It might appear that decorative trim tiles are a new addition to the tile market, but, in fact, decoration has always been a part of the tile industry, and only after many years of plain, white, bone, and almond have tile showrooms been invigorated with bold colors and a wider selection of trim.
The name listello comes from the Latin word listare that means to border with. First-century AD Rome did much to organize and commercialize the ceramic tile trade, but they certainly did not invent the use of narrow strips of tiles used to decorate larger fields of plain tiles. That occurred much sooner. The exact date may never be pinned down, but trim tiles have been dated to at least 4,000 years ago in parts of China, what is now known as Iraq and Egypt, and other places.
Before ceramic tiles, mosaic compositions made from stone were probably the first to use contrasting bits to divide or highlight a tile installation. Prior to written records, when flat stones were used as common household paving materials, it would not have been too difficult to use contrasting materials to help identify or define an individual or group space. Two thousand years ago, with a robust worldwide trade in all things tile and ceramic, the practice of defining a floor or wall space with listellos, moldings, and other manufactured trim pieces was commonplace but because of the high costs, highly finished stone or ceramic tiles were reserved for a ruler, the church, or the ultra-wealthy.
The technological development of ceramic tile manufacturing is a fascinating and deep subject that provides insights into the lives of people whose names may be lost to history, but whose design, manufacturing, and installation talent resulted in the historical works that propel tourists to sites around the world.
Many listellos are patterned after a vine or some other theme of nature, but the rope pattern is a celebration of a product that is rather simple to us, but at one time in our history, was a technological marvel. Strong rope allowed us to catch prey without killing, to make and secure corrals, and ultimately, to domesticate animals. When paired with the wheel, braided or twisted string and rope gave one man the strength of many, and it allowed civilization to grow. It is no wonder it is celebrated as a decorative element. But was it first conceived by a designer, who carefully worked out the placement of the twist so it would continue from one tile to the next, or was the idea first copied by an artisan who used carefully twisted rope to space subsequent courses of wall tiles, and who noticed the reverse pattern of the rope – once it was removed – permanently molded into the tile adhesive? Regardless of shape, size, style, or color, the rope pattern continues its multi-millennia run of popularity.
If you were building a hospital, though, an astonishing array of ceramic tile trim shapes were available – enough to cover every square inch of every floor, wall, countertop and ceiling along with permanently installed concrete. Examination tables, patient bedding, autopsy holding and examination facilities, operating tables, doctor’s desks, waiting-area benches and other architectural elements, including light and vent fixture trim, and many different styles of door and window trim were available. The idea at the time was to provide patient, operating, and laboratory rooms that – once the soft materials like curtains, throw rugs, and toweling were removed – the entire room could be steam-sterilized between uses. Aside from their medical application, the trims on this page could have been used to detail and finish the interior of a refrigerator or freezer locker.