceptable. That
means you haven’t learned anything, and the mistake was just
There’s a refreshing pragmatism to Baldwin, a former art student
who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an MFA in 1991. “I
had a son, who I had to supper, while I was in college. I couldn’t
just go off to New York and live in a garret and paint all day and
waitress all night like a lot of my classmates,” she says.
Instead, she came up with an idea: “I saw people using tile
and mosaics for their kitchens and baths, and I figured I could make
them and sell them. My parents gave me a rental house they had on their
property, but told me I had exactly one year to figure out how to make
a living off my mosaics or move on,” says Baldwin.
Tough love proved the greatest incentive of all. Baldwin, then 25
years old, hunkered down and got to work. “I had never made a
mosaic in my life, but it was one of those rare art forms that I could
actually earn money from,” she says.
Before the year was up, Baldwin had already hired her first employee,
Jackie Taylor, who is now in her 70s and still working at New Ravenna.
Taylor had no experience in mosaics, and unlike Baldwin, she didn’t
have any formal art training. But that didn’t keep Baldwin from
hiring her. “I believe that anyone can be taught to be artistic,” she
maintains. “I was a self-taught mosaicists, so I figured I could
teach [Taylor], and she’s pick it up like I did. Today, I have
a company full of people from all walks of life who are accomplished
New Ravenna, now 15 years old and counting, earned $8 million last
year. The company’s success has much to do with Baldwin’s
passion. “I never get tired of mosaics. I just think they’re
the coolest things,” she says. “It’s the combination
of nature and human, those two elements coming together at their best.
I never cease to be amazed.”