Magazine article Sunset

A Tile Revival

Magazine article Sunset

A Tile Revival

Article excerpt

Pick up one of the new generation of western ceramic tiles, and you can't help but notice three things: texture, weight, and color. These tiles, inspired by ones built into many Western Arts and Crafts bungalows and Spanish colonial houses almost a century ago, have the same handcrafted, artful quality that originally earned them places of honor in the house - on fireplace surrounds, stair risers, and courtyard fountains, or massed on patio walls. Some contemporary tile manufacturers faithfully reproduce the original tile designs, while others create more exuberant designs that respectfully acknowledge their ancestors.

The bungalow tiles originally found inspiration in the European-based Arts and Crafts movement, which celebrated handcrafted aesthetics and a romantic view of history and nature. Artisans would mingle these themes with images of the California landscape. Some created fanciful scenes of knights in armor riding through redwood forests near the Pacific Ocean. Others presented Western countrysides, historic missions, details of flora and fauna, medieval and Celtic symbols, or even Mayan and Aztec carvings. These shallow-carved relief tiles were often treated as individual paintings and surrounded by color-coordinated field tiles of a single color. Other patterns continued over several tiles.

Arts and Crafts tiles were usually muted single colors. One prominent designer, Ernest Batchelder, was noted for his use of a light blue slip (a pigmented liquid clay) applied to the background of each decorative tile. Another manufacturer, Claycraft Potteries, used slips of many colors to create tiles that achieved the translucency of a watercolor painting. Solid greens, browns, and blues in heavier matte glazes also characterized Arts and Crafts tiles, but some contemporary versions have brighter colors and glossier glazes.

Hispano-Moresque tiles, found in Spanish colonial houses, are bright, multicolored, geometric-patterned tiles inspired by Moorish designs in southern Spain. These were aligned in borders along baseboards, stair risers, and courtyard fountains, or used on entire walls. Some were created from linoleum-block carvings impressed in the clay. Others used a wax-based resist line as a barrier between the different color glazes.

Today, some manufacturers mold their tiles by hand, but others machine-press the clay. Most of these operations are small, producing tiles as orders are placed. This reduces standing inventory and allows them to color tiles to client specifications.

The source list below lists tile manufacturers in the 13 Western states that are reproducing or creating new interpretations of Arts and Crafts and Hispano-Moresque tiles. Most will send catalogs. Allow three to four weeks for most orders to be filled.

For people restoring older houses with existing, damaged, or missing tiles, two groups might be of help in finding, matching, or reproducing tiles. Write to the Tile Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit corporation for research and preservation of ceramic surfaces, at Box 1850, Healdsburg, CA 95448, or the Tile Restoration Center in Seattle (see below).


1. Dogwood Border (contemporary hand-carved design in the Arts and Crafts style), Handcraft Tile; 2 by 6 inches; $4

2. Bucking Horse, Alchemie Ceramic Studio; 7 1/2 by 7 1/2 inches; monochromatic $24, multicolored $42

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