Image 5: When filled with bonded mortar, this tile is less likely to absorb moisture.


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.

Image 1: A page from the 1930 Flint Faience Tile catalog. Courtesy, Tile Heritage Foundation.

An excellent resource for anyone interested in the history of tile is the Tile Heritage Foundation (www.tileheritage.org). Their catalog of titles is a treat for anyone who loves tile, and the first three images in this article were taken from manufacturing catalogs dating between 1920 and 1937. Image 1 shows a page full of raised-line and embossed listellos, but I am attracted, in particular to items #6217 and #6230.

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.

Image 2: A page from the 1921 Associated Tile Manufacturers catalog. Courtesy, Tile Heritage Foundation.

By the 1920s, the dust-press method was perfected for non-vitreous tiles. Image 2, from a 1921 Associated Tile Manufacturers catalog, only hints at the number of trim shapes that were available. These trim shapes were used to detail tile installations and detail the border between tile and other finishing materials such as wood, plaster, wallboard and metal. Manufacturing progress made ceramic tiles more available, but its use was still reserved (aside from the usual kings and potentates) for large institutional buildings and large commercial projects. The residential market was not yet a force.

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.

Image 3: A page from an Enfield Tile catalog. Courtesy, Tile Heritage Foundation.

With its many different profiles and shapes and reasonable prices, Image 3 shows an older catalog that appeals to the residential wall tile market. Thin beadings (listellos) were used to liven up an otherwise plain tile installation, and do so on a budget. Notice that some of the beads and moldings are hollow.

When installed in a wet area, this hollow tile could accumulate moisture and promote the growth of mold or mildew.

These trims are very similar to what we find on the market today, although we don’t have the wide selection available to 1920 tile buyers! Solid decorative elements do not require any special installation considerations, but hollow shapes, when used unfilled in wet areas, are notorious for promoting the growth of mold and mildew (Image 4). To reduce mold, porcelain-body tile and trim are the best choice for tiling wet areas, but even hollow porcelain trim shapes can absorb and hold moisture. For best results, I fill hollow border or accent tiles with bonded mortar (Image 5) prior to installation to greatly reduce absorption. As well, filling a hollow tile greatly increases its impact strength.

The author fills this chair-rail molding with bonded mortar to increase its impact strength.

When strength is an issue, filling a hollow tile is only part of the solution. When I know an installation will get banged around, such as chair-rail molding atop a wainscot wall, the trim tiles need to be strong and installed with additional support. Image 6 shows a porcelain chair-rail tile whose back has been coated with a thin layer of latex thinset mortar and filled with a compatible latex setting-bed mortar. The bonded mortar bed will ensure that the high-impact strength porcelain trim tile will be adequately supported.

Long backer board screws, partially threaded through the backer boards and into 2x blocking, provide secure anchorage for the chair-rail tiles.

To ensure that the chair-rail tiles stay attached to the wall, I begin at the structural stage and make certain that solid 2x blocking is installed at the height of the chair-rail tiles. After the backer board walls and membrane are installed, I partially screw long backer board screws so their protruding heads serve as an anchor for the mortar filling the trims (Image 7).

The author uses site-cut liners to solve layout problems and add low-key detailing to the simplest installations. The factory-made stop that details the chair-rail trim atop the wainscot wall lies outside the plane of the shower enclosure.

Listellos, liners, and border tiles are often thought of as contrasting decorative elements, but this is not always the case. For example, the liner shown in Image 8 is an element I use when designing an all-tile bathroom that includes a stall shower. Rather than starting off the bathroom floor’s cove tiles with a full-size 12-inch tile and cut 1-inch off the 12-inch tiles set over the shower floor’s cove tiles (sitting 1-inch higher than the bathroom floor due to the sloped base supporting the shower floor tiles), I set full tiles over the shower’s cove tiles, and make up the difference outside the shower area with liners cut on-site from off-cut waste. Most customers call this a decorative feature (“The pin-strip is BEAUTIFUL!”) instead of what it actually is: a correction to the layout. Such is the power of those thin slivers of tile we call listellos, borders and molding.

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