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Art Tile Revival

From authentic to transitional, art tile in early 20th century designs is easier to find than ever before. Some basic background and resources can help narrow your search for the perfect tile.
By Demetra Aposporos

    Fountains were a popular application for art tile—especially in the West. A mural of vivid peacocks strutting amidst flora shows California-style art tiles at their bright, earthy best.

    Fountains were a popular application for art tile—especially in the West. A mural of vivid peacocks strutting amidst flora shows California-style art tiles at their bright, earthy best. (Photo: Native Tile)

    Batchelder, Grueby, Rookwood—the names ring familiar as family to followers of the Arts & Crafts Movement. As well they should, because what these pottery companies did (along with a handful of others) at the turn of the 20th century was revolutionary. They took the most common of building materials—clay—and returned it to its honest, centuries-old, hand-crafted roots.

    In the process, the ordinary became extraordinary—everyday objects d’art we continue to admire and collect today. While the popularity of art tiles has waxed and waned with homeowners in the intervening decades, in recent years they have become de rigueur once more. We’re happy to report that today dozens of companies are making quality art tile, and, surprisingly, some of them are names you’ve heard before.

    Like many handicrafts of the Arts & Crafts Movement, the ceramics renaissance of the early 20th century was a backlash against Victorian mass-produced merchandise and poor quality, cookie-cutter designs. Pottery was an ideal expression of the Arts and Crafts movement, explain Bruce Smith and Yoshiko Yamamoto in The Beautiful Necessity.

    It comprised individual craftsmanship that could be done on a small scale; it was an everyday item that had household use; it was tied to the region and the land by its use of material; and, most importantly, it demanded a close allegiance between the potter and the decorator. Art tiles offered a wonderful new mode of expression, both for the artisans creating them and the homeowners putting them on display in their houses.

    Production Primer

    Tiled mantel surrounds were a quintessential Arts & Crafts statement. Often, they mixed solid background tiles with decorative murals—like this modern fireplace of Grueby green field tiles inset with an idyllic woodland panorama.

    Tiled mantel surrounds were a quintessential Arts & Crafts statement. Often, they mixed solid background tiles with decorative murals—like this modern fireplace of Grueby green field tiles inset with an idyllic woodland panorama. (Photo: Motawi)

    Art tiles a century ago were made in three basic ways; the same is true today. Relief tiles bear three-dimensional designs that look as though they were sculpted or cut into the clay by hand. Tube-lined tiles (also called Cuenca-style after the Spanish word for basin) use thin, subtle lines of clay to form basins that separate glazes in a technique very similar to cloisonne that results in a flat, landscape-portrait-like design. Dry cord tiles (also called Cuerda seca) use a waxy mineral mix that, when painted across a tile, acts as a barrier that keeps glazes from intermingling. Relief tiles were made famous by Ernest Batchelder, who also rubbed away the color along parts of his raised designs to let the clay shine through. The tiles created by Henry Mercer, now produced by the Moravian Pottery & Tile Works, use a similar process and come from one of a handful of studios that have been in operation since the birth of the original art tile movement.

    Today most relief tiles are made by pressing clay into molds with depressed patterns, using either hand pressure or the help of hydraulic equipment. Occasionally designs are supplemented with hand carving, which is the case with some Moravian Pottery designs. Other companies making relief tiles today include Motawi, Laird Plumleigh, Tile Restoration Center, and Pasadena Craftsman Tile.

    Mixing up designs on stairs—like these risers alternating the same pattern in different colors—adds visual interest and creates an inviting decoration for guests.

