Floors, Walls, Ceilings, Surface Finishes

Tile’s Golden Age

Arts and Crafts tile has an enduring appeal as an alternative to mechanization and mass production.

Click here for a list of tile suppliers and studios

Designs in Tile’s Persian Revival Murals and Borders line is an adaptation based on unexecuted sketches by William de Morgan. This mural, model #PR1818, measures 18x18 ins. without the border; the continuous Tulip and Carnation border is a 12-in. repeat and can be customized to various heights.

By Martha McDonald

When John Ruskin (1819-1900) wrote about the need for a return to nature, he laid the foundation for the Arts and Crafts movement in England. Led by artists such as William de Morgan and William Morris, it spread to other countries, including the United States, where it flourished for many years. The movement was particularly influential in the area of art tile.

Although originally influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement, American designers began to develop their own styles and were greatly inspired by the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. By the turn of the century, a new generation of American designers was spreading its wings and the domestic version of the Arts and Crafts movement was underway. Numerous tile studios sprang up throughout the country, and many tile designers made their mark during this time. Maria Longworth Nichols (1849-1932) founded Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati, OH; Henry Chapman Mercer (1865-1930), Moravian Pottery and Tile Works of Doylestown, PA; Mary Chase Perry (1867-1961), Pewabic Pottery of Detroit, MI and Ernest Batchelder (1875-1957), The Batchelder Tile Company in Pasadena, CA. Other well-known tile designers of the era included William Henry Grueby (1867-1925) and Herman Carl Mueller (1854-1941).

The Depression and Modernism brought an abrupt end to the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States, and most of the tile studios closed. Fortunately, however, the movement is experiencing a resurgence, both in consumer interest in the tile and in the growing number of studios being opened by individual artists. Like their ancestors of a century ago, people are once again turning away from modernization and beginning to express an appreciation for natural, hand-crafted designs.

Only a few of the original studios still survive, notably Pewabic Pottery and Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, and both are now nonprofit museums. The good news is that new artists and designers are jumping into the marketplace to carry on the Arts and Crafts movement in today’s tile.

This is one example of Pewabic Pottery's new Stratton Tile collection that is kept in stock in its showroom in Detroit, MI. The field tile is offered in eight historic glazes, in 3x3- or 4x4-in. sizes, along with complementary border and trim pieces.

This tile was created by Pewabic Pottery for use in a kitchen backsplash.

Designs in Tile
One of the oldest suppliers specializing in historic and hand-painted tile and murals is Designs in Tile of Mt. Shasta, CA. Founded in 1978 by Selene Seltzer, the firm focuses on English and American Victorian- and Arts and Crafts-style tile, with an emphasis on Morris and de Morgan designs. Its tile has been installed in various projects around the world, and the company’s production schedule is frequently booked for months to come.

“Arts and Crafts tile is being used for kitchens, bathrooms, floors and patios,” says Seltzer, who's president and owner of Designs in Tile. “The possibilities are limitless. Everything we do is custom, and we are booked way in advance,” she says.

“There are so many different styles and techniques within the Arts and Crafts movement,” she states. “It includes everything from ‘sanitary’ subway tile to faience stoneware with a solid glaze to the early English styles of William Morris and William de Morgan to California reproduction styles like Malibu.” For restoration purposes, historic tile should be repaired, if possible, rather than replaced, according to Seltzer. “Accurately matching installed tile is often a big issue in doing a restoration,” she explains. “The cost and time factors become prohibitive for matching glazes and sizes of tile and trim. Manufacturers tried to standardize sizes in the 1920s and ’30s, but to keep their products unique, they often put their own spin on molding and trim styles, sizes and shapes. Most hand-decorated tile production stopped at the time of the Depression. Manufacturers went modern and streamlined.”

This hand-decorated and -fired bird tile from Designs in Tile's Arequipa Mural and Borders line measures 8x12 ins. and was used in a fountain. It is also available as a continuous border.

Pewabic Pottery
Still in operation, although now nonprofit, Pewabic Pottery was founded in 1903 by Mary Chase Perry and her partner, Horace Caulkins, at the height of the Arts and Crafts movement, and was a family business until the 1960s. In 1991 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

“We continue, as per our legacy, to create tile and pottery that we sell at 60 locations throughout the country,” says executive director Terese A. Ireland. “We are essentially a custom house. We completed 183 commissions last year, including residential and commercial projects. Our staff artists work with our own clay, and we make our own glazes. We use 22 tons of clay a year.”

