Something Special
March 1st, 2007

By Beth Rogers

March-April 2007

One in an occasional series highlighting unique tiles

Tile offers a wonderful way to personalize any residential or commercial setting, but some tiles—like the examples here—offer unique, handcrafted and/or one-of-a-kind attributes.

Tile is exciting because it has become an element that truly allows one to express his or her personality. In an era of tract mansions and covenants that dictate exterior paint schemes, people still want to express their individuality in their interiors. Factory-made field tile will yield an infinite number of design options but many consumers are turning to one-of-a-kind art tiles or tiles made from unusual materials to distinguish themselves and their surroundings. TileDealer recently talked to a handful of manufacturers whose products represent the variety of tiles and materials available to the consumer who wants something special.

Twenty years ago Blane Kivley was designing and installing high-end bathrooms. He noticed that clients would call him back after three or five years, already bored with their bathrooms, and want a redesign. So Kivley thought of a way to come up with a product that wouldn’t give people a chance to get tired.

Today Kivley is president and CEO of Moving Color of Rocklin, California. The company, which was formed in 2005, manufactures glass tiles using slumped glass bought from Oceanside Glass or UltraGlas which it treats with liquid crystal or thermo-chromatics in a closely held, patent-pending process. The tiles then change color when exposed to heat. “The product is dynamic in that when it goes through heat transfer it blooms into color, or it may lose color,” Kivley explains. Every tile is hand made and made to order and will contain chips, cracks, bubbles, and other irregularities that “are part of the beauty of each tile.”

Moving Color’s “Northern Lights” line acts like a mood ring. The field tile appears an opalescent black which morphs from amber to green to blue when exposed to heat. The “Watercolors” line starts out with a base color that fades when exposed to heat. In a shower, when heated water randomly hits the wall, “you get a range of beautiful color, almost like a cloudy sky,” says Kivley. “It’s amazing. Then when you get out they all return to their original base color.” The company also works with an artist who has painted both tiles and large sheets of glass. For example, says Kivley, “You could have a whole landscape scene. And then you turn the shower on and it changes seasons.”

Most of the tiles are 4 x 4, although Moving Color can make them in different sizes and shapes. They are designed for use on walls and floors in interior environments.

Moving Color is still a very small company—last year it only sold 1,000 feet of tile—but growing. Its tile was recently installed at the Mickey Mouse penthouse at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim. The company is currently working on a sunburst pattern for a radiant heated floor. A Zen bathroom installation in Redondo Beach, CA, used a meandering stream of Northern Lights tile throughout a floor of stone field tile.

Moving Colors tiles start at around $200 a square foot but Kivley says that price isn’t a deterrent if the tiles are used judiciously. For example, in conjunction with a less expensive field tile, one could do a wave through a shower and get a good effect for $800 to $1000.

Buzz is just starting about the company. “Up until now, architects and designers didn’t even realize this was possible,” says Kivley. The company just had its product featured on HGTV’s “I Want That” and now, thanks to the steadily-building publicity, Moving Colors is fielding daily inquiries from places as far away as Dubai.

At the moment, however, the only way to buy Moving Colors tiles is from the company. The company hopes to pick up distributors and it is currently developing the story boards, literature, and other collateral needed to support a dealer network.

Recycling leather into tile

EcoDomo LLC of Rockville, Maryland, started as an environmentally-friendly tile distributor in 2005 with the goal of introducing “green” and recycled tiles to the marketplace. Initially, notes principal Christian Nadeau, the company had handmade terra cotta tile and metal tiles made from recycled car parts, but discovered that the most profitable and popular tile was a recycled leather tile imported from South America, now the company’s sole product.

“There was a high degree of interest in leather,” says Nadeau. “Leather has been very popular in furniture applications and apparel and it’s an extension of this to the marketplace for flooring and wallcoverings.”

Nadeau compares recycled leather to recycled paper. The tiles are made from leather industry scraps that are pulped then pulled back together using natural rubber and acacia tree bark. The company did two years’ worth of R&D to develop a product that would duplicate the smell and feel of straight hide leather with less of its drawbacks—namely abrasion and moisture absorption. Recycled leather tiles have a much higher resistance to abrasion than real leather as proven in Frick-Taber independent tests and one tenth the humidity absorption.

Additionally, says Nadeau, true leather is twice the price of recycled. EcoDomo’s tiles cost $23.95 a square foot regardless of size, color, or texture. Yet, he claims, it is virtually indistinguishable from real leather, both in look and feel. “We’ve had high-end designers look at our product and natural leather and they couldn’t tell the difference.”

Leather tile gives a unique effect. EcoDomo’s tiles have been installed in bedrooms, home cinemas, dining rooms, powder rooms, media rooms, libraries, and home offices. Commercial projects include luxury hotels, museums, bars, restaurants, members’ clubs, recording studios, theaters, galleries, boardrooms, and offices.

Tiles need to be acclimated to their environment for 48-72 hours prior to installation. The tiles are then glued down like a vinyl or cork floor with a low-VOC, water-based adhesive. Once installed, a paste wax like Butcher’s is applied and buffed for extra protection and polish. For further protection, the leather can be coated with a water based-sealer like Aqua Mix or Street Shoe. With a little bit of maintenance, the tiles are resistant to staining from alcohol, water, or other fluids. The tiles develop a patina and improve with age if maintained properly. Many people find leather particularly pleasing underfoot, because it has a quieter, more yielding surface than hardwood or stone.

The company advises against using the tiles in high moisture and humidity areas such as kitchens and bathrooms. For the same reason, the product is not recommended for below-grade applications. The company’s tile is currently available through 55 retailers throughout the US or by contacting them directly.