    Mixing up designs on stairs—like these risers alternating the same pattern in different colors—adds visual interest and creates an inviting decoration for guests. (Photo: Native Tile)

    Earthly Inspirations

    Tile designs were usually rooted in nature, often featuring an array of subjects from the great outdoors. Potteries like Rookwood, Mercer, and Batchelder were renowned for their naturalistic designs. Flowers—especially lilies, jack-in-the-pulpits, and stylized roses—and trees, notably oaks and ginkgos, often worked their way onto decorative tiles. Insects like dragonflies and mayflies could be featured too, along with a variety of leaves and nuts. Of course, nature dominated tile forms partly due to the ethos of the movement, but it also came through the idyllic locales of many potteries, which, operating in pastoral settings, found inspiration in their immediate surroundings. That’s still the case with many of today’s potteries.

    Rookwood and Grueby Faience became famous for their elaborate tile murals bearing landscapes of woodland views and storybook scenes, which often topped fireplaces. These murals could be picturesque to the point of resembling a dreamscape viewed through a morning fog. Motawi, DuQuella Tile, and Revival Tile Works offer tiles in this great tradition today. In addition, Rookwood reopened its doors in 2007 to manufacture pottery and tiles using the original, century-old Rookwood pottery designs and glaze recipes. (Fulper tile also came back to life some 20 years ago as Fulper Glazes, Inc., a company run by the granddaughters of founder William Hill Fulper II. Unfortunately, they closed their doors again in 2001.)

    Tiles could also feature people, usually planting, reaping, or otherwise connecting with the earth. Many of today’s companies, like Moravian Pottery & Tile Works and Weaver Tile, offer tiles with original designs highlighting people, although we’re pretty sure that the Pewabic tiles showcasing football and basketball players are more modern in origin. Another popular original motif was geometrics, ranging from simple crosses spanning a tile to involved, interlocking patterns of circles and ovals.

    A hundred years ago homeowners showed an affinity for Arts & Crafts ideals by permanently grouting art tiles into their mantels, inglenooks, entryways, or kitchen backsplashes. Nowadays, people are just as likely to design entire bathrooms out of art tiles as they are to demurely position one or two in frames to display around their living rooms.

    The last point to make about original designs is possibly the most important: Irregularity was virtually the norm. Individual blips in glaze or clay not only added character, but also reinforced the handmade nature of the product, adding to authenticity. As Ernest Batchelder wrote in a 1912 catalogue, My tiles are hand wrought, they have slight variations of shape and size—they are desirable and inevitable in a hand made product. Today, irregularities are often intentionally crafted into designs and glazes.

    Amazing Glaze

    Patterns of colorful geometric tiles were common in the bathrooms and kitchens of California houses rooted in the design heritage of Spain, like Mission and Spanish Eclectic styles.

    Patterns of colorful geometric tiles were common in the bathrooms and kitchens of California houses rooted in the design heritage of Spain, like Mission and Spanish Eclectic styles. (Photo: Native Tile)

    More than anything, what distinguished Arts & Crafts tiles were their glazes. Be they matte (but not flat), earthy, smoky, or iridescent, the glazes are complex. They were meticulously formulated by artisans (sometimes from ingredients now considered toxic). Applied and variegated individually, and sometimes fired several times, the glazes have a distinct presence all their own.

    Ever heard the phrase Grueby green? It’s used to refer to that deep, greenish-blue glaze—made famous in the 1910s by the Grueby Faience & Tile Company of Boston—that has become so symbolic of Arts & Crafts tile, especially field tiles that are an expanse of color with no sculpted or painted designs. In addition to being the epitome of the Arts & Crafts palette (see Common Colors Used Uncommonly Well, J/F 06 OHJ), that green often appeared to change across the tile, as though moss were growing in one corner and not another. It’s a naturalistic effect closely associated with art tiles, and one not easy to achieve. Another is crackling, whereby the glaze appears shattered—wrought with a web of fine lines as though the tile had been aged or inadvertently dropped—although the appearance is in fact very intentional. Colors almost always appeared in the more muted earth tones—brick red, say, instead of poppy. There’s a reason for this, of course; muted, matte shades help to enhance relief carvings.

    While Grueby greens may be the shades most commonly associated with art tile, many other colors are available today. Pewabic, another original pottery still doing business, has a palette of more than 500 glazes, ranging from bare buffs to deep eggplants and everything in between, including iridescents—Pewabic’s hallmark finish, according to Genevieve Sylvia of their design studio.

