As a child growing up in Scotland, Sheila A. Menzies was entertained by the stunning floral tiles that surrounded her grandmother’s best room fireplace.
Across the Atlantic in Rochester, New York, Joseph A. Taylor was spending an early childhood in front of a Tiffany tile fireplace at his family’s home.
Inspired by the beauty of tile at very early ages, it was only natural that Menzies and Taylor would join forces to create the Tile Heritage Foundation in Healdsburg, California in 1987. The foundation has since come to be seen as the singular authority on art tile heritage in the United States.
In the One-on-One interview that follows, Taylor and Menzies trace the evolution of their foundation, share their philosophy on the importance art tile preservation, divulge some secrets of their research methodology, and share insights about the future of their organization.
TileDealer: Why is tile preservation important?
Taylor: It’s kind of fundamental, because the tiles that the Tile Heritage Foundation focuses upon are a decorative art form. They would fall into the same category as any other decorative art. When installations of decorative art are part of public places, they become an integral part of the cultural fabric. People identify with this decorative art form on the buildings in their own cities and towns. So in a sense, it’s very definitely part of the cultural fabric, and that’s definitely worth preserving.
Even the glazed tiles that became part of storefront decoration after World War II, with glossy black, maroon, and diagonal patterns or a combination of patterns and designs to attract attention to the store, fall into the decorative art category. They are commercial tiles, produced primarily for their function, but become decorative art because of the design of their installation.
Menzies: A great deal of literature has been dedicated to art pottery, and tiles are no different, but are considered something of a step-child. That’s why we began exploring the questions of what they are, where they come from, and who made them. That’s why we started the Tile Heritage Foundation.
TD: How and when did you start the Tile Heritage Foundation?
Menzies: It was started in 1987 when we were returning from a winter trip. Joe had thought it would be a great idea to write a book about tile history in California, then broadening the book to cover the history of tile across the nation.
It became a larger and larger project. So we agreed, let’s start a non-profit. Let’s ingather, based on who has knowledge.
Taylor: We have a whole slew of taped interviews from those early days. Both Sheila and I interviewed many of the old-timers. I’d been involved with the McIntyre Tile Co. here in Healdsburg, and from my experience was increasingly aware of other companies making tiles. I also met other people who comprised the older generation. So even before the foundation started, I was interviewing people, and many people told me, ‘If there’s anything else I can do, please let me know.’ We felt we had established a base of interest for an organization. We stopped in a bookstore and purchased Anthony Mancuso’s book titled How to Start a Non-profit. Six months later, in July 1987, we got our status as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization through the federal government and State of California.
TD: What skills did you bring from the start to the operation?
Taylor: I had worked at a tile company from 1973 to 1985, so I had tile in my blood. Twelve years got me oriented in the tile world, in charge of sales and marketing for what was basically a small company where we not only made our tiles by hand but also made all the machinery we used to make the tiles. My college degree was in English, and I taught in the Peace Corps, and I had taught remedial English at UCLA, and in order to get the message out for the Tile Heritage Foundation, we started with a quarterly newsletter, ‘Flash Point.’
Those skills came in handy. And my family is very artistic, I have two sisters who are professional artists. My mother was an artist, and my dad was active in nonprofit organizations. It was all right there.
Menzies: One of the things that’s always been very important is that Joe and I are kind of a meld. He is a detail person and I’m a big picture person. My background is in art, but not in ceramics. I have a lot of very practical skills, and also write very well. We were on the same page. I grew up in Scotland, surrounded by tiles. My whole focus was easily directed into another kind of artistic and creative outlet. The nuts and bolts of what we do, whether answering questions, researching, archiving or publishing, we have those abilities.
There’s a lot of crossover of skills, and we bring different attributes to the table.
TD: How do you identify tile worth preserving?
Taylor: The installations we deal with aren’t always public. In fact, more than half the time, when we get an inquiry, it’s regarding a private home. Someone wants to identify the tiles on the fireplace. We will get a call in which someone describes their fireplace, and we say that’s like doing a root canal over the phone. You need a picture. Digital photography has made this whole arena so simple for us. Not a week goes by without us responding to someone wanting to know about the tile in their home. Compared to 25 years ago, we now have direct access to all kinds of books on historic tile, and many tile catalogs from manufacturing companies and tile studios operating during the last 150 years. So we have the resources to research what’s found in the home.
