Floors, Walls, Ceilings, Surface Finishes

Tile Style

Two leading suppliers of period-style flooring tile speak of their backgrounds and experiences in the field.

Click here for a list of suppliers of tile flooring

By Nicole V. Gagné

Measuring about 3x3 ft. (including grout), the handsome decorated-tile Palmerston panel from Tile Source, Inc., of Hilton Head Island, SC, is comprised of three dozen individual tile and features several classic Victorian-era design motifs. Photo: courtesy of Tile Source, Inc.

The reliance on tile in the flooring of homes is almost as old as dirt floors, with examples of ceramic floor tile traced back to Asia as early as the 4th millennium B.C. The ancient Romans had a special fondness for tile flooring and introduced the making of tile throughout their occupied territories in Western Europe. Although the practice of tile making went into eclipse along with the Roman Empire, the art was revived in 12th-century Europe by Cistercian monks, who used tile for cathedral and church floors. The tile were then known as “inlaid tile,” as they used from two to six different colors of clay to form a pattern that was inlaid into the tile, thus ensuring that, as the tiles were worn down by foot traffic, their design would remain. The enthusiasm for inlaid tile waned with the coming of the Reformation in the 16th century, but another resurgence in tile’s popularity arose in Europe by the mid-19th century, thanks largely to England’s Herbert Minton, the father of the modern tile industry. It was then that this tile came to be known as “encaustic” because of its resemblance to enamel work (a technical misnomer that has nevertheless stuck).

Andrew Jackson Downing, 19th-century America’s celebrated architect and tastemaker, lauded the practicality of using encaustic floor tile in vestibules and entrance halls. If the beauty of Tile Source’s Arundel line, here defined by a Bronte border, isn’t reason enough to have tile flooring, consider the advantages of having such a resilient and easy-to-clean surface in this well trafficked area. Photo: courtesy of Tile Source, Inc.

In the U.S., tile flooring received a major boost from Andrew Jackson Downing, whose 1850 book, The Architecture of Country Houses, praised encaustic floor tile for residential use, especially in vestibules and entrance halls. An American tile-making industry began not long after the Civil War and lasted until about 1930, due in no small part to the frequency of tile flooring in such early 20th-century house styles as the Spanish Colonial Revival and other Arts and Crafts-inspired designs. Despite yet another eclipse in demand during the Depression and the war years, the market for flooring tile steadily expanded in the following decades, in response to the burgeoning preservation trend. Today, there are companies in the U.S. that supply encaustic flooring tile made in the old style, for both restoration and new-construction projects. Two leaders in the current field are American Restoration Tile of Mabelvale, AR, and Tile Source, Inc., of Hilton Head Island, SC.

Restoration Tile
“I started American Restoration Tile in 2000, but I have a degree in ceramic engineering and have been making tile for 34 years,” says the firm’s owner, Bryan Byrd. “I was interested in starting this business because I had always been interested in the restoration market, and I knew there wasn’t a manufacturer that specialized in these products. I primarily founded the business to make tile for government buildings and other buildings that were on the National Historic Register, where there was a requirement to preserve whatever was originally there and make a patch that matched it exactly and couldn’t be found in that floor. That was the original thrust of the business, recreating tile for restoration projects. From there, with the popularity of the Internet, I’m available to reach everyone all over the world, homeowners in particular. Now my business is half or more residential. A lot of people have old homes that they’re restoring, or they have old homes where they’re taking maybe a 10x10-ft. bedroom and turning it into a modern-size bath, but they want the bath to look like it was original to the home. We know what tile was available, so if someone is doing a restoration, we can now tell them what colors were available at that time, so the new tile won’t be out of period. We have some of the colors on our website; plus, we have a lot of information here internally, which we’ve gathered over the years.”

A frame of Telford decorated border and corner tile sets off a series of Gladstone decorated panels, both from Tile Source. The floor of this Victorian-style conservatory is further highlighted by the firm’s Livingstone decorated tile, placed intermittently to enliven the floor’s geometric grid arrangement. Photo: courtesy of Tile Source, Inc.
You can’t go wrong with the classics, as we’re always told, and this tile floor from American Restoration Tile of Mabelvale, AR, certainly proves that point. The firm’s beloved Spiral tile, measuring 3/4  x 1 9/16 ins., with a central black 3/4 x3/4 -in. dot, bring beauty, convenience and period-style simplicity to this floor. Photo: courtesy of American Restoration Tile

Perhaps the most significant factor in the success of American Restoration Tile has been the growing trend of new houses built in period styles. “I would say that probably 25 percent of my business is now modern construction built in, say, a 1905 style,” says Byrd. “It’s been stimulated in part by the resurgence of downtown areas that had originally been residential and then became, in many cases, vacant lots. Someone says, ‘I want to live there but I need to have a house that looks like it’s always been there.’ You wouldn’t build a Modern house down there, because it would look out of place.”

Although the tile flooring (and often the house) may be new, the method of manufacturing the tile has changed very little, according to Byrd. “The processes and the materials are almost exactly the same,” he says. “The pressing process now utilizes hydraulic presses as opposed to mechanical presses, but the forming method is the same. The firing process is also the same, using either electricity or gas. Most of the old firing was done with gas, but in my reproduction work, I use all electric to eliminate the products from the combustion of the gas as factors in matching shade. You get more control over shade and color this way. The atmosphere of the kiln is a factor in the color of the tile, and we eliminate that by using electric kilns. The ceramic materials are also essentially the same; they’re a little more refined now, but basically they’re the same, from essentially the same deposits.”

