When two successful designers decide to share ideas, it’s not your average conversation. In this Google Hangout, Nawal Motawi, founder of Motawi Tileworks, and Christian Gladu, founder of The Bungalow Company, share design philosophies, swap stories, and have a few laughs.
Nawal’s motto to her design team might surprise you as will the fact that she attributes much of her company’s success to Toyota Style Production methods.
Can’t watch the video? Listen to the podcast.
You may remember our 10 Questions interview with Nawal – If you missed it, you can see it here.
Google Hangout Transcript
Christian: Welcome to our second Google Hangout with the Bungalow Company and Nawal from Motawi Tileworks, welcome.
Nawal: Hi how are you?
Christian: I’m doing really well, really excited that we could get together today and have the opportunity a to talk about design and some of the work that you guys have been doing.
Nawal: That’s great.
Christian: It’s interesting, I was listening to a really great ‘ted’ talk that you had given and I found that being familiar with your work, I still found it very interesting not knowing much about your past its very interesting the way you started your business and how you design your tiles and pottery business. We were kind of doing a similar thing at the same time. I was working in Seattle for a large architecture firm and I went out on my own in ‘95, a little later than you, but was really focusing on not working for somebody else and kind of embracing the idea of being your own boss. It took me twenty years to figure out that that was basically because I was unemployable by anybody else. But it was interesting, I found another parallel and I thought it was very interesting looking at your tile work and also just listening to some of the things you had to say in the ‘Ted’ talk, I see a lot of working with new concepts and natural concepts but also having a strong connection to things from the past as well.
Nawal: Yes that’s a really important part of things for me because I’m inspired by what I’ve seen and the things that have been made which are so beautiful, so that’s important I think.
Christian: Yeah, and I think it’s interesting I also find that it’s been a very interesting in parallel at times too. Certainly was some of the arts and crafts inspired work I feel like we’ve kind of gone, certainly the 90’s and there was the land of the big box house and for us you couldn’t talk people into it much else unless they were going to spend a ton of money in very high in custom product so I found it interesting that there was kind of a real wakening culturally to not just a style but more philosophical approach about how we would look.
Nawal: Oh yes that definitely a big piece of attraction of the arts and craft move and I’m thinking; you know one funny piece of the philosophy has always been the idea that the individual craftsmen is the maker of but there is no specialization in the workforce really that one person makes the whole piece and even we don’t do that, and the idea that people can handmade things and they would still be inexpensive which turns out to be not true unless you are using foreign labour in this day and age. So if an American is going to make it, make a piece it’s not going to be at Walmart prices, it’s just not going to be a commodity price item if its handmade in America.
Christian: You are definitely right about that. We did a project about a year ago, no two years ago in the … (3:20) of Maryland and we had to do an all American made house and it was very bizarre; the things that are made in this country and the things that are not made in this country and one of the things that was really interesting to me was things as simple as nails. Maze nails is one of the few nail companies, is like most of the nails are coming from overseas and never mind more artistic products, there seems to be a niche market for that, that nobody, not nobody but there are fewer people willing to pay the price for the quality and I think the thing is lost in often that it’s not just the quality of the product but there is a huge intension behind the different, making the right design the right time and how people react to that.
Nawal: Yes that’s interesting I realize that there are something’s that I somehow teach that I refuse to make and its must be the artist in me because they are everywhere. For instance in tile everyone makes a rope border and I have resisted for twenty two years so far because it’s so … (4:38) and I still want to make it because everyone makes one and I can’t bring anything, it’s not a new thing; now the way I think about these things now is a little more new ones because if I’m going to do a theme that is done over and over a motif, then I should bring something unique to it. I should be able to do the most amazing press herb. You know if I’m going to do herb on and tiles then I’m going to bring something to herbs and tiles that has never been seen and it’s going to be beautiful really no matter what the motif is the piece needs to be really beautiful and have all those aspects of quality design that I was talking about in my ‘ted’ talk which we can bring those out in a little bit.
Christian: Yeah I think that’s interesting too because I think there is a big difference between working with a …(5:31) in my mind which is a lot of what we do and then making something authentic as oppose to trying to replicate something and make it feel like the past or borrow from the past in a couple of key areas which leads it feeling inauthentic and I think it’s the very subtle gestures I think whether you are designing a tile or designing a house or on a grander scale, a neighborhood or a whole piece of land planning I think that it’s the subtle new it’s the collection of those, it’s not necessarily one big gesture if you put; I create a Motawi tile fire place in your track house, is that going to be beautiful in a track house, yes it will be beautiful but does it elevate the whole, if the whole concept around it is good it’s hard for it to get the total experience.
