The Muse & the Mosaic

At New Ravenna, Eastern Shore locals tap their inner artist.

Lemons glass mosaic

At last count, the town of Exmore on the Eastern Shore had 1,348 residents. Among them, 120 spend their days creating exquisite mosaic tile murals for New Ravenna, a company that sprawls through five buildings in Exmore’s sleepy downtown.

These are no ordinary tiny-square mosaics. Look carefully and you’ll see the curves, nuanced colors, and shading you’d find in a painting or a photograph. “We were pioneers,” says Cean Irminger, New Ravenna’s creative director, of the company’s artistic style. “Our processes and our look grew organically.” 

Coveted around the world, New Ravenna’s mosaics are sold by high-end tile dealers like Ann Sacks and Waterworks, and they’re favored by interior designers like Bunny Williams, whose clients can afford to sheathe their walls with sophisticated bespoke tile murals the way the rest of us might hang wallpaper. “Most people expect us to be in New York or L.A. They can’t believe this company is thriving in an old railroad town like Exmore, Virginia,” says Irminger, who grew up in nearby Marionville. She landed this plum hometown job because, as she says, “I’m a doodler.”

Irminger was determined to return to the Eastern Shore to find a job after graduating from James Madison University with a degree in studio art. “I thought I’d apply to the public schools and become an art teacher,” she says. “Then I was doodling on the community chalkboard in a local bar and one of the ladies there said, ‘You’re good. You should try New Ravenna.”

Today she oversees a team of designers and artisans whose work appears in luxury hotels like Raffles in Singapore and the Mandarin Oriental in D.C.—and in the homes of clients Serena Williams, Tom Hanks, Madonna, and Ozzy Osbourne. And while they’ve crafted samples for Taylor Swift and Keith Richards and shipped pallets from Exmore to Paris, Dallas, and Dubai, this business is local to the core.

(Photo by Adam Ewing)

How It All Began

Eastern Shore native Sara Baldwin started the company at her kitchen table after admiring Roman mosaics at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and wondering, Why isn’t anyone making these anymore? A year later, in 1992, her first collection of small borders and decorative tiles attracted interest at a trade show. She began hiring mosaicists to fill orders. 

Casting about for a company name, she hit on Ravenna, the Italian city renowned for mosaic tile design. “We’re the new-world version of this old-world art form,” Irminger explains. “So we figured New York, New Jersey—New Ravenna.” A champion of the Eastern Shore, Baldwin built the kind of company she’d want to work for herself, in the place she loved most. 

When New Ravenna outgrew Baldwin’s house, she moved into a strip mall storefront before taking over vacant buildings—including an art deco theater and former shirt factory—in Exmore. The expanded space allowed them to tackle large-scale murals, add employees, and install waterjet machinery to cut tiles into intricate shapes. The company also began manufacturing its own line of ready-to-ship tiles.

By 2000, home design magazines took notice. Soon, interior designers, celebrity clients, and commercial projects followed suit. “Our name became known for premiere mosaics. Our attention to detail is immaculate, from the materials to the color variations,” says Irminger. Stones are sourced from Italy, Turkey, Iran, Spain, or Brazil. They order glass from the same company that supplied Louis Comfort Tiffany over 150 years ago. “But almost everything we do is made-to-order by hand in Virginia.” 

The Complexities of Customization

When Baldwin tapped Richard Walters to replace her as New Ravenna’s CEO in 2015, “I jumped at it,” he says, despite the commute from his home in Virginia Beach across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Under his direction, New Ravenna’s showroom sales increased by 200 percent last year—and that was during a global pandemic. The company ships more than 600 orders each month, and they’re constantly adding staff, inventory, and machinery to keep up with demand. 

(Photo by Adam Ewing)

“People see the artistry of what we’re doing,” says Walters, “but a whole lot of science and mathematics goes into reproducing it.” Once a design is sketched on paper, for instance, it’s translated into a computer-animated drawing (CAD) to calculate interlocking pattern repeats from top to bottom and side to side.

But that’s just the beginning, says Walters, citing their bespoke work. “Our production mix can vary by 90 percent from month to month. I don’t know of another company that deals with completely different designs, materials, and production steps. The potential number of routings is 23 to the 23rd power—it’s a staggering number. That’s the level of craftsmanship that we’re dealing with.”

