Malta Tiles An interview with Robert Lia by Daniela Calamatta. Photography and video by BlackBookPhoto

When I first called Robert to ask him whether he would be interested to be interviewed and to talk to me about the man and the life behind Malta Tiles, his candid and most friendly approach was evident at the outset of our telephone exchanges and leading up to the interview day and photo shoot.

Robert began his journey in the craftsmanship of traditional Maltese artisan works at a very early age. Initially mastering his skills and knowledge in the industry under the close guidance of his master mason Phillip Farrugia, owner of the construction and stone works Restoration Company at the time. With little and basic school education Robert knew at an early age that he wanted to dedicate his life solely to developing his skills in this labor intensive industry, motivated mainly by his love for traditional Maltese art forms. His family he explains were farmers and their life centered on the agricultural dynamics of producing and selling their crops. ‘I did not have anyone to motivate me or to look up to or to encourage me to follow my dreams’ , but his self-driven determination and passion eventually lead him to set up his own stonework’s company and to purchase that of the Malta tiles.

The Malta Tiles company was a spin off business which Robert bought into from a business man who ironically had to sell out his business in this traditional Maltese trade due to the fact that none of his children were interested in taking over the family business.

It was so heartwarming to listen to Robert’s narration of how he started his business with nothing but his moto was simple: ‘never stop trying’ and was encumbering the essence of the word perseverance per se. He had several pitfalls along the way which he recounts are ‘simply a way of life teaching you how to be better’. ‘I am very competitive’ he states almost transforming his posture from a meekly stature to a more boisterous stance, ‘the competitiveness in me is fierce and is the very ingredient that fuels my determination to always better my work’.

Robert today feels proud of what he has managed to achieve in just a few years. Initially he focused his time on restoring the molds for the Maltese tiles which were unused for a long time by the previous owner. From a total of 8/10 molds, Robert was soon able to offer his clients a total of 100 patterns to choose from, in addition to new molds which he created himself. He is eager to point out to me that he could also meet any design demands from his customer and hence his customization service was an important part of his portfolio.

2014 was really the kick off year for his Malta tiles business and has been on a steady growth ever since. I asked Robert whether he had any life-changing experience/s which he believes put him on the path that led him to what he is doing today. He giggled at first as if almost ashamed to confess his mischievous childhood memories of running out to the fields and building rooms (evidently unwanted structures by his agricultural parents), wherever and whenever he could get his hands on a number of stone slabs to create and build what he loved most – stone works.

As we visited his factory, where the production of these tiles were being made, both myself and photographer Catalin Bindiu of Blackbookphoto, were intrigued to see the amount of work and time it took to produce these Maltese tiles. One cannot argue the fact that our educational systems in these modern days and age, and in developed countries, have sanctified intellectual intelligence and looked down on manual skills. Innovation has taken over craftsmanship and it is thanks to people such as Robert that we owe the existence till today of one of Malta’s most beautiful artworks.

Robert explains that he feels the current trend is changing as more and more architects, designers, restorers’ growing culture is leaning more towards authenticity and quality craftsmanship. He is determined to continue fighting against bureaucratic stumbling blocks in order to grow his business and move his establishment to a larger premises where he will not only concentrate on growing the production and sales of his Maltese Tiles, but to use his work base as a platform to educate the younger generation on part of our rich heritage ‘that we can all be very proud of’.

Several foreign investors have approached him to take over or offer shareholding in his company for the purpose of exporting these local products and introducing the Maltese Tile to the foreign and much larger and hence lucrative foreign market. I asked him why he declined such offers and almost in a childlike manner reflecting his resilience to someone taking his favorite toy he explains, ‘it’s not solely about the striving for market growth but also about my love for my work and about my personal growth…..

What can be done to help the sustainability of craftsmanship such as your own and others which are struggling to survive commercial viability in Malta? Robert explains how he wishes for more support from the Malta Enterprise organization and Malta crafts organization. Both are focusing more on the marketing of his business when more emphasis at this stage is needed on giving support for the production set-up. Hence he feels that even though he is registered as a craftsman he is looked at as a manufacturer. In essence the creative crafts development in Malta is seriously inhibited by lack of human resources, infrastructure and an underdeveloped creative craft culture. It is for the latter of these inhibitions that Robert is passionate and determined to find a solution to create a bigger production establishment to invite schools on educational visits and to instill a crafts culture as part of their education. ‘It’s not just about the economics he continues to emphasize’.

At Malta Tiles we watched his full-time apprentices produce different tiles using different forms and colors which will be forming part of a short video production by photographer Catalin Bindiu of Blackbookphoto. Both craftsmen working with Robert for several years now have mastered the craft to perfection. Sadly he explains it is very difficult to find people who have a passion for this art form and are who not resilient to the somewhat unattractive work environment being rather dusty and cold and not offering the modern day comforts of a typical office job which most young ones are more attracted to. Robert shows immense gratitude and respect for the passion and loyalty with which his two full timers Daniel Fenech and Mark Scicluna have dedicated years of their life to this craft and the growth of his business. He is not discouraged by the ongoing challenge to find more people to work in this industry, as his oversight to his bigger goal to establish and ensure Malta Tiles’ growth both on the local but also on the foreign markets, its longevity and integration of such craftsmanship in the educational Maltese curriculum.

Ultimately, why should we protect such a craft as Maltese tile making? As Robert highlighted, efforts by the local government must not only lie in the preservation of craft products themselves but rather in concentrating on encouraging artisans to continue to produce craft and to pass their skills and knowledge onto others. It is important his insists passionately, ‘that skills are passed on to future generations in order to preserve the creativity of our culture and integrate the actual crafts more into modern world design, products and livelihood’.

On a positive note Robert highlighted that the growth of the creative economy calls for more of the skills that are relying on craftsmanship. Many new restaurants, bars and luxury homes are combining the old with the new in their design and architectural forms. This shows a trend in the consumer culture to incorporate more local art forms in their design of their homes and businesses alike. Forever oozing his spirit of determination, Robert reassures me of his continued efforts to grow his business and preserve part of our rich cultural heritage with all the pride and resilience required.

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