EcoDomo is a member of the US Green Building Council, and builders that use EcoDomo tiles can earn credits under the USGBC’s Leadership in Environmental Design (LEED) designation. Interestingly, Nadeau thinks only about a third of the sales are related to the fact that the product is green. Most people are drawn to the tile because of its warmth.

Function or art?

Motawi Tileworks of Ann Arbor, Michigan, began in 1992 when Nawal Motawi, who had studied sculpture and ceramics at the University of Michigan and worked at Pewabic Pottery in Detroit, set up a table displaying her tiles at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market. She was commissioned to make a fireplace surround and was soon joined by her brother Karim. For a while, the siblings worked out of a garage. Today the company has more than two dozen employees, and the distinctive tile, influenced by early 20th century decorative artists, is sold through 65 high-end tile showrooms.

The company uses a locally-produced clay from Rovin of Taylor, MI, that has been specially blended for Motawi. The clay starts as a porcelain but essentially becomes a white stoneware through the addition of grog.

Pam Labadie, Motawi’s marketing director, notes that about half the tiles are sold for functional purposes. The other half are sold to individuals who collect them and display them as works of art. The company has shown its work at numerous craft shows around the country and works with around 300 gift stores, galleries, and museum stores.

At $100 a square foot, the tile is expensive. Most customers use it judiciously in powder rooms, kitchen backsplashes, and fireplace surrounds—“anywhere a client might want a real focal point.” The machine-pressed field tiles are hand finished with specialty art glazes. “Our glazes are quite beautiful and varied,” she notes; so varied, in fact, that retailers must show clients at least three to six pieces of tile to demonstrate the color range before they are allowed to order the tile. Nearly every piece is made to order.

The company’s hand-dipped relief tiles are even more expensive—starting at $34 for a 6 x 6—and use a single glaze. “The glaze just pools and flows and when it’s fired each glaze will break over the edge, which gives it a different color and different tone,” says Labadie. “Our relief tile is designed to highlight that.”

The company’s polychrome tile is produced using a process known as “cuenca” named after the town of Cuenca, Spain. Each tile has ridged areas, allowing the glaze (which is applied by hand with a bulb syringe) to pool in recessed areas, creating an effect similar to cloisonné. The prices of polychrome tile vary depending on the complexity of the design and the number of colors used. Motawi’s most popular pattern is its pine landscape, which ranges from $52 to $64 per tile. An 18 x 42″ mural of the pine landscape is $1680. Some people have installed that mural behind their cooktops or above a fireplace.

Motawi tile has been installed in homes all across the country, although hot spots include regions with lots of Arts and Crafts style homes like Chicago, Pasadena, and Asheville. The company has done murals for the University of Michigan Hospital, and Disney’s Grand California Hotel in Anaheim. Motawi introduces new designs each year, most of them created by Nawal, and will be debuting calla lily and amaryllis relief tiles at the upcoming Coverings show.

Reintroducing bronze tiles

“Metaphor actually reintroduced the bronze tile to the art market,” claims Gail Henningsen, a partner and marketing director for Metaphor Bronze Tileworks. “When we started we were the first on the block…It’s an old, old art form but was almost a lost art. People weren’t selling bronze tiles to tile showrooms.”

More than a decade ago artist Jay Gibson was vacationing in Maine and was captivated by the beauty of beach rocks. Gibson, who studied sculpture at the Pratt Institute and later worked at the Johnson Atelier, a premier bronze art foundry, had the idea that he could cast those rocks in bronze tile. Gibson formed Metaphor Bronze Tileworks in 1997. The company’s tiles are now distributed via high-end showrooms around the country.

Metal tile is definitely a big trend today, notes Henningsen, and Metaphor’s tiles have been installed on walls, floors, backsplashes, and fireplace and pool surrounds. Many people are using the tiles in outdoor installations. “They won’t crack or break,” says Henningsen. “They can handle the weather.” Many customers appreciate the way bronze oxidizes and turns green. For those who want their bronze to remain pristine in an outdoors or wet environment they can choose nickel bronze, or have their tiles lacquered.

One 4 x 4 tile from Metaphor runs around $54, which Henningsen says is reasonable considering that some metal coated tiles approach that price. Typically the tiles are blended with less expensive field tile, and Metaphor’s moldings and listellos are particularly complementary with stone or glass tile.

Gibson has designed about 60% of Metaphor’s lines. The remainder of the designs have been commissioned from other artists. Henningsen points to the pine cone pattern as one of the company’s most popular designs. The company has also ventured into offering glass enameled tile and can silver-plate its tiles for an extra luxe effect.

The tiles are so exquisite that a few people have bought individual tiles and had them framed. The Sunriver Resort in Oregon bought a bunch of the pine cone tiles and framed them, but Metaphor has not pursued the gift market.

Casting is done at an industrial foundry in New Jersey and shipping is done from there. The company hand patinas its tiles using proprietary patinas and a “hot torch” method which allows the company to offer its tiles in a range of colors not commonly associated with bronze such as “yellow ocher” and “cherry.”

Like EcoDomo, Metaphor is starting to plug its product as being environmentally-friendly (although this came as an afterthought, not by design) after hearing from their showrooms that they were being asked more frequently to spec green products. Metaphor’s tiles are made from recycled copper that is alloyed with other ingredients such as recycled silicon chips. The green sand used in the molds during the foundry process is constantly reused. The tiles themselves could be recycled—should anyone choose to do so.

Although Metaphor is based in Maine, Henningsen says that it has had strong sales in areas like Colorado and Lake Tahoe. Where tile is often sold as a function of the showrooms, notes Henningsen, “If the showroom and their designers really love and understand the work, they will sell it.”

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