The firm’s involvement in the installation of tile is minimal, related mostly to what Byrd describes as “giving recommendations for installing the tile and for the types of grout to use.” He notes that all of the tile is mounted onto repeating sheets, so it comes to the contractor ready to be put together. By narrowing its focus, American Restoration Tile can be more responsive to the demands of this growing market. “We normally run an order in about eight to ten weeks; sometimes a larger project will take longer than that,” says Byrd. “I built the factory so that we can respond very quickly to a need. And the reason for that is, so often in a residential project the customers know what they want but they haven’t been able to find it yet. So they’ve continued their project up to the point where now they have to have tile. It’s time to make the tile now. And because I own the factory, I can turn it on and make it do what it needs to do at any point.”

The favored period for Byrd’s clients covers most of the heyday of American tile making, from about 1895 up to about 1930. “The most popular tile is 1-in. hexagon and 3/4 -in. squares,” says Byrd. “They’re used mainly in bathrooms and kitchens, entryways and exterior porches. That is where tile has always been used.”

These 3/4 x3/4 -in. Square tile from American Restoration Tile – one of the firm’s top-selling items – have been placed in a broken-joint arrangement, giving variety to the floor pattern. The tile are highlighted by a two-color geometric border and enjoy additional visual activity thanks to a switch in the tile’s layout: The broken-joint alignment runs “vertically” (from this camera angle) in the room at top, and “horizontally” in the center doorway and the room at bottom. Photo: courtesy of American Restoration Tile

Tile Replicas
One might say that tile is in the blood of David Malkin (and his progeny; he’s now partnered with his son James, who has more than 25 years of experience in the tile industry). The owner of Tile Source, which he founded in 1997, Malkin is a descendant of the family that launched Edge Malkin & Company in 1865. That firm became a major influence in tile design and innovation as Malkin Tile (Burslem) Ltd. and merged with the tile-making giant H&R Johnson Richards Tile in 1968, with Malkin as head of public relations for the new group. In 1974, they received an inquiry concerning re-tiling the floor of the Arts & Industries Building at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and a small plant, spearheaded by Malkin, was started to produce encaustic and geometric tile. “I was lucky enough to travel around the world several times in the 1970s and ’80s,” says Malkin, “and was able to look at some of the floors that were tiled with English tile in the 19th century – some even by my forebears. So I was able to establish that there was a need for a small plant to manufacture these very special and expensive tile. As a result, there has been a realization on the part of those people who own buildings that were built in the 19th century, which were tiled with English encaustic tile, that there is now a company that will remake the tile exactly as they were made in the 19th century.”

The restoration and preservation markets were the impetus for Malkin’s work, both prior to and following the formation of Tile Source. “There has been a huge spate of restoration work in the U.S. in the last 20 years,” he explains. “I’m not sure whether it has peaked yet, but we still have a number of major contracts that require a complete refurbishment of the original flooring, which was in the main English tile. We tell our clients that there are two courses of action. One, you can use a tile that is identical to those that were used when your house was built. Or there is now a substitute tile that’s mass produced and which has similar designs to those that were made in the 19th century but which is much less expensive. And the man in the street does not know the difference in them or very rarely knows the difference.”

The floor of this period-style bathroom (note the sink legs and clawfoot tub) is decorated with American Restoration Tile’s 3/4 x 3/4-in. Square tile. To avoid mon-tony from the white tiles’ straight-joint placement, light-green tile is arranged in a diagonal diamond-grid pattern, punctuated by rust-color squares. This arrangement is further elaborated by a needlepoint-like design at the center: a decorative hub that features the aforementioned colors along with dark green and burgundy squares (also used in the baseboard visible at the upper left). Photo: courtesy of American Restoration Tile

Challenging restoration’s hegemony in the market for tile, however, has been the demand of newly built period-style houses, and that shift has impacted Malkin’s business profoundly: “In value, I would think it is about 60 percent new construction and 40 percent restoration. If you look at the physical quantities of tile produced, it’s even smaller for the pure restoration projects, but that tile is very expensive. The original tile was handmade, and there’s an enormous amount of craftwork in the making of an encaustic tile because it’s done entirely by hand. So for the average person who wanted a Victorian-feeling house, this tile became very expensive indeed.” The effort to make quality tile available on an affordable level led Malkin to what he regards as the most significant innovation in the manufacture of vintage-style tile. “A very enterprising company in England, which I happened to know very well, called Original Style of Devonshire, developed a way of mass-producing encaustic-tile designs for floors, which brought the price down to very, very reasonable levels. That’s why the growth market at this moment is the use of faux tile for private homes.”

The other boon to today’s market for tile has been the Internet, which Malkin says has helped enormously. “We get inquiries all the time, from all over, although we specialize in the U.S. and Canadian markets,” he says. “It’s far more difficult for me to export tile to Japan, say, or to South America than it is for tile to be exported from England, so I leave that to others.”

The demands of these expanding markets have introduced a varying amount of lead time in supplying customers of Tile Source. “It depends on the quantities,” says Malkin. “It takes probably about six months for genuine tile. It all depends on the complexity, how much research has got to be done and how much trial work to get the thing right.” That complexity, plus the cost, have only served to further the demand for the firm’s faux tile. “There is no doubt that the faux tile is by far the most popular, because it’s affordable for the average person who wants a Victorian-style floor. I think by far the most popular design is one called Inverlochie, which happens to be the one that we advertise quite a lot.”


Click here for a list of suppliers of tile flooring