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The Virginian Pilot

"The Art of Work: Eastern Shore business puts together mosaic masterpieces"
The Virginian-Pilot, March 19, 2006, by Ann Wright

PIECE BY PIECE, the designs come to life. The artisans fill in the outlines, adding color and texture with tiny marble tiles. Making mosaics is meticulous and has always been labor-intensive and expensive, even in classical Greece and Rome, where mosaic making reached its apogee.

On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, New Ravenna Mosaics in Exmore focuses on the all-but-forgotten art form and reinterprets it for contemporary American interiors. In only 15 years, the company has achieved national recognition and a client list that include splenty of boldface names. Its designs have appeared in all the glossy home and garden magazines and on the Web sites of some of the country’s premier architects and interior designers.

If you are one of the thousands who visited the showcase of homes last fall in the Shore’s upscale Bay Creek neighborhood, you’re already familiar with New Ravenna’s work. Magnificent mosaics were featured in the kitchen and bathrooms of Bay Creek developer Dickie Foster’s show house, Verandah Bay.

New Ravenna started small. Sara Baldwin, the company’s founder and lead designer, returned to the Shore from the University of Pennsylvania with a master’s degree in fine arts and a desire to make mosaics. Seeing the classical examples on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York was a pivotal experience for Baldwin, an aspiring painter.

Baldwin remembers, “I fell in love with the combination of figural art and pattern in the mosaics. Then I wondered, ‘Why isn’t anyone doing this anymore?’ The idea of creating functional art was really appealing – especially when I realized that there were people who’d balk at spending $10,000 on a painting but wouldn’t blink at spending it on a floor.”

Bolstered with a loan from her parents, Baldwin launched New Ravenna from a kitchen table in Northampton County. The name paid homage both to Ravenna, an Italian town renowned for its mosaics, and to the notion of adapting the classical art form to modern uses. Armed with half a dozen sample boards, Baldwin called on high-end tile and bath showrooms in New York City and went home with a fistful of orders.

Today New Ravenna is headquartered in an abandoned shirt factory that hums with artistic energy. An attractive renovation preserved the historic brick building while creating an appealing workplace. With 100 employees and a yearly payroll of more than $3 million, New Ravenna is a significant economic presence in Northampton County.

New hires have to audition.

“We give everyone a pair of tile nippers and a pattern to see how quickly they catch on,” says Baldwin. “Speed and dexterity will determine their salary.”

First-name informality heightens the collaborative atmosphere. Baldwin’s second-floor office is the heart of the design studio. The office door and an interior window she calls the ‘‘drive-through’’ are always open and the studio is a cubicle-free zone. Baldwin relishes the idea-sharing and teamwork that sharpens the concept and the finished product.

The designers draw the design to scale and make a prototype that is scanned and printed for the mosaicists to go by. For the mosaicists, the work is part puzzle, part paint-by-number in stone. They search the bins for just the right shade of marble to match the design and nip centimeter-square tiles into shapes that accommodate the plan. In fitting the pieces to the pattern, they add something of themselves to each job. Baldwin can generally look at a complicated piece and name the mosaicist who put it together.

Clear adhesive film is laid over the top of the finished mosaic to hold the tiles in place for shipment. At the job site, tile installers set the mosaics into a thin bed of wet concrete, remove the face tape and then fill the spaces between the tiles with grout.

New Ravenna mosaics are sold through 140 independent showrooms across the nation, including International Tile & Marble in Chesapeake and La Galleria in Virginia Beach. The company also does private label commissions for Waterworks, Urban Archaeology, Walker Zanger and more than three dozen other high-end retailers.

Three elements dictate the price of mosaics: the size of the tesserae (marble tiles), the complexity of the design and the marble colors. The tesserae range from a centimeter square up to 3 centimeters by 5. Generally, the smaller the tesserae, the greater the cost because of the labor involved.

Center medallions and panels of animals and other natural subjects are costly because they are the most painterly, requiring the arrangement of many gradations of marble colors nipped into very small pieces. The costliest panel in the catalog depicts a leopard that sells for more than $15,000.

The rarity of certain colors is reflected in the price. A simple field design made of staggered 1-centimeter tesserae is available for $115 per square foot. The cost of the same pattern in lapis would soar to around a thousand dollars a square foot.

One catalog shows scores of borders with classical motifs, such as Greek keys, guilloches , garlands and serpentine designs.

A 2 1/2-inch border retails for around $45 a linear foot, while a 16-inch border sells for almost $600 a linear foot. The popular 5-inch border is around $100 a linear foot. Other catalogs feature the various styles of center medallions, accents and rugs for a dizzying number of choices.

For big projects, architects and interior designers frequently travel to Exmore to meet with the New Ravenna team. Susan Pilato of the Norfolk interior design firm Pilato & Counts, who used extensive mosaics at Bay Creek’s Verandah Bay show house, says the experience of working with Baldwin and her employees was gratifying.

“Their emphasis is always on how can we make the most beautiful design, not on how much money can we get from you. The designs we have commissioned have come out better than we imagined,” she says.

New York architect Dale Cohen was working at Drake Design in 2002 when the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, gave interior designer Jamie Drake a short time frame to renovate historic Gracie Mansion, the city’s official residence for its mayor.

Cohen’s contacts at Waterworks, the specialty retailer of luxury bathroom fixtures and accessories, introduced her to Baldwin and the New Ravenna team.

“The bathrooms hadn’t been redone since the 1940s. We decided to use mosaics instead of tile because tile wears out over time while mosaics actually improve with age, getting a honed look. New Ravenna provided beautiful mosaics for six bathroom floors – on time,” Cohen says.

For the artist who started New Ravenna, mosaics remain an exciting medium, an ancient art form adaptable to new directions.

“I’m all about texture these days,” Baldwin explains. “Our new line takes inspiration from nature – ripples on the water, bamboo, a leaf – that we interpret in stone. You have to hope that it will ultimately be good for the Earth for designers to get their inspiration from nature.” End of Article

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