When it comes to their living spaces, today’s homeowners are more savvy than ever. They are taking more interest in their home designs, and during the product selection process, many come armed with specific product names and styles that they are drawn to. Many homeowners are willing to make a sizeable investment if it means creating a unique interior design that adds value to their residence. As a result, it seems the popularity of artisan tile is on the rise. Homeowners, as well as design professionals, are turning to various types of handmade or custom tile to make an artistic statement in their residential designs.
Rookwood Pottery Co.
Christine Nelson Design 
Original Mission Tile

Josh Blanc, President of the Handmade Tile Association in Minneapolis, MN, agrees that the use of handmade tile in design has grown in recent years. “Americans who want one-of-a-kind or custom work have been able to find tile artists online,” he said. “And, the access to beautiful design and quality work has propelled the popularity of commissions and direct sales.”

One important message Blanc would like to relay about handcrafted tiles is that they don’t necessarily pinch a budget as consumers might believe. “When customers compare prices based on the whole project instead of solely on square foot price, they are usually surprised at its affordability,” he explained. “For example, most kitchen backsplashes and fireplaces average 8 to 30 square feet of tile needs. Most projects of that size run $300 to $3,500 for all handmade tile. Compared to the kitchen cabinets, which can run $10,000 to $60,000, the tile is a bargain, and it is the centerpiece of the space. We offer budget comparisons on our Web site.”

The Handmade Tile Association takes steps to educate consumers as well as tile setters about the unique qualities of handmade tiles. “Our directory has invested in writers, artists, tile setters and historians from around the country on a variety of topics to help people who are curious about handmade tile get the whole scope of tile making, tile setting, history and fun facts about tile. We have a ‘learn’ section on our Web site that we archive all of our articles. Also, our newsletters and Facebook posts give people daily inspiration and useful information on classes and tile news.

“I would say that handmade tiles are less about trends and more about two concepts,” Blanc went on to say. “The biggest is historic reproduction, and period tile is needed to keep the authenticity of homes in America accurate and to keep the look and feel of the periods. Most handmade tiles look original to a home and add value to a home’s integrity. Consumers who buy homes for the period look — whether it is a Victorian, Arts & Crafts or Mid-century — crave original work or authenticity. Handmade tiles offer those options. We have many artists in the directory that fill people’s needs and desires.”

Additionally, Blanc believes that “Americans revere individuality.” “Handmade tiles offer the most options and finishing components than current commercial tiles,” he said. “As our country gets older, more homes become historic designations and tile artists help people achieve their visions.”

One-of-a-kind looks

Rookwood Pottery Co. in Cincinnati, OH, is one artisan tile manufacturer that has been helping people realize their visions for more than a century. “Because each of our tiles is handcrafted, and each commissioned for a specific client, every job is a unique job,” explained Allan Nairn, Art Director of Rookwood.

According to Nairn, inspiration for tile designs can come from a host of sources. “It’s very difficult to assess where inspiration comes from,” he said. “It starts with gathering information, drawings, photographs, clippings from magazines, and refining and editing the material collected until an idea starts to emerge. Talking with team members and getting feedback is essential. It’s a process that, most of the time, has no visual shape or form. Emotions run between excitement and frustration. What I know after four decades of working with clay is that it requires hard work, observing, listening and thinking. You have to trust that eventually, it finally works. In some ways, it becomes a question of faith.”

Jon Williams, a ceramist at Rookwood, explains that it is the glazes that make a tile unique. “Our firing and cooling schedule is slow and long,” he said. “This process yields interesting glaze results, with multiple colors and varied thicknesses coming from one glaze. The result is a range of shade and color varieties.”

Williams went on to say that consistency is the most challenging aspect of creating handcrafted tile. “No matter what people say, the largest issue by far is defining what variation is,” he said.

Rookwood tile is often used in kitchen and bathroom designs of mid- to high-end homes, according to Williams. “Our large fireplace architectural molding tile is unique in the American handcrafted tile category,” he said. “We’re also creating more murals for commercial use, and we are seeing increasing demand for restoration projects, such as the recent tile restoration of the century-old Monroe Building in Chicago.

“Our customers appreciate the craftsmanship we put into making this product,” Williams went on to explain. “We are a small American tile and pottery manufacturer with a 133-year reputation. We’re not producing a commodity — we’re creating art. The collaboration and teamwork we experience at Rookwood is an essential part of our process.”

Balancing technique and creativity

Barbara Sallick, Founder and Senior Vice President of Design at Waterworks in Danbury, CT, also believes that there has been a spurt of growth in the use of artisan tile in recent years. “The interest in handcrafted tile is stronger than five years ago,” she said. “There is an interest in materials that are handmade, but are more refined than in the past. This is not a craft moment. It is an artisan moment.”

According to Sallick, the most challenging aspect of creating handmade tile is to find a partner who has the perfect balance of technical skill and creativity. “While the manufacturing of handmade tile has not changed significantly in recent years, technology has catapulted porcelain tile into a new and different category,” she explained. “Digital photography has led to the creation of ‘look-alike’ stone and wood tiles in very large scale, and the use of CNC machines has made cutting materials into unique shapes an automated process.”

For inspiration, Sallick turns to museums, travelling and fashion. “I am interested in color, texture and shapes, and these can be found in modernist buildings and historic relics,” she said.”I like designs that have a foundation in classicism, however, my approach is to give our designs an updated and fresh outlook. Our tiles are unique because we have a strong point of view and are rigorous editors.”

