In a quiet olive grove on the outskirts of Marrakech, Morocco, an unsuspecting workshop buzzes with artisans meticulously crafting cement tiles. You might not believe it at first glance, but the tiles produced in this small atelier are exported to luxury hotels, homes and restaurants around the world. The company is Popham Design and it was founded by Americans Caitlin and Samuel Dowe-Sandes in 2007 to celebrate Morocco’s traditional craft of cement tile-making.
While honoring the cement tiles as an essential piece of Morocco’s heritage, Popham Design energizes the 150-year-old practice with contemporary colors and patterns. Warm reds and crystal blues ornamented into hexagons or an elegant trio of layered, circular greys; Popham Design has made over 100 models from which to build a distinct combination of shapes and colors.
Prioritizing quality control and experimentation with design, The Dowe-Sandes couple have created their own atelier and are onsite daily to oversee the production process. Each tile receives two to four minutes of attention by one artisan; making each product an individualized and irreplaceable treasure.
Some of Popham’s artisans have over 20 years of experience; by providing them with fair employment, the company is actively sustaining Morocco’s craftsmanship culture. Sustainability in the environmental sense is also top of mind for Popham as they source 90 percent of materials locally and use low-energy production techniques such as air-drying tiles and reusing water.
Co-founder Caitlin Dowe-Sandes didn’t always envision herself designing tiles in the blissful Moroccan countryside. She grew up on the east coast of the United States, studying art history at Harvard University before working for J Crew and Ralph Lauren in New York City. Dowe-Sandes then moved across the country to L.A. where she would devote eight years in public relations for design companies before taking a year-long sabbatical to visit Marrakech in 2006.
Inspired by the textiles and designs of Moroccan homes as well as the abundance of dedicated artisans in Marrakech, the Dowe-Sandes realized they too wanted to create–and so their cement tile-making company was born. Ten years later and Dowe-Sandes’ whole-hearted commitment to preserving Morocco’s environment and culture, combined with her imaginative eye for designing distinctive tiles, has culminated into a product that stands the test of time.
We sat down with Caitlin Dowe-Sandes to learn more about Popham Design and what drives her passion for this unique traditional craft.
What prompted you and your partner to move to Morocco?
We decided to take a year sabbatical from our life and work in Los Angeles. We’d never been to Morocco (I’d never even set foot on the African continent), but were inspired by the exotic imagery of Morocco that we’d seen, Moroccan food we’d tasted, the notion of living in such an old culture with a rich design legacy. Stories by Paul Bowles and films like Sheltering Sky just fed our imagination and eventually lead to the actual adventure.
What inspired you to start Popham Design?
Shortly after we arrived in Marrakech, we bought a crumbling old home in the medina, Marrakech’s ancient walled city. It was during the renovation of that home that we learned about concrete tiles. At the time, concrete tiles were not much on the radar in the States (we were Ann Sack’s first encaustic line) and we’d seen them only in buildings in Europe. As we learned more about them, how they were made and the possibilities for customization, (and given that we were living in a place with tile ateliers on every corner), we decided to create a collection of designs for our house. In doing so, we cottoned onto the idea that maybe others would be interested in a pared down, contemporary take on traditional encaustic tiles. These designs for our house became the founding patterns for Popham Design.
What makes your company and product unique?
I think Popham Design is a nice bridge between traditional Moroccan craft artisans and consumers around the world who are looking for handmade products that resonate in a modern way. When we first started Popham Design, we thought we’d find a factory with whom we could work to produce our tiles. We quickly learned that to achieve the quality we aspired to and to have the flexibility to experiment with forms, patterns and colors, we needed to control the production from A to Z.
So, we started our own atelier and are onsite daily to interact with our production and quality control teams. And when we get a free minute, we get to work on new designs and prototypes. I think our presence has a big impact on our tiles and in the personality of our company. And finally, when we started Popham Design ten years ago, ours were the first contemporary take on concrete tiles; others were reproducing classical designs. Now, there are a lot of designers and manufacturers offering contemporary collections.
Have you and your partner always worked in design?
No, Samuel worked in film and I worked in advertising, publishing and PR prior to our mid-life, mid-career move. But that’s one of the wonderful by-products of moving halfway around the world to a foreign culture: you can reinvent yourself. We have always loved design, but would have been intimidated to launch a design/manufacturing company in the States. Here, we felt inspired, first off, by the incredible artistry that surrounded us (not to mention the inimitable light and natural beauty of Morocco), and second, we were liberated from the confines of what we should or could do. In the US, a bank would have wanted to see my design degree before loaning the money for a tile factory, but here, if you want to try something, no one stops you.
Besides the classic patterns and colors of Morocco, what influences your design choices?
Lots of lovely, random things. Light and architecture, for sure. We travel a lot, and seeing things in a new context can be quite inspiring. Take a crescent moon–always a magical thing, but when it swings into view in an inky sky aloft the barely visible undulating dunes of the Sahara, well that’s another kind of moon. Paintings and textiles are also very inspiring. We recently visited the gorgeous, soon-to-open Yves Saint Laurent museum in Marrakech and saw his iconic Mondrian-inspired dress from the late 60s.I came away wanting to sketch some tile odes to the Dutch painter myself.
Preserving Morocco’s artisanal culture seems to be a central aim of your business, what motivates your passion for traditional craftsmanship?
We truly believe in the value of handmade, and that’s what the artisanal culture of Morocco is about. Celebrating old-fashioned techniques gives us a sense of history and place. And if we can help preserve this craftsmanship, sometimes by tweaking it to make it more relevant to today’s tastes, we end up with a product that looks backwards and forwards. I think this is an important concept in life.
Do you have a treasured spot in Morocco you return to for design inspiration?
I have a treasured spot where I go to clear my head to think about new designs and that’s the coast near Essaouira; a very charming fishing village. Nearby there are deserted sandy beaches along the Atlantic Coast that stretch for miles and miles–you’re lucky to see a lone donkey on a crowded day. This empty and vast landscape gives me comfort–probably because I grew up in Maine on the other side of the Atlantic–and inspiration.
Where would you love to see your tiles?
Living far from the States, which is one of our bigger markets, we get a thrill by happening upon a store, a restaurant, even someone’s home where our tiles have been installed, and we didn’t know it before seeing them. It could be a restaurant in Los Angeles, or the other day we met a woman in Paris at a kid’s party who whipped out her phone to show me photos of her Popham bathrooms and kitchen. Those impromptu unveilings continue to give us a thrill.
But where would I one day like to see our tiles? How about in a beach house in Essaouira on a blustery day with delicious radiant heat warming the tiles and our feet as we pad around the place. Okay, that’s selfish. How about this? We’re working on a collection of textiles and rugs inspired by the tiles. I cannot wait to see our tiles transformed.