Walters is mindful of the company’s role as one of the largest private-sector employers in Northampton County, at one time among the Eastern Shore’s poorest. When a nearby concrete company laid off workers, New Ravenna hired them. “We got some great folks from there who understood hard work and precision,” he says. “We have a motivated staff. They’re aware that when we ship that product out the door, that affects their potential economic well-being. The culture is wonderful; it’s about camaraderie and commitment.”

“I think everyone who works here knows how important New Ravenna is for the entire economic structure of the Eastern Shore,” Irminger adds. “We have family members and high school classmates working side by side—even my mom says she’s going to come work here,” she says, laughing. 

(Photo by Adam Ewing)

Learning on the Job

When Adele McIntire started at New Ravenna 27 years ago, job options on the Eastern Shore were limited. “You could work at the hospital or you could be a waterman or a farmer,” she recalls.

“I didn’t know what a mosaic was when I started here, but this is the greatest job I’ve had by far. I wouldn’t leave.” 

McIntire has done it all, from mounting and grouting to shipping and making mosaics. Now she’s an account executive, translating clients’ ideas for the artisans who turn them into reality. “One of the great things about this company,” she adds, “is that you can train in different departments and grow by learning new skills.”

(Photo by Adam Ewing)

New employees learn on the job, working side by side with skilled mosaicists. “We bring out the world-class artisan hiding within them,” Irminger says. “It’s wild the amount of talent that has been unearthed in people who come from agriculture and aquaculture. We have a history major, a florist, someone who worked in a pet store,” she continues. “And Bobby, one of our best designers, was working in a CD store before he came here.” 

That friendly atmosphere is what coaxes the artist out of employees, says Erica Dennison, who earned a spot on Irminger’s team after a decade on the design floor. “It’s a relaxed atmosphere that lets you be creative. You have time to sketch and draw.”

Employees also take time to give back to the community. “One of our mounting and grouting specialists showed me a mosaic he made to donate to a local high school auction for the school band,” Walters says. “He did it on his lunch break, using spare glass materials. ‘The principal helped me get my GED’, he told me, ‘I owed him one.’ There are many noble stewards of our community who’ve come to realize a passion for the craft.” 

Those stewards were on Walters’ mind in 2020 as he steered the company through the pandemic. “When we had to shut down for a time, we had to be conscious of the impact on the community. That money’s not coming from another place,” he says.

Inspired Collaborations

As head of the design team, Irminger partners with brands like Gracie Studio, makers of fine hand-painted wallpapers. “I was a fan of New Ravenna before they reached out to us about a possible collaboration,” says Jennifer Gracie, the company’s creative director. “I followed them on Instagram and would find myself totally enchanted watching their artists at work, hand cutting the tile and creating things that are just beautiful.” 

Gracie sent sample wallpaper panels, and Irminger’s team went to work, translating their designs into tile. “We really left a great deal up to them but it was a magical process,” Gracie says. “There’s that handmade link between the two firms and we felt it was a perfect match.”

Irminger also comes up with new designs twice a year, drawing on storylines and grounded in trends she sees in the market. Lately, she’s noticed a return to the warm Tuscan farmhouse colors of the ’90s. “We look at what’s happening in fashion, illustration, and color theory, and we pick up trends from the orders coming in,” she notes.

Her recent collection, Kiddo, captures the nostalgic children’s games—shadow puppets, comic books, dominoes, Chutes and Ladders—she took to playing with her two young daughters during the pandemic. The playful collection includes a subway tile featuring, yes, subway cars, all captured with sophisticated wit.

But bespoke work is New Ravenna’s specialty. If a client wants vines and birds, they’ll send photos along with paint or carpet swatches, and Irminger’s team will create a sample board.

“We can go from simple stone field tiles to intense micromosaic pieces,” Irminger explains. “We figure out how to engineer the price by zooming in or out on the details. A six-foot panel may cost less than a one-foot square based on the level of detail that’s involved.”

With custom tile prices ranging from $40-$1,000 per square foot, many interior designers pull this figure from a project’s art budget, rather than the tile budget. “It’s more than tile,” Irminger confirms. “What you’re installing in your house is art.”

Walters agrees. “I walk out of here every day and think: We just made a bunch of miracles,” he says. “And tomorrow, we’re going to come in and do it all again. It’s pretty incredible.” 

This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum