Choosing decorative tiles is one of the great joys of interior design. So many choices! As always, it’s a process of elimination as you consider the era and style of your home, the size of the fireplace and existing features, and your own preferences. You don’t need to be narrow about period, as houses were updated regularly. Conversely, a bungalow might have had a brick hearth in the main room, and a “fussier,” Victorian tiled fireplace tucked into the study.
Late Victorian tiled fireplaces were unabashed in color and design—and choice. Ceramic tile had replaced the slate and marble surrounds of earlier times. Types of tile available (then and now) include encaustic, majolica, hand-painted, blue-and-white, glazed, crackled, bas-relief, trompe l’oeil, allegorical, and figural.
Typically used as firebox surrounds with wood mantelpieces, art-tile “sets” were popular, with historical or natural themes: romantic cavaliers, languid carp, sunflowers or lilies in vertical panels. Usually machine-made and dust-pressed, Victorian-era tiles were set very close together, the grout lines nearly invisible. Shiny glazed tiles were popular, but be careful where you place them. When there is a lot of traffic around the hearth, or wood stacked there, glazed majolica will get scratched. If you’ve bought an antique set of William De Morgan lustre tile, and it has copper in the glaze, it will tarnish with the heat of the fire.
The Arts & Crafts movement introduced plainer matte tiles, sometimes with relief. The tiles were often handmade and thus irregular, so grout lines were wider. Colors were muted or earthy. Themes celebrated the beauty of nature; ginkgo leaves, acorns, and animals were all popular motifs. Tiles became more stylized as Art Nouveau and Art Deco design came into fashion, with geometric patterns and brighter color palettes.
The right choice will be well thought-out, enduring, and, says Steve Moon at Tile Restoration Center, will reflect your own taste.
1. Determine your canvas. Will you be tiling the hearth floor, the firebox surround, or both? Is there a side return? Is there an arch to consider, or are the corners exposed? How does the surround meet the mantelshelf? Scale is important. Too-large tiles may ruin existing proportions. a Accurate measuring is crucial for good design, ordering, and to avoid extra onsite cutting. Many people have the tile dealer or installer finalize the design and do the measuring to avoid very costly mistakes.
2. Assess the substrate. Especially if you’re covering brick or existing tile, be sure to start with a surface that is flat, unmoving, and plumb. (Masonry makes the best substrate.) If you will be using a metal insert or have a drywall surround, cement board (Hardibacker or Durock) firmly attached with screws and with all seams well taped is recommended.
3. Check layout before cementing. Lay out the tile pattern to be sure the design and the fit are working before cementing starts. Apply tiles with a polymer-modified, thin-set cement. Colored grout should function as a subtle background; if you’re uncertain, light gray is neutral. Sanded grouts are recommended for joints over 1⁄8", while smooth grout is better for Victorian tile installations, where grout lines are typically very narrow.