Motawi Tileworks: From garage to renowned studio in Ann Arbor

Artist Nawal Motawi recounts early years; attributes philosophy to success

Photo: Meredith Bruckner
Photo: Meredith Bruckner

ANN ARBOR – Motawi Tileworks was established in 1992, when University of Michigan art school grad Nawal Motawi began creating tiles in the garage of her home in Ann Arbor that her parents helped finance.

After spending a few years at Detroit's famous Pewabic Pottery, Motawi knew she wanted to break away and start her own business. The question was, "How?"

"I wanted to do some designs and projects there that I knew in my heart I could do, but there was no possible way that I could do things there," Motawi said. "I hit my personal glass ceiling there. I’m also a tough-to-employ person, I get opinionated and I don’t like working for other people (laughs)."


Motawi Tile Havana collection tiles on display at 170 Enterprise Drive (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

After setting up shop in her garage, she began selling her tiles at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, where she got her big break.

“It was totally affordable and the market was available most of the year. So for $11, I could have a table at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market in front of this very affluent and art-appreciating clientele," Motawi explained. "That made a gigantic difference, being in Ann Arbor with those kind of people." 

Motawi recalled one day, a woman stopped by her table and commissioned her to design her fireplace. It was the first custom project she was commissioned to do and she remembers inviting the woman to her humble garage studio to see the product and come up with a design. 

"I made that project for her and she loved it to pieces," she said. "Her next door neighbor saw her fireplace and wanted one as well. So I did one for her, then I designed that woman’s kitchen, then I did their designer’s house, so it escalated quickly. People saw it and liked it. And I was worried about getting those kinds of projects, but it just started happening -- all from appearing at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market.”


Custom orders ready for shipping (Photos: Meredith Bruckner)


Her operation outgrew the 600-square-foot garage in three years, and she purchased a building on Ann Arbor's west side, not far from where its studio and gallery is currently located.

Today, Motawi Tileworks is a vision-turned-reality. It employs more than 30 people and boasts an impressive 12,900-square-foot studio equipped with state-of-the-art kilns, a glazing room and countless shelves of tile designs using a unique method called "Toyota Style Production" -- a non-computerized stock-tracking system.


(Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

But what sets Motawi Tileworks apart from other businesses, besides its quality work, is its philosophy.

“Culture is very important to Nawal -- how we’re treated here as people," Christa Quinn, Motawi Tileworks' marketing director, explained. "We’re an open-book finance company. The employees are put in charge of not only maintaining the operating budget, but also creating and setting the budget. We all have a hand in creating everything."

Quinn said the company holds weekly financial meetings called "huddles," where the employees begin by rating how they're feeling on a scale of 1-10. She said it creates an environment of caring, and it's nothing like she's seen in any other business. The concept that employee's well-being is just as important as putting out a quality product is one of Motawi's belief systems.

“Nawal is a charter member of the Small Giants Community, which is a community of small business who believe in the philosophy of greatness over growth," said Quinn. "And that doesn’t mean we don’t want to grow, but we want to grow in a way that is sound and safe and comfortable, and works well for everybody."

"So, we’re not going to produce something here that doesn’t make us feel good. For instance, Nawal is never going to do pineapples and Kokopellis. She’s never going to do it. It’s just not her and it doesn’t call to her as an artist. She’s not going to do it just to make money," she said.


Tiles are dipped in glaze (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)


Each tile is hand-glazed using a bulb syringe (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)


A complete glazed tile ready for firing (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

"I don’t want to make just anything," Motawi echoed. "We’re not making ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ tiles. That’s not what I’m here to do. I need to think (the work) is great."

Motawi Tileworks has artistic licenses through several foundations, including the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the Charley Harper Foundation (which designs tiles for Motawi). At the moment, Motawi is the only producer of Frank Lloyd Wright design tiles.


Designs from Motawi's Frank Lloyd Wright collection (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

The company's work is featured in the Yale Library, Disneyland in California and most recently, as part of the Gifts of Art program, on the first floor of the Taubman Health Center at University of Michigan hospitals. The exhibit goes until March 11.

Celebrities, too, have caught the Motawi bug. Award-winning director Steven Spielberg and actor William H. Macy have the company's tile installed in their homes.

The State Theatre, which just reopened earlier this month after extensive renovations, commissioned Motawi Tileworks to design an installation in its lobby. Motawi immediately jumped on board. 

“They told us years ago that they wanted us on the project," Motawi said. "It was very exciting. I had had some designs that I’d seen in books from the aesthetic movement that looked kind of art deco and I’d been playing with them in my computer sketchbook. When we started thinking about this theater project, I started thinking about those images and put some time into making them work in our standard sizes."


The Motawi Tile installation at the State Theatre in downtown Ann Arbor (Photo: Matt Giles)

Motawi's art deco style installation called "Footlights" is above the theater's water fountain, and the design and colors blend harmoniously with the restored theater. When asked how she felt about the opportunity to collaborate on such a major Ann Arbor project, Motawi said it's moments like this that define a career.

"It’s really rewarding," she said. "It’s what you want (as an artist). This is a big public statement piece and I’m really proud of it. It fits beautifully with the theater. It’s just good Motawi design and execution."

Motawi's art tiles, which are on display in its studio gallery, range in price from $35 to $170 per tile.


(Photo: Meredith Bruckner)


(Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

Motawi Tileworks has free public tours every Tuesday at 1 p.m. and Thursday at 11 a.m.

"One of the things about our culture is that we share what we do," Quinn said. "We are here because we make pretty things that enrich the lives of other people. It is just that simple. Being able to share what we do is a blessing for us as a company."

Twice a year, the company holds what it calls a mega-sale. Anyone can attend, and some discounts are applied on the product, but the big draw is a free workshop.


A tile mold from Motawi's Havana collection (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)


A worker does a demo for a tour group in the production studio (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)


Swatches of Motawi tile (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

"People come in and get a wet 4x4 piece of clay, and they can carve their own design into the tile, and we glaze it and fire it for you for free," said Quinn. "People love it and it's really fun."

The class is just a preview of the workshops Motawi offers year-round, which Quinn said often sell out. At $110 per session, participants receive an intimate two-hour lesson on tile-making and create a tile that they can take home.

 As for plans to relocate, that's out of the question.

"Because we were born in this town, we have our roots here and we’re not moving because this community is so supportive and diverse," Quinn explained. "It’s such a culturally rich town … it’s just the best place to do what we do. We’re very happy here."


Nawal Motawi speaks with customers in the studio's gallery (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

"I couldn’t have started the tileworks in Fremont, Michigan, the town where I grew up," Motawi said. "I would say the fact that people appreciate art so much in Ann Arbor is critical -- and the fact that people were willing to take a chance on an artist with messy hair who made beautiful tile."

To learn more about Motawi Tileworks, visit its website.






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