Getting a hold of Keith Bieneman is hard to do these days. His company, Heritage Tile, of Oak Park, Illinois—the same illustrious zip code of the godfather of American architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright—is busy keeping up with product demand. Since introducing the company’s basic subway tile about 10 years ago, they have diversified the Subway line into four other products (Subway Mosaics, Carreaux du Metro, Bungalow, and Cottage), in addition to adding another Heritage line with its own four tile styles (Craftsman, Moderne, Atomic, and Mosaico).
Greater demand requires large-scale production while still maintaining a superior quality. Extensive research recently led Bieneman to Japan for a weeklong observation of some of its tile manufacturing companies. “Traditional tile manufacturing has been preserved for multiple generations in the Far East,” Bieneman explains. “They have mastered the art of never relinquishing the past.” Bieneman brought what he learned back to the U.S.
So what drives this entrepreneur with a bachelors of science in electrical engineering and masters of business administration, both from the University of Wisconsin? “I’m what they call a tile geek,” exclaims Bieneman. “I love connecting designers, architects, and homeowners to authentic products that relate to our past.”
While speaking to local architects, Bieneman discovered a common complaint that the tile industry had a limited scope and availability of historically authentic products. “By understanding how consumers view the industry, we were able to capitalize on brand development through educating our clientele,” he says. “By creating authentic product lines with original material and uniformity, we transported the consumer back to a time and place of bygone eras—versus just throwing a list of products at them.”
Tile manufacturing in the U.S. began in the late 1800s, and the tile provided not only highly desired sanitary environments for kitchens and baths, but also extremely durable flooring for foyers and hallways. “Unglazed porcelain was the universal flooring tile standard due to its unbelievable durability,” says Bieneman. Pieces were sized and manufactured to universal specifications by 20 major companies across the country.
The 1920s provided a platform for unprecedented growth in continued product development and diversification, seamlessly interwoven with the most intricately constructed buildings. Wonderfully preserved pre-Depression-era co-ops and condos display the most beautiful tiles and design to this day. “Not only is it beautiful, but it will never scratch or break,” explains Bieneman. Post-Depression-era tile production included more Art Deco glazed tiles, which also found their way into kitchens and baths.
“Today, our company tries to recapture the same environments of tile’s initial 40-year heyday,” says Bieneman. “By researching the past, we’ve made our products more diversified, more colorful, and more decorative.”
As with other large industries throughout America, tile manufacturing began sliding into oblivion after World War II. The original machinery used to mix the clay, add the various dyes and pigments, and press the forms became harder to maintain and source replacement parts for. Over the next few decades, highly automated machines created more modern tiles of limited size, color, and application. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s until demand for historically reproduced artisan tile began catching interest.
By the mid-2000s, Bieneman partnered with a tile producer in southern California to create the company’s first line of basic subway wall tile, which gained popularity with designers, architects, and homeowners. “Our first large-scale installation was for the Wrigley family home on Catalina Island,” remembers Bieneman. “Since the success of that project, we haven’t looked back.”
Currently, Heritage Tile offers standardized or custom forms of the original subway tile—from Parisienne mosaic interpretation to the bungalow movement to the whimsical cottage style. Along with the Subway line, Bieneman’s in-house designers developed what they call the Heritage line, consisting of rustic Batchelder-Wilson-inspired tiles from the Arts & Crafts movement; streamlined Moderne samples, such as the space-race-inspired Atomic collection; and the colorful Latin-influenced European clay tiles in the Mosaico collection.
“Our goal is to accurately reproduce era-specific tile with the same quality of the original item,” explains Bieneman. “We faithfully reproduce these tiles and create a sense of authenticity.”
Today, Bieneman’s small group of artisans uses computer automated drawings, 3-D scanning and printing, and overnight distribution in an effort to meet the demands of discerning clients. Meanwhile, new product lines are in the works, often taking years to perfect with the right combination of color palette, glaze, and authenticity. “We encourage everyone here to think beyond the product—to become less merchants of tile, and more merchants of quality.”