Nawal: I totally understand your point, now of course as a person is trying to make a living I ‘m happy to put fire places in any house, that’s all I want, it’s clearly more gratifying when it’s part of a really beautiful whole package. There was something that I wanted to mention about design, when you were talking it made me think about how I approach design with my staff as a motif person larger concept. I have a rule which is that, a word is not an idea, so someone might say oh we should do a …(7:03) and I’ll say hey that’s great bring me a visual I need to see an image that is very enchanting and beautiful that somehow when I look at that image I can see a gorgeous Motawi tile in it. I can see how our technique will work, how I might frame it so, the world’s rule is a word is not an idea.
Christian: That definitely makes sense because I think there has to be more to it. Sometimes it starts with a word. I did a restaurant one time where a my client had brought me a painting and says that this is the kind of food we are making but I want it to feel like this, and I’m like okay like this.
Nawal: That’s really helpful.
Christian: You know and after sitting at my drawing board and looking at it for a week, a struggle of concept then eventually I started to connect with that piece and understood that, you know I get the feeling finally and the feeling led me down those avenues of exploration and I think that often times people don’t give exploration enough value. Until you feel that at times you really haven’t turn all these sleeves you really don’t know that what you did the first time was good, sometimes you have to and I will laugh because sometimes I actually insight my own failure because I will be like okay I’ve been looking at it this way for three hours and I really think I’ve got it worked out and I’m going to put this piece of trace paper and I’m going to face this out north and I’m going to do four other things and see if I discover anything about it and which you usually do.
Nawal: That’s a great point you make about that stuff that happens in your brain while you are spinning around trying to figure it out. You know I’m not even sure I’ve given enough importance because, always many things going on that happens at the tower there is always some marketing thing going on or a project or a production thing and it’s not that I have to manage all those things by any means but if they’re pulled in a lot of directions it can really be hard to take the time to stumble around. That is unromantizing art work, you know I mean when I stumble around eventually I make some things that people really love so it’s very productive and yet but it does take time and it does feels productive.
Christian: I think the other thing with that too is we also after doing it for a long time and I feel really fortunate that I started pretty young and I’m 47 and I feel like a lot of people don’t get started until then and I do feel like there is this amount of time I forget the name of the book but I think it was by this guy Robinson and it talks about Ten Thousand hours. It’s interesting because you forget that you’ve been especially as the business owner and really the conceptual artist in design direction for a company you forget that you are able to work through some pretty major concepts at a different rate and just with this sheer amount of experience and with that whatever that corporate knowledge is or whatever that craft knowledge you are able to, it’s like what do they say, what are you paying me for, you are not paying me for this design you are paying me for the twenty years of experience I have to be able to do this design
Nawal: Absolutely, yes that’s a great point, you know it would be nice that when people are worried about the price that cost for something or for a design that that’s understood, so it’s good to be talking about it right now
Christian: A lot of times people don’t see the embedded cost of designing whatever they buy and I think that the issue with making something like you guys, you guys have an in line product that you end up customizing and we are kind of the same way we do custom for people but we also do have in line products that we customize and its very transparent how much it cost to design that as oppose to going out and buying a new ….(11:33) or something where the design, and there is a ton of dollars for the design and it’s just not transparent you are walking away with this physical thing and there isn’t a line on there that 30% of this vehicle was paid for as design and research in development
Nawal: Right that makes a ton of sense. You know one other thing that makes a big difference is people understanding and love of Motawi is that they come on a tour of the tile works or not. We actually do free factory tours of the tile works every single week. Thursdays at 11am you can just show up and people are uniformly en trance by that, kids, we have children come through we have Seniors come through we have people who are into manufacturing, people who don’t care about that. Everybody comes away with a much broader, a much deeper understanding of what it takes and a good understanding of what it might cost, what it does. So there is just no substitution for being there and seeing really. It’s really good while we work.
Christian: Well I think the other thing too when you get something that’s handmade but still has a method of being produced I think that people have really lost track of what it does take to actually make something. I see that in some of our clients and I do see that we have become kind of separated in how we do things, how we grow our food how we do other stuff. So I think when people step beyond the humpy bow experience stuff, it’s enough work to go by that rope tile and actually install it right on the wall, never mind like what does it take to say, I’ve had an idea and my ideas are strong enough that I’ve built a way to manufacture and craft these things and sell these things and everyday you are kind of, it’s not like you are selling a massive chain, your stuff is unique enough that there is a specialize market for.
