A Tile Tale

Popham Designs; the connection between Maine and a high-end tile company in Marrakesh.

When Caitlin Dowe-Sandes and her husband Samuel were deciding on a name for the bespoke tile company they were starting in Marrakesh, Morocco, they pulled out a name from their own past. They decided to call their fledgling company Popham Design, a nod to the iconic Maine beach where they’d gotten married.

When Caitlin Dowe-Sandes and her husband Sam, shown here in Morocco, went into the tile business, they decided to name the company after the beach in Maine where they got married. Photo courtesy of Popham Design

There was sentiment involved in their branding decision, and a sense of roots, since Dowe-Sandes grew up in Bath, but another motivation as well. While the process for making Moroccan tiles is age-old, the couple was adding a modern flare to the finished product and the name had to help set them apart from other Moroccan tile companies. “The Maine coast is about as different to the Marrakesh landscape as you can get,” says Dowe-Sandes.

Since its founding in 2007, the company has earned accolades for its fusion of traditional Moroccan craftsmanship, modern color palette and contemporary patterning. They’ve been covered in The New York Times and applauded in design magazines like Architectural Digest. Their tiles “add a dose of optimism to any interior,” according to Elle Decor. Jade Jagger, Mick’s famous daughter, has them in her beach house in Spain.

A statuesque blonde in her mid-40s who sports thick, statement-making, black-framed glasses, Dowe-Sandes exudes a cool demeanor, but even in a video phone call comes across as welcoming and warm. She lived in the Bangor area and in Auburn when she was young but considers herself to be from Bath. “Because that is where I learned to drive.” After graduating from Morse High School, she went on to earn an art history degree from Harvard.

A floor made from the company’s tiles. Photo courtesy of Popham Design

She and her husband moved to northern Africa in 2006 for what was supposed to be a year-long sabbatical from their frenzied lives in Los Angeles, where she had been working in public relations and he had been in film. Neither had spent much time in Africa before moving to the city known for its bustling souks, Berber carpets, bedazzled babouches, leather pouffes and pierced sheet metal lanterns. But they both spoke French, enjoyed Moroccan food and appreciated the region’s rich artistic aesthetic. Those were as good as any reasons to settle on Marrakesh, Dowe-Sandes recollects.

Within three weeks of landing in the city, they’d purchased an 18th century riad—a traditional multi-story Moroccan house with an interior, open-air courtyard. The three-bedroom dwelling is inside a mosque complex in the Medina, Marrakesh’s bustling old city center, its boundaries marked by ancient dusty red walls. And it represented a blank canvas, one that would lead them to unexpected entrepreneurship.

The prospect of renovating their Marrakesh find was more exciting than daunting, Dowe-Sandes says, even if they had to incur the hassle of installing modern plumbing. They’d brought nothing with them from Los Angeles. But both of them were used to adapting. She had lived through her parents refurbishing a couple of old houses in Maine. Her husband had grown up in Vermont with a pair of artists for parents. The goal was to create a peaceful refuge from the dizzying stimuli of the Medina. They’d fill it with hand-crafted furniture and art.

It was always part of the plan to incorporate Moroccan tilework, to soothe their souls, cool their heels and accommodate radiant heat when required. As any Moroccan travel brochure is likely to illustrate, tiles, often running from floor to ceiling, are an intricate part of the cultural and artistic heritage of the kingdom.

Popham Design makes its concrete tiles by mixing cement and marble powder as well as rich pigments such as this blue, which are poured or piped into brass molds. The tiles are compressed with hydraulics, cured and air dried for three weeks. Photo courtesy of Popham Design

During the renovation of their riad, the couple located several ateliers within walking distance with whom they worked to design the tiles to line most of the floors and many of the walls of their new home. Born from that collaborative experience was the business plan for Popham Design, which specializes in what are commonly described as cement tiles in the marketplace, although technically, they’re concrete.

While concrete tiles and ceramic tiles look similar, they’re made very differently. The base for ceramic tiles is red, brown or white clay. They can hold their natural hue or be painted, be glazed or left naturally dull. But all ceramic tiles are fired in a kiln to set the color and establish their durability.

Concrete tiles are typically a mixture of cement, with varying levels of sand and marble powder—Popham Design uses only the latter, mined from the Atlas Mountains—and color pigment poured or piped into brass molds. Some of these molds are simple, others more intricate, but their function is to keep the colors distinctly separate. The tiles are compressed with hydraulics, cured and air dried for three weeks, a process that makes them durable and sometimes frustrating for customers who want a rush order, says Dowe-Sandes.

