In the late 15th century, under the Ottoman Empire, craftsmen of İznik — an Anatolian town in northwestern Turkey — created their own rendition of ceramic tile by replacing the traditional clay used with quartz. The innovative technique produced a bright white base, which made the four traditional colors found in İznik pieces — turquoise, cobalt, malachite and coral — stand out under a thick, white transparent glaze composed of a mixture of quartz, metal oxides and soda called sır, which translates to “secret” in Turkish.

The çini, as the tiles are known locally, were used to adorn public spaces and important buildings in Istanbul, including the Hagia Sophia, since they were favored by the Ottoman sultans. İznik ceramics continued to spread far and wide, even piquing the interest of Genoese and Venetian merchants, but ultimately disappeared by the late 17th century after the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

Although this ancient art form disappeared more than 300 years ago, it still has an impact on art and architecture throughout the world today, and was a source of inspiration for a playful and engaging, temporary tiled walkway within the arch of St. John’s Gate in the Clerkenwell area of London.

“St. John's Gate is over 500 years old and one of the area's most iconic architectural landmarks. In today's fast-paced society, it is all too easy for people to go about their daily commute with a blinkered view and take for granted the built environment around them,” said Lianne Russ and Phil Henshaw, co-founders of russ + henshaw in London. “Our vision was to create an intervention that would place a focus on this spectacular example of medieval design and engineering, and to remind people of the beauty within the city fabric that they navigate daily.

“Inspiration for the installation came from the use of ceramics in Turkish and Islamic architecture,” the designers went on to say. “In particular, we were fascinated with decoration that featured infinitely repeating mathematical patterns such as Penrose Tiling. These mesmerizing designs contain both reflective and rotational symmetry; a form of patterning that inspired us to pursue the themes of infinity and reflection through the optical effects of mirrors.”

The design team utilized around 540 square feet of parallel mirrors on the inner walls of the arched landmark and more than 7,200 ceramic tiles from Kale Seramik and VitrA on the floor to create an “optical illusion of an infinite, vibrantly patterned pathway extending beyond the mirrors and diminishing into the distance.”

“Parallel mirrors reflect a space or object between them, creating a series of reflections that appear to recede into an infinite distance. By reflecting the double-vaulted ceiling of the arch infinitely, an illusion will be created of an endless crypt like space reminiscent of the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul,” the designers explained. “To further echo the theme of reflection, the tiled floor has been designed to represent a mirror image of the vaulted ceiling above. The lines of the ribbed ceiling structure divide the floor into 16 triangular segments that frame patterns inspired by the striking color combinations and bold decoration of İznik ceramics. Each of the four different patterns are created using a single geometric tile format in order to demonstrate that, by using a contemporary product creatively, a diverse range of visual outcomes can be achieved.”

The 355-square-foot floorscape featured porcelain tiles from VitrA’s Arkitekt Color collection and ceramic tiles from Kale’s Cube collection, which were chosen because of their colors, surface finish and potential to create interesting geometric patterns. “We wanted to create a modern reinterpretation of traditional İznik design principles and chose 10 complementary tile colors that made reference to this rich heritage, including cobalt, oil blue, sage green, turquoise, scarlet red and yellow over white,” said Russ and Henshaw.

The glazed 5- x 5-cm porcelain tiles from VitrA’a Arkitekt Color collection were used to border the geometric-inspired design of the glazed 8 1/2- x 14 1/2-cm ceramic tiles from Kale’s Cube collection. “The evocative combination of the glazed tiles with polished mirror illuminated the volume beneath the arch, creating a powerful injection of color and transforming the monotone space into a kaleidoscope of ceramics,” the designers added.

The entire design, which was completed in under one month, was prefabricated in a workshop and perfectly tailored to fit the idiosyncrasies of the arch structure using a 3D survey. Since the arch had to remain open during the installation, some last-minute adjustments had to be made onsite to ensure everything went according to plan. “Whilst the majority of the installation was prefabricated in the factory, it was essential that the final few tiles were laid onsite due to construction tolerances,” said Russ and Henshaw. “Our tiler, Colin Barber, had to work tirelessly during rush hour to cover the panel joints and produce a seamless finish. We faced issues, including vibration from foot and vehicular traffic, strict time pressures and changeable weather conditions, including heavy rain. Tiling had to be rapid, but exceptionally accurate.”

The tiled floor was laid in 32 pre-tiled segments over a rigid metal deck commonly used for stage sets, while the mirrors were hung in a vertical sequence from split batons and laminated to ply backing with an intermediate layer of safety foil to avoid shattering.

“The planning between the design team, set builders and myself was very fond and led to what was the acknowledged success of this project in the professionals’, design week visitors’ and also the public’s view,” said Colin Barber, owner of Colin Barber Tiling Co. in London, who completed the installation with one helper. “Work was done in four sections of floor — all exactly marked up by me. The 'spars' were laid first and the color blocks cut into them. The drawings produced were very accurate, and the communication and cooperation from russ + henshaw was very sound. It led to a very positive project all-around, albeit requiring a lot of effort and hours.”

The temporary design was installed during Clerkenwell Design Week in 2014 using products from Ardex Americas in Aliquippa, PA. “Although the work was onto our specification of ply base and was for a short-term install only, the area was a general public walkway/thoroughfare, as well as a working exhibition, so there was a little concern at the overall build and fix spec being for a temporary floor and whether it would deteriorate,” said Barber. “However, the Ardex adhesives, along with diligent fixing work, meant the floor performed above expectations with no issues to speak of.”

The project, which attracted thousands of visitors, was awarded a gold medal at the 2014 London Design Awards. “Tile Mile developed into an installation that challenged perceptions of space and pushed the boundaries of traditional event design,” said the designers. “Tile Mile inspired interest and intrigue, inviting the general public, as well as festival goers, to interact with the installation. Upon stepping into the arch, the viewer experienced the illusion of an elaborate polychrome pathway to a place and space beyond the mirrors. By appropriating the arch thoroughfare of St. John’s Gate, Tile Mile made design accessible to a wider audience and captured the imagination of people of all ages by placing the focus on the experience.”

“Tile Mile” at St. John’s Gate

London, United Kingdom

Architect: russ + henshaw, London, United Kingdom

Fabricator: setWorks Ltd, Croydon, United Kingdom

Tile Supplier: Kale, Istanbul, Turkey (Cube collection); VitrA, Istanbul, Turkey (Arkitekt Color collection)

Tile Installer: Colin Barber Tiling Co., London, United Kingdom

Installation Products: Ardex Americas, Aliquippa, PA (Flex-FS, P 51, X 7 R); Watco, London, United Kingdom (Anti Slip Tile Kit)