Nawal: Yes one could wish that the main stream would love the Motawi but it wouldn’t be us. We really do as you say a line of tiles and we don’t stock it, much of it really. All the tiles for installation is made to order so when tiles is made for a project that really comes out and get spread out on a big table and we look at it to make sure all the parts match in the way that we think they should before we put it in a box and then send it to a customer. So we are our own harshest critic here at Motawi.
Christian: It’s kind of the same thing with us too. People look at part of our business and say, oh look they have these plans that are ready to go and I can tell you if everybody just bought those plans ready to go without changes it would be a much simpler business but I think it’s more like buying a suit. It’s like a pattern. It’s a pattern for, we are going to take this house plan we are going to talk to you about, how you live, what the orientation is , what the site is and then you start cutting the cloth and you start stitching in the modifications, the alterations to it and before you know it there is no two alike.
Nawal: That’s a great metaphor, I love that. I’m going to use that.
Christian: Well I think the other thing that’s interesting about that is part of leading them on that exploration. It’s the idea that don’t feel like if you are going to build a house that is five or six hundred thousand dollars or two hundred thousand dollars don’t be caught up with making a couple of changes. With any luck if that house is, the better job you do applying that house and making it somebody’s and responding to the land the more likely the house is going to have a super long life, to become part of the urban fabric, it’s a really accentuates the essence the way of that neighborhood or what that place is otherwise if it’s just a bad idea you can see how those things will come and go in a short period of time.
Nawal: Well I love the idea of having a full neighborhood that is cohesive, it doesn’t happen that much but I really love it. It just lovely when that can happen and there are definitely, we can all think of signature houses in our towns, is not that anyone decreed that but it’s just that when I talk to a person from a different walk in life and I say oh that house at Wood log and they say yes I know the one, it’s beautiful and that pretty wonderful and it’s great to be part of those kinds of houses as I would say for sure.
Christian: And that’s where designs are different and I don’t know if like you use that example of a key house in an old neighborhood, it’s not like some famous architect designed it, it could be fairly anonymous and it really is more about people getting it right and a lot of times I think that in designs, people getting it right is just being open to the possibilities
And taking some time to really think that no I’ll just go with the first idea but let things do, you know and not be in a hurry helps a lot. It’s just always
My dad’s a contractor and he always says a home builder, craftsman really, and he always says time is the enemy of all good work
Nawal: I get that.
Christian: It’s always interesting to see, I really kind of more nuts and bolts, talking about laying out your tile and I got something pretty interested in your ‘ted’ talk when you flashed on that fire place and there is a fire place that’s the ugly fireplace.
Christian: It’s really interesting it’s kind of like designing for, I explain to clients designing for new technology and when you look through an old arts and crafts plan book, or you look through photographs of old houses and you go as far back as to some of the patterning books like design standard books, fire places were a few different sizes and everything worked pretty well with them. Now, the invention of the gas fireplace, it seem like we are constantly fighting a mythical dimension back and forth that tiles don’t necessary work for and often it really a last decision for people and its one of the biggest focal point in the house
Nawal: You are right, it is a myth that fireplaces are standard sizes these days and we do get customers assuming they can take a picture of a fire place that we have made design A and apply it and to some degree that’s true except that it won’t be able to adjust the idea what you are saying its true you can’t take what seems like a standard size tile and that about 4×4 inches or so and pop it across a fireplace and it works but wants to just use 4×4 on a fireplace facade anyway. So I would say that we embrace the differences and really understand that we are looking for home owners to get their areas to be tiled, professionally measured and we’d like to see photo graphs of the area, it would really be great if we could go see every person house and that would really increase the cost quite a bit , we got to …(19:46) and spend our time that way to go and visit and measure every house ourselves but just really seeing what is going on at each house is indispensable really and I think there is a lot about it it’s just not obvious, it’s not common sense, common sense says there are some standard sizes and you know in tiles and fire places and it’s just, it’s not really true.
Christian: True words not spoken. It’s interesting we have three or four of these fire places, we using gas fire places that we use as we kind of understand them and in the right proportion for our work but everyone but certainly now whether it’s a arts and crafts house or it’s a house that’s more contemporary there has been a lot of emphasis on this, very horizontal fire places and they are really difficult to figure out because they are the dimensions are often, there are cut sheets from manufacturers a little elusive disabling.
