“The idea for the tile company was really one of those bolt of lightening-style epiphanies,” says Caitlin Dowe-Sandes of Popham Design. She and her husband Samuel had been renovating their house in Marrakech, and where marveling at the surrounding artisans in the medina when an idea struck. “In the two-minute walk from our house to the taxi stand we’d pass five artisan studios – a plasterer carving intricate friezes, an iron worker making chairs and headboards, a woodcarver refurbishing wooden ceilings, a lantern-maker hammering out fabulous creations, a weaver at his loom... It was all so inspiring, we realised we wanted to be making things too. And being in Morocco, we were too far away from home and sensible people telling us it couldn’t be done.” Home was America, where Caitlin was born. She grew up in Maine and went to Harvard University to study art history - with a semester detour at the Sorbonne in Paris. “The start of a long-standing love of France,” she says.
Her working life started when she moved to New York and worked as a copy writer for J Crew and Ralph Lauren before moving over to Bon Appetit magazine. Following eight years in LA, and working in PR for many design companies, she took a year-long sabbatical to Morocco, which has turned into an eight-year journey - so far. Part of the reason is the idea to combine a 150-year-old technique of making handmade cement tiles and infusing them with contemporary designs. Getting the right clients on board has been a big part of Popham Design’s success. “Having people like DeeDee Gundberg from Ann Sacks and Craig Verdon from Onsite Supply + Design return our calls was an early thrill,” Caitlin says. Now, Popham Design is providing tiles to a range of architects, designers and homeowners across the world, including Australia’s Hecker Guthrie.
Which five words best describe you? I’m from New England where the proper response is: Would you like some coffee? But my daughter contributes this: honest, generous, sometimes prickly, fancy - on our Wednesday dress-up nights, only! - and industrious. Not bad for a five year old.
How did you get your career start and what path have you taken since? Life and career have melded rather organically. With each career move, it’s become clearer what I want to do and just as importantly, what I don’t want to fill my days doing. The best designers seem to always be great editors, so taking my cue from them, I’ve edited my work life. I certainly never would have said at age eight that I wanted to design and manufacture tiles. Although, I might have had an inkling that it would be fun to live abroad and to do something entrepreneurial. Growing up, my parents were always renovating old homes and I learned early to appreciate architectural details and things that age well. Travelling has helped to train my eye and kept my mind fresh to new influences. And in Morocco, my passion for pattern and color has been well indulged.
What’s the best lesson you’ve learnt along the way? Don’t sweat the small stuff. My husband and I remind ourselves to keep perspective every day. By the same token, I’ve taken to heart the adage: the devil is in the details. These opposing ideas keep me grounded and precise, at least some of the time.
What’s your proudest career achievement? Sending our investors their first dividend payment. We launched Popham Design in late 2007 just when the US housing market was crumbling. Somehow our investors – all of them friends – decided to take a gamble on us and on artisanal Moroccan-made tiles when a lot of design businesses were going under. Their support has been unfailing and to demonstrate to them that it wasn’t just a blah-blah business plan has been fulfilling.
What’s been your best decision? Marrying my husband, of course. Perhaps it’s a boring response, but it’s the honest truth. He stood me up on our first date to see a Mondrian exhibit at MOMA in NYC, but I forgave him and never looked back. Living and navigating business in a foreign culture makes you really grateful to have someone who has always got your back.
Who inspires you? Funny people, creative people, people who take risks, people who are kind and generous, people who pick up trash, people who listen. Again, I’m straying into trite territory, but I’m like a moth to a flame when I have the pleasure to be around people like this.
What are you passionate about? Building something that is a tribute to this amazing country and that provides livelihood to our proud team. We’re a small, artisan workshop, but the impact we have on the lives of our tile-making team and on preserving a traditional technique is something that really motivates me. That and good cheese.
Which person, living or dead, would you most like to meet? I’m partial to the living. There are so many generous, inspiring, whip-smart people who have crossed my path, even in the last few years, I can’t think of a celebrated name I’d trade them for.
What dream do you still want to fulfil? There are loads, to be honest. But one is to go on safari in Kenya. My father lived there before he died and I never got a chance to see the elephants, giraffes, white rhinos, Cape buffalo and lions with him. Once our daughter Gigi is a bit older, we’ll head to the Lewa Conservancy. Gigi was born in Africa and we’ve lived here her whole life, but you can’t really say you’re from Africa until you’ve been to the savannah.
What are you reading? Winnie the Pooh and Charlotte’s Web - to my five-year-old, design magazines - a big stack beside my bed means I go to sleep inspired - and the short stories of Alice Monroe. The short story medium is so demanding and she is its wonderful master.
images courtesy of popham designs
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