The Art of Business

by Kimberly Olson

Nawal Motawi started making decorative ceramic tiles in her parents’ garage studio and selling them at a local farmers’ market. Motawi, who comes from a family of American and Egyptian entrepreneurs, says business ownership is in her blood. Her companies, Motawi Tileworks and Rovin Ceramics (her former materials supplier), located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, employ 35 people and produce 10,000 square feet of tiles every year. Motawi tile is sold by 450 showrooms, galleries, and gift shops across the country.

The company’s distinctive, handcrafted American art tiles, known for their rich glazes and expert craftsmanship, can be found in private homes, libraries and universities, and public parks. The company’s installation designers even create custom designs for customers, from fireplace surrounds to kitchen backsplashes. Motawi Tileworks’ many fans include William H. Macy, David Letterman, and Steven Spielberg.
We talked to Nawal about her design inspiration, what she’s learned from Toyota, and balancing art and business.

Diversity Woman: How did you get interested in ceramics and tile making?
Nawal Motawi: [In art school at the University of Michigan], I signed up for fibers and sculpture and ceramics, and I absolutely fell in love with the ceramics people and with clay and glaze. That’s how it happens with ceramics people. You kind of get caught.

DW: And then you got a job at Pewabic Pottery. What was that experience like?
NM: I majored in ceramics in college, and then I got a job at the famous Pewabic Pottery, which was thrilling. After I’d been there awhile, the entrepreneurial DNA in me reared its ugly head, and I began to look at what they were doing and have opinions. There’s a certain person who says, “Hey, I can do that. In fact, I’ve got a better idea for it.” I became restless. I wanted to be my own boss.

DW: What were those first few years in business like?
NM: There was no money, so it was all about effort. I was trying to figure out how I could get the tile out to the world and what product I could make that 
I could actually sell.

The larger tile industry got wind of what I was doing, thanks to the Tile Heritage Foundation. They put me in touch with a major tile showroom in the Pasadena area called Mission Tile West. The owners there really loved the work, because [Pasadena is] an Arts and Crafts–style town. It was a beautiful match.

I set out to learn about the tile industry. I learned about the wholesale gift industry, which is now where I sell tiles. I read business books. I read Inc. magazine, which provided my learning journey on the business side. I was interested in learning about business, because that was how my independence would be maintained. I have lots of ideas about cool things to make. That’s the easy part. It’s sorting out where there’s a market. I don’t insist on making only one thing, whether it sells or not. That’s not how I roll. I’m much more pragmatic. Getting into a gallery show is nice, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into a living. I see selling for profit as a huge challenge—and a challenge that I relish.

DW: Where do you get your design inspiration?
NM: I keep being drawn to nature-based imagery. Stylized natural motifs are exciting to me. Art Nouveau stylization, Arts and Crafts period things I find appealing.
When I’m making a piece, there has to be some dramatic visual emphasis—a visual hook. I’m looking for a sense of movement in my pieces. I’m trying to lead the eye around the composition. There’s unity and drama, and a boldness.

DW: What have been some of your favorite projects?
NM: A really cool piece that we did recently is at the University of Michigan, Dearborn. They had set up fabric flags of all of the countries recognized by the UN, in honor of the incredible diversity of the student body. The flags would get damaged, so they raised money to get them done in a more permanent fashion. So we made 195 different tiles depicting all the flags. It was challenging and exciting. We had to adapt the flag artwork to something we could do. We ended up doing some incredibly detailed pieces that I still shake my head at. [The Motawi staff] takes a field trip every year to go visit our installations, and that year we got to be present at the dedication of this amazing tile wall.

DW: How would you describe your leadership style?
NM: I’m the visionary type, and I can also be strategic. But I need people around me who are very organized, because getting every little detail taken care of and right is not my thing.

DW: Motawi Tileworks has incorporated Toyota’s approach to efficiency. Why?
NM: In 2003, I said to my business associates, “Look, this is a nice company, but we’re not really making enough money. This is not cool. I can’t pay the landlord in reputation.” For many years, I wasn’t clear on how much profit I needed to protect the company. So it’s my limitations as a business manager that limit the company. It turns out that the Toyota philosophy and the Arts and Crafts philosophy are oddly correlated, because you’re looking for people to execute very well, and you’re looking for the people who have more expertise than just hitting a nail and passing it down the assembly line.

Our system, which is based on Toyota principles and utilizes a technique called kanban, shows everyone what to do, so the manufacturing part has a quite clear progression. There’s no confusion about what job to do first or what parts to be making. That’s quite well laid out so anyone can see it for any department. And we’re good at using the kanban system to our advantage.

Within the artist communities, money doesn’t usually drive people. You want to get your things out there, and I want to provide a great workplace for people. At this point, though, my attitude has shifted. In order to be stable, it has to be profitable. Allowing [my employees] to prosper along with the company is important to me, but you have to prosper if you’re going to share anything. It would be a bittersweet victory to see my people running into trouble while I’m doing all right.

DW: What do you think of the resurgence of makers and artisans in the US, especially the thriving community in nearby Detroit?
NM: I’m delighted to see it. Clearly, I’m behind any artistic effort that’s going to be financially profitable and is making items that are well designed. Shinola is an upstart, and there are other companies, like Detroit Bikes. I don’t know that we can create commodity goods here—things that are incredibly cheap, because that requires low wages—but making quality, high-designed things is wonderful.

DW: What is your favorite object in your office?
NM: There’s a cartoon from Non Sequitur that I’ve had almost since the beginning that sums up my attitude about art and business. The label is “The Reality of Muse.” It shows an artist looking at a blank canvas up in his garret, with the landlord coming up the stairs and saying, “Your rent is past due, Art-boy.” That says it all to me. I want my independence, and you have to pull it all together.

DW: What book have you read recently?
NM: There’s one that’s been influential, Finish Big: How Great Entrepreneurs Exit Their Companies on Top, by Bo Burlingham. There are people in the company who would like to go on with it after me or in case something happens to me, and I’m working to set the tileworks up to go on after me. So that’s pretty exciting. DW

Kimberly Olson is Diversity Woman’s managing editor.

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