Out in the public arena, it’s a different story, because normally the Tile Heritage Foundation is contacted when an installation somewhere in the U.S. is being threatened with demolition. We’re called upon by concerned community members to identify and authenticate an installation in its setting. That’s where our knowledge and writing skills come in, because we’re writing to an architect, a school board, or a government agency to provide our opinion as to the historic importance of the installation. In the case of some installations we’ve been involved in saving, we’re not out there on the front lines. We’re just the information providers. It’s the community citizens who have gotten together and decided they have to find out what this is. When they find out from us that it has significance, they go to bat for these tile installations themselves.
For instance, there were architects who used decorative tiles in fireplaces installed in schools to provide an environment to teach kids how to read. This phenomenon was particularly seen in kindergartens built in the 1910s and ‘20s.
Menzies: Fireplace tiles in schools were used to help teach children how to read. Not only did the artwork on the tile often reflect a nursery rhyme, but the teacher would sit before the fireplace because it was a home-like environment.
Many county courthouses went up across this country in the 18th and 19th centuries where encaustic tiles were used on the floors. Encaustic or geometric tiles are colored clay tiles cut in shapes that make up larger designs. Instead of having a glaze on the top of them, the entire body of the tile was made up of one color of clay creating a very enduring product. However, after 100 years of wear, you do see an impact on that floor.
Many municipalities try to find out where that original tile was made and if it’s available for replacement purposes. That’s an important thing to document. And that information makes a restoration more possible.
PT: What kind of research is involved?
Taylor: In many cases, the Tile Heritage Foundation, meaning either Sheila or myself, have been collaborators in writing tile books that are out there. Or we’ve provided our editorial skills.
What’s important here is that over these 25 years, one of the principal things that Tile Heritage has done is serve as a receptacle for information about the output of companies producing tile over the last 150 years. We estimate we have between 30,000 and 40,000 individual documents about the manufacture of specific tiles.
Menzies: Today, companies and studios sending us new material for the archives will provide sell sheets and other current advertising. We also receive weblinks and digital images of current products and installations. We have over 35,000 images of tiles and installations that have now been digitized, many from slide originals taken by us. It’s a huge body of work available as a resource.
TD: Do you document what you’ve found? If so, how?
Taylor: If you walk into the Tile Heritage Library, which is open to the public by appointment, you find file cabinets and the file drawers are manila folders representing the materials we have on different companies. The files are alphabetized, from A to Z, on all companies producing tiles in the United States, from the middle of the 19th Century on. In addition to these files, we have information on contemporary tile makers organized in the same way. .
Menzies: The information represented in these physical resources will eventually be accessible via a digital card catalog system. Ultimately our files will be able to be researched that way on line. This is one of the priorities we anticipate getting under way soon. We’ve embarked on that with all of our photography, transforming it digitally and documenting the sources.
Currently our ephemeral materials are in physical files; they will remain that way but will be enhanced, kept alive for use with a finding aid or digital card catalog online at our website that would be used to find specific articles, for instance, on a specific tile.
TD: Do you have inquiries/requests from other preservationists?
Taylor: Yes, both in terms of the public installations about which we are approached by people concerned about preserving those installations, and also by private individuals wanting the installations in their homes identified. Preservationists want information on installations in their own communities. They’re concerned about preserving what they have. But they first want to know if it’s worth expending time, energy and money to preserve.
We say no it’s not, or yes it is, and then back up our position with information. There are a handful of very skilled people around the country who are able to remove tiles without breaking them, when preserving the tile is required before a building in which the tile is installed is demolished.
Menzies: What shouldn’t be forgotten is the role of the tile dealer in all this. Dealers will call us because someone has come to them and said ‘I have a really beautiful installation in my home built in the 1920s. I need to have my bathroom tile matched, because I need new piping behind the existing tile installation and part of it has to be removed.’ They don’t know what to do next.
Taylor: What we can do is simply steer the dealers to sources where old tiles are stockpiled for sale, and there are a number of these places around the U.S. We can also direct their attention to contemporary tile makers who are able to skillfully replicate historic art tile.
TD: How’ve you spread the word about the Tile Heritage Foundation?
Taylor: When the foundation first started, we published a newsletter called Flash Point was printed and mailed out quarterly for 15 years: it varied in length from 8 to 16 pages. In the early 1990s, we launched Tile Heritage: A Review of American Tile History. We still sell back issues of these magazines. Today, our comparable publication “E-News” is available online. Starting in 1991, we presented an annual tile symposium that we presented in different cities around the U.S., which were three- to five-day events. We had lectures on historic and contemporary tiles, tours of the city’s tile installations, tile-making workshops, and a sale of art tiles. We did this for 13 years, and it really got to the point where it was too much work, and the community that the events were designed to serve did not fully utilize them.
