Local Company Collaboration Explores the Art of Coupling Preservation with Modernization

What do you get when you mix two local companies working on a local historical project?  An exercise in preservation with a twist of modernization.  Cincinnati based K4 Architecture & Design teamed with the Rookwood Pottery Company for the opportunity to work on an addition to one of the libraries first opened by Andrew Carnegie  in 1903, the Avondale Branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County.

If you have ever been to the Avondale Library, there’s no doubt you have stopped to marvel at the ornate tile entrance. What better way for the Avondale branch to commemorate 100 years of success and service to the community than to team up with a company with 150 years of experience in hand crafted tile under their belt.  Here is a firsthand look at our collaboration and process with the Rookwood Pottery Company.

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Using the Tools Available to Keep Local History Alive

When we were given the opportunity of designing an addition to this beautiful and historic Spanish Colonial style library, we welcomed the challenge.  We met with Rookwood Pottery for an initial discussion about the scope and design for the Avondale branch.  I’m fairly certain that the level of craft of the original entrance could have been achieved by Rookwood, but the realities of time and cost steered us towards a strategy of creating an appropriate scope for this secondary entrance to the library.  Our goal was to enhance the addition with hand-crafted tiles that emulated the historic, grand entrance.  We wanted to make this second entrance eye catching, so we decided on a decorative tile arch as well as a circular plaque to represent the 100 year anniversary.

This plaque depicts an open book with the original façade on one side of the page and the new addition on the other.  We worked together to come up with some preliminary designs.


The intent of the tile design was to maintain the tradition and language of the existing building, while also utilizing present day technologies and production capabilities to create something fresh and fun. The color palette and some of the tile patterns can be found on the existing entrance, while the arched tiles rest on a stack of books verse a more traditional bracket.

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Teamwork and Process

It’s one thing to sketch a picture on paper and something entirely different to create that image into a three-dimensional sculpture.  I had no idea how many designers are involved with the Rookwood design process. We worked primarily with Allan Nairn; but met mold makers, sculptors, glazing specialists, tile installers and a very cute pup named Leonard, throughout the process. Whether we were resolving technical problems on how to flash the keystone or deciding which glazing color combinations popped the most; the creativity, opinions and ideas shared only added to the success of the design.  We met several times to review the level of detail, verify glazing techniques, and choose a color palette, along with other various intricate details…

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I always felt more inspired after visiting Rookwood, proof that inspiration for creativity often comes from stepping outside your everyday surroundings.

Learning about the Craft of Another Lends Appreciation

I once thought the profession of architecture had a lot of variables… zoning hearings, budget, lackadaisical plumbers…. until I understood the process of ceramics.

After shaping and forming the clay into the desired design, the piece is moved to a damp room to allow the clay to slowly dry. This helps to prevent cracking.   At this stage, most of the moisture has left the clay and the pieces are loaded into the kiln for the first firing or bisque firing.  After this step, the glazing process begins.

We met at Rookwood to discuss the various colors and techniques. Due to the traditional nature of the existing entrance, we wanted to achieve a more traditional look.  We agreed on the antiquing technique for the tiles and chose more natural, subdued colors for the glazes, compatible  with the original entrance. Then the tiles are loaded once again for the final, glaze firing at 2185 F.

A Grand Culmination of Collaborative Efforts

There’s nothing like watching someone balancing a 30” ceramic plaque on top of scaffolding ten feet in the air which made the grand installation as nerve-racking as it was exciting!  We couldn’t have been more pleased with the design and outcome. It was a great experience and benefit to collaborate with creative professionals to inspire and create successful designs…and it feels even better when working together to preserve local history.

Final outcome photo