As a building product and as an element of design, tile has been around for centuries.
According to historians, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians invented tiles about 4000 B.C., using the thin, decorated clay pieces on the exterior of their houses and as interior wall and floor coverings.
Archaeologists found blue-glazed tiles in an Egyptian pyramid. Molded tiles in bas-relief and colorful tiles laid in designs on temple towers and palaces were found in Mesopotamia.
In 580 B.C., according to The Style Sourcebook by Judith Miller (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1998, $60) and the Encyclopedia Americana, Babylonians used tile work on the city walls as a warning. The mythical creatures and warriors in tile pictures were intended to frighten invaders.
Persia's palace of Darius in the sixth century had a frieze of archers in tile. In Rome's villas, colorful tiles made mythological scenes on the walls while unglazed tiles were laid for floors.
By the 15th century in Persia, fine homes, mosques and public buildings glittered inside and out with brilliantly glazed wall tiles in geometric, figural and floral designs. Some of the tiles were iridescent and changed colors with the light.
During the Middle Ages, from the fifth to 15th centuries in Western Europe, when the Christian church was the single most unifying institution, tiles were designed to focus people's thoughts on God, Miller said.
The tiles were hand-decorated with Christian symbols -- the fish, the circle representing eternity and the fleur-de-lis representing the holy trinity.
By the 13th century, some inlaid floor tiles told a story with images of dogs, stags and hunters.
Tiles, both molded and stamped, also adorned tombs in China during the 10th to 13th centuries. On the imperial palace, ridge tiles on the roof formed the shape of dragons.
In Spain, tile design emerged with a strong Islamic influence of arabesques, overlapping circles and checks. The walls in fine Spanish houses were wainscoted in tile, often blue and white.
During the Renaissance (1350 to 1650), Spain and Italy produced tiles with figures of knights and saints, painted in dark blue and yellow.
Meanwhile, tile artists in the Dutch city of Delft were developing a unique style that remains popular to the present day. By the mid-17th century, the Delft tiles had a white-glazed background with blue designs or delicate scenes painted in blue.
Also during the 17th century, single tiles and large panels of more than one tile depicted magnificent arrangements of flowers in vases. The style was popular in Portugal, the Netherlands, England and France.
Tiles then also featured painted landscape scenes with people, and scenes of sports, children's games, pastimes and occupations. …