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Find out what's being said about Sara Baldwin Design and New Ravenna in the media.

Chesapeake Home Cover

"New 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 of Maryland.

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 foot wholesale.

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 carelessness.”

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 mosaicists.”

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.” End of Article

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