    Persian tile rugs, like this one used as a welcome mat, were made trendy by the Malibu Potteries.

    Persian tile rugs, like this one used as a welcome mat, were made trendy by the Malibu Potteries. (Photo: Native Tile)

    Tile of a Different Color

    Not all art tiles came in earth tones. In California, tiles with brighter, more color-laden designs became popular for decorating houses with Spanish architectural details. Mostly created using the Cuerda seca method, and imbued with a combination of Spanish themes and colors fusing the sunny shades of California and the Mediterranean, these tiles were widely used in outdoor spaces like patios, balconies, and fountains, and on stair risers both indoors and out. They could even be added to door surrounds or stucco house exteriors for pure decoration. Tiles made by the Malibu Potteries from 1926 to 1932 are a well-known example, and featured intricate, geometric patterns that even came in murals resembling Persian rugs, complete with a tile-fringe trim. Malibu-style tile rugs can be found today through Native Tile, and other Malibu-inspired offerings are available from California Pottery and Tile Works. The architect Julia Morgan created tiles with similar Moorish underpinnings for her masterpiece San Simeon, the Hearst Castle, and reproductions of her designs are available from Deer Creek Ceramic Studio.

    A third major tile style category was influenced by Europe’s Art Nouveau movement. These tiles, created largely using the Cuenca technique, were also saturated in bright colors, but instead of geometric patterns, they are based on the whiplash lines derived from sprouting seeds and feature highly stylized flowers with sensuous curves that would have been at home on a Parisian Metro canopy. Artus Van Briggle made such tiles famous in 1899, and believe it or not, the Van Briggle studio has recently been resurrected as well, now operating out of Colorado Springs. Other companies making quality Art Nouveau-inspired offerings include Porteous Tiles of New Zealand, and DuQuella Tile in Portland, Oregon. An interesting note on Van Briggle is that he began his career at Rookwood Pottery, where he worked for years before leaving to form his own company. This tradition of shared knowledge continues in the industry today, as the founders of Motawi tile, a modern company with a host of wide-ranging products, learned their craft at Pewabic, one of the oldest studios around.

    In addition to all of the companies making tiles modeled on originals, some eye-catching interpretive offerings are now available. For example, Motawi just launched Frank Lloyd Wright tiles. Wright is not remembered for tiles, of course, but Motawi’s line is based on Wright’s artistry in other forms—namely rugs and stained-glass windows—and they are so well executed that Richard Mohr, a long-time tile collector and OHJ author reports, I even paid retail for one. There are studios offering interpretive or transitional designs on otherwise traditional-looking relief tiles, too, like Weaver, Janet Ontko, Ravenstone Tiles, and Terra Firma Art Tile. Others will create personalized designs of your choosing in relief tiles, or customize colors in virtually all of the other tile types.

    From designs that are authentic to interpretive, created by companies that have seemingly been around forever, or are relatively new to the field, art tile offerings today are plentiful. Their quality is such that they’re sure to become classics in their own right and tomorrow’s collectibles in the making.

    For more information on modern art tile manufacturers, see the Products & Services Directory.

    Published in: Old-House Journal January/February 2008

    { 2 comments }

    susan wallace February 27, 2012 at 12:35 am

    My husband cut out a picture from Old House Guide magazine of a fireplace surround done in decorative ceramic tile (around a year or so ago when collecting ideas for our new home) and I have been unable to locate this particular tile on any site of suppliers. I have already spent a month online searching and am running out of time since chimney being completed this week. I even placed a picture of this fireplace surround on my faceb00k trying to drum up help to locate it. I have viewed thousands of tile and haven’t seen another I like as well. I could email you a copy of tile if anyone is interested in helping me in my search. Very Sincerely, Susan Wallace

    sj March 20, 2015 at 2:43 pm


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