She points out that the studio was originally known for its Arts and Crafts tile, and that is still the bulk of what it does today. “We have a glaze palette that is mostly from the Arts and Crafts era, and we have the classic Arts and Crafts motifs – the tree, acorn and pinecone. We also offer Art Nouveau and modern styles and do lots of Celtic imagery,” Ireland says. “Most often, people ask us to manufacture tile for a new installation. We do some restoration work but very little. The lead time is 12 to 14 weeks for fabrication, after the design process.”

Ireland explains that Pewabic can create custom tile to match historic tile. “If a homeowner is interested in three or four tiles broken out of a fireplace, for example, we can re-create a custom tile, but it involves extensive testing. Normally we can assist people in a more cost-effective way, such as creating complementary tile.”

This fireplace in Altadena, CA, was fabricated by Native Tile and Ceramics using its Arts and Crafts-inspired tile. The studio uses layers of matte glazes created by Diana Watson to achieve its rich, mottled surfaces.

Scenic tile from Native Tile and Ceramics are hand carved, after which molds are made.

Native Tile and Ceramics
Founded in 1991 by Diana Watson, an artist who studied ceramics at UCLA, Native Tile and Ceramics, in Torrance, CA, focuses on Craftsman, Mission, Art Deco and Spanish-Moorish styles. “We have worked on a lot of homes in Southern California,” says Watson, adding that the Mission line is the most popular. “Our Arts and Crafts line is inspired by the Batchelder, Malibu and Catalina tile companies, but we do our own versions using our own glazes.”

The studio, which has 13 employees, sells tile nationwide in approximately 80 showrooms. Like many of the studios of a century ago, it is located in a renovated house.

Watson says that Native Tile used to do more replication and restoration, matching historic tile, but doesn’t focus on that so much anymore. “A lot of the products we offer now came about from matching, studying and trying to emulate historic tile,” she says. “Restoration work absolutely cannot be rushed. Sometimes it takes a couple of years to get an exact match.”

Native Tile currently has more than 500 patterns available, but it doesn’t keep them in stock. “Our customers, primarily architects and designers, usually use our patterns and customize the colors. We make everything to order,” she explains. “The lead time is six to 10 weeks.”

North Prairie Tileworks
Roger Mayland, president and owner of North Prairie Tileworks in Minneapolis, MN, studied pottery in college and then spent 24 years in corporate America before purchasing the 15-year-old studio three years ago. A member of the Handmade Tile Association, he says, “I would say we are one of probably 25 handmade tile companies producing tile for regional distribution. With the renaissance of the bungalow and the strength of the Arts and Crafts home style, the handmade tile has come back into the forefront.” Unlike some others, a large portion of his work is custom replication of historic tile to match restoration projects. “Our restoration projects range from color matching to more complex replication,” says Mayland. “We get requests for color matches ranging from 1950s tile to Batchelder tile. One example of a replication of individual historic tile we did was for the Thomas Wolfe house in Asheville, NC. That project took 18 months.”

The Prairie Lattice pattern tile from North Prairie Tileworks creates a colorful backsplash.

Supplied by North Prairie Tileworks, the custom relief trim around the opening of this fireplace features the family’s coat of arms and the firm’s Blue Stone #374 glaze.

Mayland explains that restoration represents about 15% to 20% of North Prairie’s work. “Restoration, new construction and color matching account for 50% of our work, and the other half is producing tile for remodeling. We have 90 colors in our Arts and Crafts palette,” he says. “Over the years, we have developed a number of relief pieces that are reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement. These designs keep coming back. We have three Rookwood geometric designs that have great staying power and appeal.” People looking for actual antique tile will be disappointed, Mayland explains. “You can look in antique stores or maybe on eBay, but you can’t find this tile sitting around in a warehouse. It seems to be the great illusion that antique tile is available. Maybe some architectural supply companies get demo tile; that’s one possibility, but it doesn’t happen often. Most people looking for antique tile will come to us for replications.”

According to Mayland, most homeowners remove the existing tile and, if they are interested in historic preservation, will replace it with something similar. “Education is critical,” he stresses. “I have a situation now where a floor sander nicked the tile in a hearth, and the owner didn’t have a clue that it was original Batchelder. He brought it to me because the tile got damaged. We have been trying to educate the homeowner that he has historic tile. We are trying to persuade him to replicate or repair the damaged tile.”

Designers and architects looking for handmade Arts and Crafts-inspired or reproduction tile have a wide array to choose from today, thanks to the rebirth of the movement.


Click here for a list of tile suppliers and studios