Menzies: As the web developed over the last 20 years, the way people connected with information changed dramatically. Fewer and fewer people wanted to gather in one place to take part in such symposiums.
Taylor: At Coverings, in the early days, art tiles were presented haphazardly on the convention floor. But the organizers have now highlighted art tile in the American area of Coverings. This is where people gravitate because of the art. It’s a marvelous aspect and really speaks very well of the support of the various tile organizations representing the United States at this international event. This annual convention has had a direct, positive effect on communications within the tile industry. Artists and others know they can go to Coverings, talk to other artists, and experience tile artistry firsthand.
Menzies: This is another place where dealers come into play. We have many dealers who are members of the Tile Heritage Foundation. One of the things they do that helps promote the foundation is display our attractive brochure or a sign that says they are a member of the foundation. They can assist in promoting what the foundation is about.
Tiles being made anywhere today are historic tomorrow. The dealers have catalogs and samples from multiple tile makers. In fact, dealers are archivists — they just don’t realize they are.
TD: Has the foundation developed as expected, or has it morphed a bit with time?
Menzies: The mission of Tile Heritage has not changed.
Our mission going forward has always been the same, preserving, protecting and documenting tiles and other ceramic surfacing materials. Technology has actually enhanced our ability to do that.
Taylor: Technology has greatly assisted communication. People throughout the U.S. have this organization, the Tile Heritage Foundation. They can contact us by sitting down at their computer or contacting us on their iPad.
Menzies: If people don’t know of a particular tile maker, we have a printed directory soon to be available as a PDF online, and we also have resources right on our website, the Member Tile Gallery, with thumbnails taking you to all these members‘ websites. It’s a super resource for dealers, architects and designers. See http://www.tileheritage.org.
TD: What are some of the interesting tile preservation projects you’ve been involved in?
Taylor: Within the last two years, we have been directly involved in saving two historic mantels in elementary schools, one in Royal Oak, Michigan, and the other in Cranford, New Jersey. Both fireplaces were adorned with Flint Faience tiles from the 1920s, both slated to go down with the buildings. In both cases we were contacted by community members, former alumni, who were concerned—desperate is a better term—that “their” tiles were going to be destroyed when their school buildings were demolished. We were able to supply the proper documentation authenticating the historic importance of the tiles and recommend a tile contractor with the expertise necessary to remove the tiles without damage. In Royal Oak the tiles were reinstalled in a new school; in Cranford the tiles are waiting for a new home.
Menzies: Similarly, when the old East High in Erie, Pennsylvania was on the block for demolition, a team recommended by Tile Heritage successfully removed the American Encaustic tile panels from twelve water fountains on the walls of the old school, and these were ultimately reinstalled as a permanent display in the corridors of the new East High School in Erie, not as water fountains but as decorative tile art.
TD: Do you sense tile preservation is gaining more support?
Menzies: In America, it used to be ‘tear it to the ground and ask questions later.’ Now there’s much more awareness and sensitivity.
In communities like Los Angeles, for example, you can’t destroy a building if it has an art element on it, and that may actually be true of buildings without art on them. You may not raze that building without special permits.
Taylor: I’m sure you’re familiar with the Antiques Road Show. Never is a show aired without a piece of pottery or an artistic tile being appraised, because people want to know what those art items are worth. It shows that people in the United States are becoming increasingly conscious of their art history.
It has to do with our age, not our personal age but the age of our country. I think citizens of the United States are getting more and more into the idea that their country’s history is important, and that’s where the Tile Heritage Foundation becomes important to them, in assisting the validation of that history.
TD: Where do you see the Tile Heritage Foundation going next?
Taylor: In addition to the information we have talked about, we also have a collection of tiles donated to the foundation over the last 25 years. These are historic artifacts that date back 125 years. Our intention is to get these in a virtual museum-like setting.
Menzies: These tiles are already photographed; it’s a matter of setting up a portion of our website so those tile images are available. Tile Heritage is not a museum, but we will create one virtually. Getting the tiles in the collections in the public eye is an important thing. And that’s definitely in the works.
Taylor: It will feel like walking into a gallery with art tile on display.
TD: Any final thoughts?
Menzies: None of what we do would be possible without support, and it’s important that the TileDealer readership support Tile Heritage. For more information see http://www.tileheritage.org.
Joseph Taylor, Sheila Menzies, co-founders
Tile Heritage Foundation, Healdsburg, CA