Ceramic tile,” declares Susan Moore, “is eternal—it lasts forever.” Before she can finish the thought, Neil Merkowitz, her partner in life and in business, adds, “It’s our job to create it so it can be used to make beautiful environments.” And for the last 36 years, as Moore-Merkowitz Tile, that’s exactly what they have been doing.
When they set up their kilns in Alfred, New York in 1986, Moore and Merkowitz became pioneers of the American art-tile renaissance. “We were the only company making relief tile,” Moore says.
Moore-Merkowitz still specializes in the design and manufacture of handcrafted relief and field tile in the studio-arts tradition. Although their roles are fluid, Moore generally creates the designs, and Merkowitz typically formulates the glazes.
Moore’s design influences are global. “I’ve always been interested in the international scene,” she says. “I love nature, patterns, and art history, and going to museums. I look at a lot of different things, and things get funneled in an interesting way.”
The way she describes her style—old-world European with an American flair—doesn’t, she admits, really define it sufficiently. “Sometimes it’s a mystery where my designs come from.”
One of the studio’s more popular designs is its Animal Series, which was among Moore’s first. The tiles, which feature a deer, a rabbit, a bird, a goat, a sheep, or a duck, hark back to the 19th-century tradition of depicting nature’s creatures in decorative motifs on a variety of objects.
There is a lot of give and take in the design process, which starts when Moore begins putting the designs in her mind down on paper. She carves the design in clay, then makes a plaster mold and sometimes several prototypes that reflect refinements. Each collection she creates has tiles, trims, and moldings.
“Our glazes and the depth of the glaze on each piece are unique,” Merkowitz says. “They have an artistic quality in terms of attention and the process of creation.”
The tiles are designed to reveal the hand of the artist; the fact that they are imperfect is what makes them so precious.
“We put our hearts into each piece,” Moore says, adding that “we’re a boutique. It’s not about volume, it’s about quality.”
Moore-Merkowitz, which sells to architects and interior designers through its eponymous ecommerce site and has done work for a variety of high-profile clients, including Joni Mitchell, Keith Richards, Jane Fonda, and Quincy Jones, offers some 230 tile designs and 29 molding and trim collections in more than 150 colors. Lead time is generally eight to twelve weeks; production is accomplished with the aid of two to five artisans.
“The artistic process is more interesting when we are working with designers,” Merkowitz says, adding that the studio does do custom work “when it’s appropriate.”
Moore and Merkowitz say they always loved tile, but they never had any “grand plans” to start a tile studio.
“I always knew I was an artist,” Moore says, adding that her interest in ceramics was sparked at Wells College, where she earned a degree in liberal arts, when she studied with ceramicist Richard MacKenzie-Childs and abroad during her junior year in Florence, Italy, where she studied art and apprenticed with ceramicist Gian Carlo Girard, brother of famed interior designer Alexander Girard.
After Moore graduated, she enrolled at The New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University’s ceramics school.
Merkowitz didn’t discover his inner artist until he was at the University of Michigan as a history major. With degree in hand, he won a scholarship to Greenwich House Pottery in New York City, where he was a studio assistant.
They found their calling—and each other—at Alfred University.
After graduation, they secured three-month internships at the Moravian Pottery & Tile Works Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, then started making tile in the basement of her parents’ home.
They returned to Alfred, New York, to start their own studio and in 1999 bought the 105-acre property where, for more than 50 years, the renowned ceramicist Robert Tuner produced his creations. Like Turner, they set up shop in the 6,000-square-foot 1880s barn.
They remain passionate about their work.
“We love what we do,” Merkowitz says, adding that he’s been having so much fun that sometimes he forgets that Moore-Merkowitz has been in business for nearly four decades.
Moore, too, is just as enthusiastic as she was when they fired their first tiles in the kiln. “I love learning,” she says. “I’m still learning things every day.”