Nawal: I know what you mean by that. Some things really horizontal it’s just like going to have a really different look and feel than a fireplace or something, that’s tolerance in you’r humble You know we spend a lot of times looking at the proportions and trying to make them pleasant and this makes them seem like some sort of soft word but I’m giving you an example, we make a 6×6 inch tile and a border that someone might use a lot 2×6 inches and so you’ve got the 2 inches just oppose the 6. You know what it’s a very static and boring proportion I find that if I’ve got 8 inches to deal with I’ll put a 1 inch trim piece on either side of that 6 inch piece and the difference in size is much more dynamic than there being 1/3 of something; the 2×6 against the 6×5 is boring. The 1×6, the 1 by liner is much more exciting and interesting and pleasing. So there is some general things like that that I’m always noticing. Is the proportion of shapes and the proportion of sizes to the space and the sizes of your units to each other, that’s before we get into colour and before you get into relief design or anything.
Christian: Well it’s just like cutting, we end up in similar situation, whether it be window proportioning or columns outside of the buildings and it’s not a big difference that makes a huge difference. I think it’s the tension it creates and the negative space that it creates is often what people see in real life but I don’t if they know what they are seeing. There is something I like about it and I feel like they can’t put their hands on it they can be that really feels different but they are not exactly sure what it is but when I look at it I see, I almost feel like you go from seeing negative space back and forth. It’s like I always feel like I’m cutting things out in my vision and I always wonder how it looks to somebody who doesn’t look at things like that everyday.
Nawal: Wouldn’t that be fascinating, you look with your clients eyes. We try of course you know that all a part of designing talking to, you know it’s usually a couple homeowners about what they are seeing, what they like and sliding ideas in front of their eyes and seeing how they react and every meeting is like a process of lets test an idea, test this color and seeing how people react and then keeping on working on the ideas that people love and you’re right when people aren’t designers they don’t how to make it pretty but most people know when they see it, they know when they see something that they really like they know that and the ones that don’t are really tough customers to work with but as designers we are good at that.
Christian: Well I think you take clues from them, body language, what they are talking about, what they’ve shown you and the beautiful thing about a product like yours or a product like ours is that usually people come in the door with something like in a general aesthetic or something about what it is you do and it must be hard I think about people who are a lot more generalist and then it’s tough because somebody comes in and you are under ‘A’ in the phone book.
Nawal: Back in my first days in the garage I had an ad in the phone book because it was inexpensive and it seem like what you would do if you’re in business and it was productive. I took it out after a year and I would call them and say do not put me in the phone book because it lead people down the wrong path for what they were looking for. They were always call and ask for grout, they were looking for something that was not tile, that’s amazing beautiful and its going to cost a couple of thousand dollars to do a fireplace. So it would create frustration for both the customer and myself so I took Motawi out of the yellow pages and I’ve kept it that way. Because we would get put under contractors and dealers so isn’t that a funny thing that getting lumped in with the general really, it really was kind of productive for everyone.
Christian: You know it’s almost different with us too. We have a similar yellow page experience and what I found is when I started asking, when people found us, trying to be the arm chair marketer that I am I would try it out and say oh they are trying to use the yellow pages and after a while I realize what they were calling for was price because there was nothing about; the Bungalow Company was pretty high up alphabetically and people would call and be like how much would you draw me a set of plans for and I would always be like that’s kind of like buying a car by the pound, what are you asking me to do, are we even a fit and you know what are even looking for. So I always found that the yellow pages are very kind of productive.
Nawal: That’s funny.
Christian: Well it is interesting I feel like there is, the internet was a great thing for this. It really gave us the…; I don’t know how we would have worked as nationally as we have been able to and how kind of following, you know it’s like a group that we all are connected to and I don’t know how that would have been a lot slower and probably a lot smaller probably but that is not a bad thing but suddenly the internet when we started we would put our first website up in 1995 and it was kind of bizarre. A friend of mine built the website, it was corky and there was nothing about business with it, it was just about kind of about few plans we had and this idea and it bothered a lot of people out of the wood work and it was interesting now to kind of evolve with that and see where we found our niche and the kind of people we connect with which I think it’s really interest that there is a certain social value in this internet piece and we seem to connect with people who with like minds and like desires and I find its pretty rewarding that way.
