One hundred years ago when Frank Lloyd Wright was designing houses, he also designed the furniture, light fixtures, trim, cabinetry, stained-glass windows, drapes, table linens, and in some cases, even the dresses of the owners.
This degree of customization was possible not only because the clients were extremely wealthy. There was also an army of artisans readily available to execute whatever Wright designed. Today, even extremely wealthy clients cannot expect the degree of customization that Wright routinely delivered because the number of craftsmen is dramatically smaller.
But, in almost every town of any size in the United States, there are local artisans whose work could be incorporated into a new house at prices that are quite affordable. If you are willing to forgo granite countertops, pricey kitchen cabinet door upgrades and a whirlpool bath with jets that you will rarely use, you can use that $5,000 to $15,000 to enhance your home environment with unique and personalized features, whose irregularities not only indicate a hand-made provenance — but you’ll also know the artist who fabricated it.
Before you start agonizing over the choices available in your area, expect to spend some time tracking down the local artisans, and network with everyone you know. Most artisans run a small, one-person operation. Some have Web sites, but most market their work by word of mouth. When I started looking in my town — Ann Arbor, Mich. — I found one through our local art center, two who are friends of a friend of an architect, and one who’s a colleague of the mother of one of my children’s best friends.
Not all artisans toil in obscurity, however. Ann Arbor-based Motawi Tileworks is a small company with 22 employees and a national sales network. Headed by brother and sister Karim and Nawal Motawi, the firm uses 21st century technology to create tiles in the spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement of 100 years ago. Machines are used for the heavy lifting and mindlessly repetitive work like mixing the clay, but each tile is run through a hand-operated mold, and all the glazes are hand applied.
Motawi’s decorative tiles are made in a cuenca style with fine, raised white lines between each area of hand-applied color. Nawal Motawi, who designs all the tiles, clearly delights in the work of early 20th century decorative artists and architects, including Louis Sullivan, an early mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright. Her stylized flowers, northern pine forests and sailing ships will resonate with many people because the images often evoke childhood memories.
Motawi’s monochrome relief tiles have a subtle to pronounced depth (it ranges from 1/8 inch to 1 inch), and its plain “field” tiles have slightly domed surfaces. Both are hand dipped in colored glazes. There is such variation for a given color that the company insists that every customer view a sample of three to six tiles before ordering any. Judging by the samples I saw, the variation is startling, but it adds to the overall charm.
Where might you put Motawi tiles in your house? Two obvious applications are a fireplace surround and a kitchen backsplash. A custom builder can install these easily. Most production builders, however, will not install anything that is not on their standard options list. You’ll have to pull off their standard offering after you move in and then install your Motawi tiles.
A standard-sized, flat fireplace surround has about 15 square feet. Using Motawi’s field tiles, which run about $110 per square foot, you’d spend about $1,650 for the tiles and, in Ann Arbor, about $800 for their installation. A backsplash for a typical kitchen in a 2,400-square-foot house would be about 25 square feet, big enough that you might want to mix in some decorative or relief tiles. The tile would be about $2,750 and the installation charge in Ann Arbor would be about $1,200.
Another, far less costly tile option would be to incorporate several 4-by-4-inch-sized, $30 decorative tiles into the top trim piece of built-in bookcases or an entertainment center.
Perhaps the unusual ceramic item that you’re looking for is not tile, but a sink for your powder room. I.B. Remsen, a potter who makes sinks himself, said that the best way to find a potter is to attend one or two group shows of the potters in your area and look for one with a style you like. Then ask if he or she makes sinks.
This might seem to be going about it backwards, but Remsen pointed out that once a sink is installed, what you and everyone else will notice is the colors and shapes and nuances of the glazes, not the sink itself.
If the potter has never made a sink, be patient. There will be several false starts before he gets the technique down because a sink is on the outer edge of what most potters normally make, Remsen said. “Compared to a 4-inch-diameter bowl, a 16-inch-diameter sink is only four times as big, but it’s way more than four times as difficult. It could be 16 times as difficult to get it to come out right. You would have to make two or three to get what the customer wants. The potter might charge only $200 for a 16-inch-diameter sink, but you would also have to pay for the first two attempts, so it could be as much as $600.”
Within Ann Arbor’s artisan community there are also muralists. I met with two who specialize in trope l’oeil work. They create realistic illusions that trick you into thinking that the vista appearing through a window is real, when, in fact, both the window and the vista are actually painted on a wall.
Zane Mallory, a graphic artist who segued into murals from sign painting and t-shirts, starts with the client’s ideas and palette choices. He nearly always works up several sketches because, as he said, “Not many people want to turn you loose, they want to see a few sketches first.” His subject matter has run the gauntlet from Michigan landscapes to tropical underwater flora and fauna, but sometimes, he said, clients simply want him to recreate something they have seen elsewhere for less money. For example, for $1,800, he recreated antique French wallpaper that would have cost the homeowner $6,000 to $7,000.
Muralist Audrey Hayes characterizes her work as “creating environments.” She spends a lot of time with her clients, getting a sense of their tastes, interests and color palette and she often helps them choose interior finishes and colors as well as propose ideas for murals.
Some of Hayes’ work is so realistic it looks like a photograph, and her subject matter is wide ranging. For one household she created a family room mural with “30 odd pets dead and alive, plus three dogs underfoot while I painted it.” For another, she painted a mural on a garage door that appears to be three horses peering over a stable door.
Hayes’ landscapes can be simple or extremely detailed, but all of them manipulate perspective to make small spaces feel bigger. As muralists have been doing since the Renaissance, she places something in the foreground that is close in scale to the actual room where the viewer is standing and then she quickly zooms off into the distance.
Hayes said the cost of her work depends on the complexity of the mural as well as the logistics involved in painting it. An intricate, four-sided stairwell with four different perspectives and three interrelated scenes of northern Michigan required scaffolding. She spent 10 days painting it and charged $15,000. A simplified landscape that wrapped around an entry foyer did not require scaffolding. She spent only three days and charged $5,000. The garage door took her three days and was $1,000.
If you start to explore the artisan community in your town, you may find people with other specialties, such as glass blowing, metal working and furniture making. In fact, the ones I describe here are not the only ones in Ann Arbor. They’re just the ones I tracked down over a three-week period. Six months from now I should have located at least 20.
Motawi Tileworks: www.motawi.com
I.B. Remsen: www.ibremsen-potter.com
Zane Mallory and Audrey Hayes do not have Web sites. Mallory’s contact info is firstname.lastname@example.org. Audrey Hayes does not have e-mail. Her business phone is 734-996-4095.
Questions, queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.