Revisiting Rookwood

New Space in Over-the-Rhine, same dedication to artistic quality

Sure, I’ve heard of Rookwood Pottery. I’ve seen tiles here and there in older homes in the area and heard the name spoke on the proud owners’ lips. The name evokes images of well-trained artisans leaning over their dusty workspaces, carving incredibly detailed molds and gently placing them in the kiln, waiting expectantly for their creation to take life.

But I thought all that lived in the past ... until I toured their showroom and soon-to-be store in Over-the-Rhine.

Rookwood’s nondescript brick warehouse on Race Street sprawls under the old “Catanzaro Sons & Daughters” sign. From the outside it just looks like another span of red-bricked city buildings. But the inside is expansive, with designers and artists busily working to sculpt, paint, glaze and create.

Public Relations & Marketing Manager Suzanne Blackburn gave me the grand tour of the 100,000-square-foot headquarters. The majority of the space we walked through on the first floor is currently being used to produce new Rookwood tiles, ceramic pieces, sculptures and more. Large drying racks stand ready to hold pieces, and kilns dot the floor of one room.

Many pieces are currently being tested before they start rolling out new designs and product lines. In fact, many of these ceramic glazes are expertly produced in-house, including a unique crystalline glaze.

“The artists here come up with new ideas and new products,” Blackburn says. “The design team is incredibly detailed, and they know about both design and chemistry. You can’t do ceramics without knowing about chemistry.”

The industrial-looking interior has grand plans to one day house a Rookwood tile store customers can walk up to from Findlay Market to peruse new designs and see the craftsmanship of the artists in the design of the building. An interior showroom — already open for business — will help contractors and customers fulfill their design needs, and artist space and offices will be on the upper-level floors.

“We’ve been working for nearly three years to create a headquarters facility that will work for our design and production teams now and into the future and will truly be integral to the redevelopment of Over-the-Rhine,” says Christopher Rose, president and CEO of the Rookwood Pottery Company.

About 30 people work at the facility, most of whom are artists and subcontractors. Rookwood currently offers full design services, including an architect and interior designer to help you make the most of your Rookwood tile and existing space. Blackburn says they’ll likely have workspaces on the above floors, keeping the main level open for retail space and showrooms.

Two renowned Rookwood artists are Terri Kern and Allan Nairn.

Kern is a well-known name in the Cincinnati arts community. In 1991 she set up a studio at the Pendleton Art Center in Over-the-Rhine and developed a line of clay jewelry, T.S. Kern Bodyware. She then spent more than 15 years as a ceramics artist and instructor/lecturer at Morehead State University in Morehead, Ky., while creating functional and beautiful ceramic pieces on the side. Her work has been shown at Summerfair and other shows at local, national and European locations. She’s currently the Art and Design Director at Rookwood.

Nairn is a nationally known ceramic artist in his own right. Rookwood’s Art Director, he hails from London and in 1972 founded Glenmoriston Pottery in an abandoned blacksmith’s smithy on the shores of Loch Ness. He emigrated to America in 1983, becoming a partner in Spring Street Pottery and cofounding the Final Design Studio. He also has a studio at the Pendleton Art Center.

Blackburn says Rookwood ceramic tiles are touched 21 times before they reach a customer. They’re fired twice in a kiln, and many tiles are artfully hand-painted.

The company has created corporate gifts and unique treasures for Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, Krohn Conservatory, Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, Christian Moerlein Brewing Company, Mayor Mark Mallory and more. An interior showroom is currently open to showcase a few of the newer collections available for purchase as well as the elegantly crafted tiles framed and signed by the artist. Blackburn says many customers purchase the signed and framed tiles to hang on their walls, while the tile collections can be used to accent your home.

The latest work debuting at Rookwood is the Timeless Beauty collection. Full of flowing designs featuring images of nature, these tiles can be used for transitional wainscots, kitchen backsplashes or as a smooth fireplace surround.

Other collections in progress are the Heritage and Modern Classics collections. The Heritage tiles are reminiscent of tile designs used by past Rookwood artisans, while the Modern Classics collection incorporates brilliant colors and textures for more dynamic designs. Tiles range from $50 to $300 per square-foot, and orders typically take six to eight weeks to fulfill.

Blackburn says the company might offer pottery pieces later.

If you don’t know the back story on Rookwood Pottery, here’s a quick overview: Maria Longworth first opened the company in 1880 thanks to a generous monetary gift from her father, Joseph Longworth. This venture became the first female-owned manufacturing company in the U.S.

Maria carefully selected artists, students and glaze technicians to create new designs and techniques, and they worked together to craft world-renowned ceramics, pottery and other creations. A true Cincinnatian (or historian) can pick out Rookwood pottery pieces in Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, the Mayo Clinic and New York City’s Grand Central Station.

In 2005, Rose partnered with with investors to buy the remaining Rookwood assets, including 3,000 molds, original trademarks and glaze recipes. They’ve since worked to create ceramic art tile, fireplace surrounds and fine art pottery.

Blackburn says the company also is reaching out to dealers nationwide to sell Cincinnati’s pride and joy, so you might soon be seeing Rookwood pieces in houses and commercial spaces across the U.S. For now, you can still purchase the tiles by making an appointment to review their showroom at 1920 Race St.

“It’s a popular brand, and people always want to make sure we’re living up to the name,” Blackburn says. “But I think we are. We’re an artist-based company that is constantly experimenting and innovating.”