“We were drawn to the age-old process,” says Dowe-Sandes. “But we also believed there was a market for traditionally crafted tiles produced with a more contemporary flare.”

Their instinct was good; between 2006–2016, sales increased 40% annually. Growth since 2017 has tapered somewhat but is still increasing about 20% a year, Dowe-Sandes says.

Popham Designs specializes in unusual patterns, devised by owners Caitlin Dowe-Sandes and her husband Samuel. Photo courtesy of Popham Design

Popham Design’s workshop sits in a more southerly Marrakesh neighborhood than their refurbished Medina digs. The Dowe-Sandes recently moved into a 1950s home in the city’s Gueliz neighborhood to be nearer to the shop, but they maintain the riad as a sort of creative laboratory and showcase for new Popham Design creations. The company is going beyond tile and expanding into home goods.

Its signature palette comprises over 150 colors from which customers can choose to have their tiles created. The whimsical names concretely denote their hue, but encourage the mind to wander. Deep indigos (called lapis and denim), dusty pinks (raspberry and conch shell) and vibrant saffrons (yolk and limoncello) are traditional Moroccan tile colors. But many others, like sea glass and lawn or oyster and fog, Dowe-Sandes says, reflect her Maine coast roots. Popham Design’s tile shapes-—basic squares, off-kilter pentagons, scalene triangles, quirky bow ties and Red Cross-like plus signs—are available in any single color. And the company’s evolving book of patterns—ones resembling backgammon boards (which she eventually claimed as her favorite when pressed), spiky artichokes, glimmering stars, spindly scarabs or whimsical bubbles—are available in any color combination.

Both husband and wife have a hand in designing new patterns. They start with a sketch and then experiment with the many ways the repeat could play out. “When we are convinced the pattern will flow well, we work with the guys in our workshop to produce a sample mold,” says Dowe-Sandes.

In the world of decorative tile, a “repeat” denotes how individual tiles are placed to create an overall design. The patterns, colors and rate of recurrence can be switched up to give any bathroom floor, bedroom wall, kitchen backsplash or fireplace surround a look all its own even if similar tiles are in play. Repeats don’t translate into repetitiveness, if used well. “I can’t have too many patterns or handcrafted things my life,” Dowe-Sandes says.

The couple, particularly Samuel, is well-versed in the process of making tile. “But we agree it’s wiser to work with experts who have been making tiles for 20 years,” she says. “You can tap their depth of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t.” The company’s all-male production line reflects the lack of history of women making tiles in Morocco. That is not to say women can’t do so, says Dowe-Sandes. “I’d love to employ more women,” she says, pointing to the long history of women making concrete tiles in Vietnam. “But we will have to move respectfully in that direction, feeling for a way to make that work culturally here.”

Hallie Flint Gilman, a friend of Dowe-Sandes from college, has Popham Design tiles in the mudroom of her home in Portland. Photo by Heidi Kirn

In 2016, the Dowe-Sandes opened a showroom in Paris. They sell their products through exclusive suppliers in countries worldwide. In the United States that partner is high-end tile distributor, Ann Sacks, an arm of Kohler Co. Their tiles are installed all over the world, from Stockholm to Spain to France. And in Portland, featured in both the mudroom and master bath of Hallie Flint Gilman’s Park Street 19th century brick townhouse. Flint Gilman is an environmental lawyer and a friend of Dowe-Sandes since college. She was an early fan of Popham Designs.

“I’ve always wanted to be braver about with my decorating style and Caitlin’s tiles gave me that opportunity. The designs are inspirational. You look at them and know you could put them in places you’d not previously imagined,” says Flint Gilman. She wanted Loop de Loop patterned tiles in aubergine and milk for her mudroom and Ando patterned ones in milk and coal in her bathroom. To do that before the company had signed a distributor in America, she registered to become an importer. Currently there is an unopened box of the Hex Knot tiles in saffron waiting to be installed in her 14-year-old daughter’s bathroom.

“I have this dream of building a cabin and it will have a green porcelain Jotul wood stove as its centerpiece,” explains Flint Gilman. “And I just know Popham [Design] will have the tiles to make the place as warm and wonderful as I imagine it will be.”

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a Brunswick-based writer and cookbook author who tackles any topic that can be linked to the kitchen.

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