Or, Kevin O’Brien Piglet Give-away
When people ask how the name “New Ravenna” came to be, I find myself flashing back twenty years or so to my last year of grad school when I visited my handsome friend Kevin O’Brien, a fellow painting MFA student at the University of Pennsylvania.
He had finagled a studio at the Woodward estate in Chestnut Hill, just outside Philadelphia. Whenever I needed a break from city air, I drove to his studio and on this particular day we were brainstorming about a mosaic business I wanted to launch.
“So what are you going to name it?” he queried. Stumped, I didn’t have a clue. “Is there a particular place that is renowned for its mosaics?” (This was not a rhetorical question at the time ;)) “Ravenna…?” I offered. “Then why not call your business New Ravenna? Kind of like New York, or New Amsterdam –it’s a way of honoring a heritage you love, but making it American”. And just like that, unfazed by the grandiose comparison, New Ravenna was born.
Kevin’s marketing wisdom has served me in good stead, but even better than sage advice was the example he set. You see Kevin was the rare painting student who was exploring the artisanal side of fine arts.
Today, the disciplines of art and design overlap much more, but back then it was practically heresy to consider something as impure as producing art that was…(look down your nose disdainfully) commercial. Six months earlier, he had begun painting beautiful images of faces on silk and thought that perhaps he could sell his fabric sketches as sarongs and scarves. My sister and I were two of his first models (we were very inexpensive).
He banged on doors and the only store who was interested was Barney’s (!). Not realizing the significance he was briefly disappointed until everyone else wanted what Barney’s had, and he was on his way. Soon Kevin invented a revolutionary way to burn and dye velvet, which allowed him to play with texture as well as pattern and produce Fortuny-like effects.
He produced more and more scarves, built up a national following (Kevin is so incredibly charming in person I am willing to bet he had a virtual sorority of admirers), but really hit his stride when he entered the interiors market—today you have probably seen his pillows, bedspreads,
I love following design businesses that seem to be parallel universes to New Ravenna.
Recently, I was given an opportunity to re-connect with Kevin because I borrowed a saffron upholstered antique settee from a friend for a product shoot—and it was crying out for Kevin O’Brien Studio props. Before the shoot, it was sitting in the stairwell of our apartment building, looking depressed and lonesome and slightly romantic (possibly only to me).
But check out how it looks on our Edie floor with Kevin’s cashmere throw and velvet pillow on top:
Voila! It’s much happier. (Currently I’m obsessed with this turmeric color.)
For the past few years he has collaborated with Carolyn Cook, a sophisticated stuffed animal maker who uses Kevin’s fabric scraps.
Forget the recycling aspect–from a marketing and styling perspective, it is an ingenious move–these cuddly creatures act like little sculptures on Kevin’s displays at ABC home, engaging the viewer, begging for attention and adding dimension.
Looking back these twenty years, I am struck by how naïve and happy-go-lucky we were. The sky was the only limit, the possibilities were endless–it’s wonderful to remember the sense of adventure with which we began our journey. If we had really known how daunting the prospect of success really was, we probably would have packed up our gear and headed to the nearest restaurant for jobs as waiters. However, at this moment, over twenty years later, I’m on a train in Italy, and we are launching distribution of our products in Europe. Imagine that!
This year a restaurant opened in Tuscany with our Seine waterjet mosaic pattern as the floor! (And it’s in the Kardashian’s master bath and occasionally appears behind Kim in a new bikini–how’s that for hitting main-stream?)
So how to win the piglet? First post a brief comment below, and if you have a favorite New Ravenna product or project, please mention it. Then, subscribe to the blog by clicking on the link above right–contest ends Jan 30–we will be picking a winner at random. And please, check out www.KevinObrienStudio.com or his studio’s Facebook Page if, like me, you’ve been inspired.
Exmore, Virginia, United States
New Ravenna Mosaics founder and Creative Director, Owner, Sara Baldwin Design, Bass guitar player, Envisioner, Appreciator of the Sublime and Ridiculous.