Sara Baldwin is into theater – literally and figuratively. The 49-year-old owner of New Ravenna Mosaics, located at Exmore on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, is renovating a 1938 Art Deco movie theater in downtown Exmore.
She’s transforming it from genteel shabbiness to a first-class office and showroom. “Instead of a theater for movies, it’s a theater for mosaics,” she says. “Instead of posters on the front, there are big Deco mosaics, larger than life.”
Baldwin bought the theater in 1998 for $27,000 and is just now getting around to working on 1,500 of its 9,000 square feet. To elicit the biggest bang for her buck, she’s cladding its exterior in black granite and installing a projection system to present videos to her clients.
New Ravenna is a going concern these days, offering 500 mosaic patterns and an infinite number of designs in its 250-page catalog – many with a breezy coastal design aesthetic that is perfect for ocean homes.
“We use stone, glass and metal, and everything is made to order,” Baldwin says. “We’ve also started to import some mosaics that we call ready-to-ship; these make up 20 percent of our business now.”
Every year, New Ravenna purchases tons of stone, glass and metal from nearly every corner of the globe and transforms them into acres of mosaics that fulfill tens of thousands of individual jobs.
The glass is American-made, shipped in from factories in Washington and West Virginia. Gold and silver leaf are imported from Italy, while bronze is sourced from various parts of the United States.
Intricately patterned and carefully assembled by trained artisans, the completed mosaics grace pools, baths, kitchens, foyers, fireplace surrounds and feature walls worldwide. The smallest project to date is one square foot of tile for a shower niche; the largest is for a casino in Kansas City, Mo.
“In one pattern, the stone is from 12 different countries, with little bits of different places coming together and ending up in a bathroom as souvenirs,” says Baldwin.
After getting her start in the late 1980s at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied painting, Baldwin struggled with the direction it was taking her. She found she was attracted to the functional, rather than the cerebral. “I wanted to create something more practical,” she says.
In 1990, she walked into New York City’s iconic Metropolitan Museum of Art and came across a black-and-white Roman stone mosaic in a pattern of waves, with a figure at its center.
“Something clicked – I had my ‘aha!’ moment – and I wondered if anyone made mosaics anymore,” she says. “I decided that if nobody was, I was going to learn how to do it myself.”
So she did, first researching and developing a graduate thesis on the topic, then writing a business plan. Back on the Eastern Shore, her parents agreed to back her for a year. She visited tradeshows with her mosaics and then she got her first order – for a $6,000 project – which she and her sister fulfilled.
“We thought we were in heaven,” recalls Baldwin. “We hired our first employee in 1992, and she worked with us for 20 years until she retired two years ago.”
The company grew every year afterwards and now employs 115 people. But it’s not growth that New Ravenna hangs its hat upon. High style, instead, is its calling card.
“Every designer sees the world through a unique filter and our filter is influenced by the wonders of nature,” says Baldwin. “Earth and trees and sky and ocean – the building blocks of nature – that’s what it all boils down to for me.”
And where other designers align themselves with a single style – traditional or modern, understated or glam – New Ravenna tackles them all. Baldwin looks at mosaics as a medium, comparing her work to a painting. “It can be applied in any sort of style of building,” she says. “It’s very versatile.”
Though she’s not the only one working in the medium today – she says Miami’s renowned Art Basel was jam-packed with mosaics last year – she still commands the leading edge for design and materials.
Take, for example, her newest collection, Sea Glass, inspired by the colorful glass that has drifted and churned in the ocean for centuries, eventually eroding to a texture that’s soft and reflective.
“The glass gets tossed and turned and striated by the sand, salt and water,” she says. “The older it is, the more beautiful it gets – like wine that ages gracefully.” Which serves as a metaphor, too, for New Ravenna Mosaics.
Image Credits: Photo courtesy of New Ravenna Mosaics.