Designing with handcrafted tile

Christine Nelson of Christine Nelson Design in Minneapolis, MN, has long been an advocate of artisan tile. “I incorporate them as often as I have clients that are interested in using handmade tile,” said the designer, who has been involved with the Handmade Tile Association for many years. “Even if they are not often aware of the wealth of tile artisans we have here in Minnesota, I do try to educate them through the Handmade Tile Directory and encourage them to attend the Minnesota Tile Festival in September. If they are open to using local tile artisans, I do try to arrange for a studio/showroom visit of artists they might enjoy in their space.

“I grew up in a family with two artists for parents, and my brother is a graphic and Web designer, so it is in my blood to encourage clients to assimilate and enjoy art in their lives and spaces,” Nelson continued. “I believe the kitchen backsplash is a great area for displaying art through tile, and it can pull the colors of the space together through the use of handmade tile. I also believe in having the space ‘branded’ as unique to each client’s wishes, colors, interests and hobbies.”

Nelson admits that some clients do have hesitations when it comes to employing handcrafted tile in their home designs. “They need to be educated about the ‘handmade qualities,’ hence beauty, of using handmade tiles,” she said. “The thickness, the variations of the straight edges — or not-so-straight edges — and the variances of the glaze differences are all elements that we talk about as we are viewing the tile in an artist’s showroom/studio. It is necessary to have an excellent tile installer who is familiar with installing handmade tile. They can truly enhance the uniqueness of the artisan tile.”

The designer said that she is seeing more major tile showrooms displaying more handmade tiles by artisans, and as a result, the use of these tiles are now reaching beyond residential designs. “We are seeing them used more in restaurants and commercial buildings for the general public to enjoy and appreciate, and galleries are displaying them as ‘art’ and not just manufactured tile,” Nelson explained. “We also have a great tile history here in the U.S., and many buildings historically show off the uniqueness of handmade tile from decades ago. Of course, Europe and the Eastern countries have a much longer history of using handmade tiles in their public spaces and buildings.”

As a designer, Nelson makes a point to keep herself abreast of new handmade tile introductions. The Handmade Tile Association, design trade magazines and trade shows are the leading sources that she relies on for information.

Cement tile

In addition to clay tile, cement tile is also being seen more in both residential and commercial designs. “Cement tile’s popularity has been growing in the U.S. year after year,” said Wilhem Stevens of Original Mission Tile. “Cement tile is an old ‘new covering’ material for the U.S. market. Not all architects and designers know about this great material, but when they have the experience to work with cement tiles, they fall in love with them thanks to the great flexibility to create any architectural design and style — from classic to contemporary — and it provides their personal signature.”

Inspiration for Original Mission Tile’s designs comes primarily from its customers, who are generally designers and architects. “We also do new designs inspired in the new color trends and architectural styles,” explained Stevens. “Most of our designs were created in the last 100 years and each design has a different ethnic influence. The original technique was developed in the late 1800s in Europe when Portland cement was created.”

When starting the process to create cement tile, the first step is to prepare the colors according to the customer’s order specifications. “Each tile is made individually, and slight variations in color and shade might occur, which is an inherent characteristic in cement tiles, as they are made with natural materials,” explained Stevens. “Our artisans make each individual tile by pouring the colors in each section of the design mold. As a manufacturer, we are able to create new designs, shapes and textures according to the project specification. A divider is set into the mold. This divider will separate the colors to create the surface of the cement tile. The divider is removed and a mixture of fine sand and Portland cement is applied. This is the second layer used as a drier and reinforces the first layer of the cement tile.”

The last step in the process entails applying a porous mixture made of sand and Portland cement, according to Stevens. “This third layer has the required thickness for impact strength,” he said. “Our cement tiles are hydraulically pressed to give them their hardness. Cement tiles are cured underwater for a 24-hour period for extra hardness and then tiles are placed in a solarium to get dry for another 24 hours. Finally, our tiles go through a meticulous quality control — checking piece by piece — to carefully select the pieces that will complete the order. They are then packaged and palletized to be shipped to the customer.”

According to Stevens, approximately 80% of Original Mission Tile’s products are customized. “Architects and designers prefer to personalize their design according to their project’s style,” he said. “The most common application is for floors, but also the tiles are used for wall and ceiling applications. Cement tiles have great strength and durability, and that’s why tiles have been used in many high-end commercial projects, like hotels, restaurants and retail stores. They are also used in high-end private houses for main areas such as living rooms, entrance halls, kitchen floors, backsplashes, bathrooms and showers.”

Trend-setting designs

Husband-and-wife team Marcos Cajina and Melanie Stephens, owners of Granada Tile, which is based out of their home in Los Angeles, also see a rise in the popularity of cement tile. “We have had ever-increasing interest from trendsetting designers and architects for both commercial and residential projects,” they said. “The expanding use of cement tile in high-end restaurants and resorts has increased awareness of these tiles among patrons.”

About 60% of Granada Tile’s production is custom tile. “We have about half residential and half commercial,” said Cajina and Stephens, when talking about specific applications where their cement tiles are being used. “The residential applications are typically kitchen, bathroom, living room, dining room, study, deck, and patio floors and walls. The commercial applications are usually floors and walls in restaurants, bars, cafes, resorts, spas, retail space and offices.

“Our sources of inspiration include historic tiles, forms in nature, the works of artists such as Calder, Japanese embroidery and pure geometry,” they went on to say. “We also look to fashion for ideas to translate into floor and wall tiles.”