These days, when designer Marsha Wood needs to find a decorative ceramic tile for a Spanish Revival home she is renovating, she doesn't haul out a dusty catalog and hope she can get something close to the look she wants.

Wood instead hops on the Internet, clicks to the Web site of California Pottery and Tile Works and designs the tile herself with the factory's TilePainter software application.

"It gives me the ability to use beautiful traditional designs using more contemporary colors, which I really couldn't do anywhere else," said Wood, owner of Costa Mesa-based Color for Architecture, which also uses the application to give a vintage looks to new buildings. "None of my other vendors has anything like this."

Leveraging technology with the ancient craft of ceramics is one of several innovations that founder Sean McLean and his partners have instituted at the Los Angeles company. That's made it the go-to place for architects, contractors and do-it-yourselfers from Santa Barbara to Orange County who want to refurbish the kitchen of their Arts and Crafts fixer-upper or add a colorful tiled fountain in a historic downtown plaza.

Thanks to Internet marketing and word-of-mouth among designers, the factory nicknamed CalPot by longtime clients over the past five years has been growing its out-of-state business, competing with smaller U.S. studios and imports from Europe and Latin America.

Because customization is such a key part of the company business model, McLean created TilePainter to enable prospective clients to try out their own designs over the Internet without having to travel to his factory, located in an industrial area south of downtown L.A.

Customers can order sample tiles called strike-offs to see how the design will actually look and save designs to an online account for future use. These kinds of innovations have led to such growth that McLean is searching for larger space in the nearby Vernon area.

"With the commissions we've gotten so far this year, we really need more space," said McLean, noting that his company had $2.5 million in billings last year, which he expects will double this year based on jobs now under discussion.

Uncommon beginnings

Traditionally, ceramic tile makers enter the business after attending art school or a long apprenticeship with a master ceramicist. But McLean, a native Irishman, is a longtime contractor with a keen sense of a builder's need for large volumes of quality materials on tight construction schedules.


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