Art Tile – Part 1: The fine art of handcrafted tile
May 1st, 2005

May-June 2005

The category of handcrafted tile embraces far more than art tile—designs recalling the Arts & Crafts movement at the turn of the last century. Today’s handcrafted tile may or may not mimic that era or the Victorian. It’s just as likely to embody a design inspired by the customer’s vision—an image from nature, a love of animals, a favorite sport. Whatever the design source, however, handcrafted tiles reflect an attention to detail and color nuance that is distinctive from mass-produced tile.

At their most essential, handcrafted tiles are hand-pressed in hand-sculpted molds and then hand-painted or glazed, says Ron Williamson, Marketing Services Director at Meredith Tile in Canton, Ohio. In fact, while most handcrafted tile manufacturers have established tile programs of field, accent and border tiles, many also are enthusiastic about handcrafting those designs in custom glazes or crafting additional tiles to meet the vision of the customer. Handcrafted tiles are chosen by the customer who wants handcrafted rather than mass-produced materials, or the customer who wants authentic Arts and Crafts design, or the customer who wants something custom-crafted just for their home or office.

“This is a fairly collaborative studio,” says Roger Maylind, owner and designer at North Prairie Tileworks in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The company has a staff of six, including two part-time sculptors, Maylind, and another designer, and two hand painters and glazers. Together they produce the company’s line of Arts & Crafts-inspired tiles as well as additional tile series. Maylind says about half of the company’s new designs are inspired by client-generated ideas. They are based on custom work for architects, designers and individuals. The other fifty-percent of the company’s new designs developed after one of those six artists explored a possible design and then worked alone or collaboratively with others on the staff to produce the design.

For example, Maylind says the company’s Prairie Lattice series was originally conceived as a series of eight pieces based on staff conversations and drawings. The result was intended for vertical installations, but then the artisans in the company worked with it in horizontal installations like backsplashes and liked the look. Eventually an architect used it in a fireplace surround where he was also able to incorporate the same pieces into imaginative corner designs. “We’re open to that kind of input,” says Maylind, although it’s counter to some studios.

Not all handcrafted tile is ceramic

Oceanside Glass Tile is handcrafted from recycled bottle glass and silica sand, turning those ingredients into functional art, says company representative Carolyn Brown. Unlike other handcrafted tiles that borrow designs from an earlier era, Oceanside uses one of the most popular newer mediums—glass—to capture light and color in its mosaic and larger formats.

The recycled glass/sand mixture is heated, along with various earth oxides to provide color and glass fluxes to help melt the glass, to a molten state, then processed into tile using iron molds in hydraulic presses. A mixture of tin is dusted on the surface to add iridescence and durability. After slowly cooling, the tiles are handcut. Glass trimmings from the cutting process are recycled into more tile. Despite the popularity of the company’s mosaics, larger formats including some with matte and even skid-resistant finishes are also included in the product line.

Who buys handcrafted tile?

Everyone. Architects and designers use handcrafted tile to distinguish particular installations. Many homeowners use handcrafted tile because it suits their interior design, especially Arts and Crafts designs, but also those who simply want something special.

Handcrafted tile costs can vary widely. Williamson says the price can range anywhere from $15 to $80 per piece for handpainted tiles. Field tile runs about $12 to $15 per square foot and up. Maylind agrees that the low end of single polychrome pieces may be in the $30-40 range, but custom pieces, which can start at $100, can run up to $2,000 and more depending on size and complexity.

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