Nawal: Definitely, well I love the net because it takes a company that; basically if our company had to live on only what we could sell in the nearby and in the regional area we might not really make it. But being able to have a national audience for the slice of aesthetic that we are willing to make makes it possible to have a company. You know there is one thing I was thinking about as you were talking related to the arts and crafts mentality, the workers and it’s something that we do metallic which most people would be surprise to hear about which is we employ Toyota style lean production method. Now the Toyota guys would call it Toyota production. And how we got into this was that back in 2003 I was looking around at business and saying hey this is great we have a nice reputation but frankly we are not really making much money and this is a problem to me if I going to keep making tiles and my business partner at the time went looking for information on lean manufacturing and there’s a point coming here and the sort of an expert who had just written a layman’s book on lean manufacturing at Toyota was Jeffery Liker. Jeffery Liker lives in a harbour like where I live and so we called him up and said can we talk. We’re this funny little tile company, it’s an artesian company but we need some more help because making tiles is manufacturing and he said oh yes I can help you as a matter of fact I’m going to bring by a PHD candidate that I’m working with and this young man had positive that you can apply the Toyota stock production to a high variability meaning lots of different sques and lots of varying amounts of them but a low volume operation which was us to a ‘T’ and we embraced it. The only caveat was that we couldn’t take the free advice and not apply it otherwise he would stop and go find another company that would actually do the experiments so we said yes sir we will do what you say and much of it was counter intuitive at the time. We used to make a lot of list about what to do; I guess it a great example is the inventory that we used to keep. We make our tile on a press and setting up the press takes a bit of time and in those days it would take at least half an hour an so when we put a mould on the press we would tend to press at least fifty of whatever it was that we had on the press but that fifty was just enough for one order or fifty of that particular piece was going to be a five year supply, we would make fifty and what ended up happening is that we would have a lot of extra tile half way made. So we would press it we would dry it we would fire it once and then that’s make what we call bisque tile that then still needs to be glazed but we ended up with tons and tons of this bisque tile that we didn’t need yet and of course we have spent lots of money to create that tile which wasn’t doing anything to us or our customers any good. We end up making fifty of something instead of five of them and the wait for tiles that people really wanted would get longer and longer and longer, big problem. So our lead time would be long and a little bit unreliable and that was clearly a problem for anyone. So we learnt that, he came in and said you’ve got to change your change over time but what you think, what takes half an hour you need to cut down like five minutes so start working on it and we really needed a big change and that’s actually the first thing that we did. We buy a lot of hardware, try some new things, try a little different set up an did get the change over down to in most cases five minutes or less so then we could make twenty different parts in a things that have five different parts in a day. You know that’s much more nimble and that’s just one little piece of the many initiative that he brought to the tile works. We also use a can ban system which a few of your viewers might know that word, it’s a lot to explain but it allows us to keep our beautiful gift tiles in stock all the time and make the right amounts of tiles at any given day. We know exactly what we need to be making to satisfy customer demands and it doesn’t take any of the art out of it at all.
Christian: Right, it almost sounds as if it’s more like feeling with the entire project at one time than rather trying to find some efficiency in having an inventory that cost you money and you may never get the full value out of the inventory because you may or may not ever need it or need it in a time line
Nawal: It’s true, yes, that’s a big thing. You know one of the other classes of me which falls in line with arts and craft is this idea that the line worker, the person who is actually making the stuff understands the process better than other people and it’s their job to make sure that things are perfect coming out of their department and that they can stop something if it isn’t right and that they are the best place to come up with improvements and so we really listen closely to what they are doing because they are the specialist they are the experts in pressing a tile or dealing with the clay. I don’t do it every single day as closely as they do so they know and they have the power and the responsibility to make sure the stuff is coming off right and just stop if there’s something wrong with the clay they don’t press it. They come and say okay you’ve got to come and help us figure this out. So it puts control in the workers hands and a lot of responsibility as well.
Christian: And that’s probably similar with us too especially with our inline plans, our ready to go more plans. There is a pretty strong direction in there and there is no real inventory of them. They are more like digital and people make changes to them but there are a lot of stop and start processes. Whether it be a dummying department or historical commission or be a budget issue there is a lot of places along the way where you would like okay someone needs to pull the plug or tell the client to pull the plug, wait a minute but it’s kind of interesting because you could run through and get the whole project done in one sitting but you might find that well the client couldn’t afford it, two that you are outside of the zoning lines or building codes or whatever it is and training people how to know how to ask those question and when to ask those questions s kind of an interesting process but I think that the more people do it the more confidence they have with it and the more reliant you become on them as a collective group
Nawal: Well yes, that’s the service that you provide as home owners clearly, often not doing these kinds of projects more than once in their lives so they can’t be expected to know these things
Christian: Between us and the builders and suppliers for us it always seem like there is an order in which it all goes together and its usually all the same parts and pieces but never in the same order just.
Christian: Well I really enjoyed taking with you today and hear how you guys do what you do and have some of the shared philosophies of design and how you go about it. I find it interesting that we are more of a service and less of a product and you are more of a product and less of a service but sharing that artistic bank in both of those places brings similar challenges for sure.
Nawal: Sure does, it been lovely taking to you.
Christian: You too, thanks a lot, bye.