About 12 years ago, Los Angeles-based architect Barbara Bestor was hired to design a new outpost of Intelligentsia Coffee, in Silver Lake. She ended up creating a neighborhood icon and an internet phenomenon thanks in part to the blue-and-white tile that sweeps from the outdoor seating area into the cafe and right up the sides of the counters. This defining feature of the space, which has become a popular backdrop for Instagrams (interestingly, the cafe opened well before Instagram existed) was inspired by cafes in Havana and a restaurant dating from the 1950s that she visited in Istanbul. The rest of the cafe is covered in plywood, inspired by Donald Judd; the idea was to use sparse design elements in the space to highlight the baristas at the counters.
“You couldn’t put a shock-of-the-new in the neighborhood [back then], and I was trying to think of something that you couldn’t quite tell if it was new or old,” Bestor says. “I guess that was one of the first times someone was doing a new thing with tile, because it became a meme on Instagram!”
Tile is one of the world’s oldest and most beloved materials. It’s trendy now, sure—but it has been for thousands of years. It just surfaces in different ways, regionally and historically: the mosaics of ancient Mesopotamia; the intricate geometric patterns of Moorish zellige tile; New York City’s classic white subway tile; Pewabic’s inky, iridescent glazes. Recently, bold, graphic applications have become more popular as designers and DIYers seek ways to add individuality and tactility to interiors. In a maximalist design moment, tile makes the ultimate statement.
“In a world where we’re interested in wallpaper and things that make the environment sort of more specific and special to who’s inhabiting it, it allows you to have more personality,” Bestor says. “I call it ‘atmospheres.’ We design atmospheres. A lot of architects design space, not atmosphere. Like, the minimalist architect is always about the light.”
The impact tile can achieve in a space, as opposed to other materials, is particularly appealing now because of the rising amount of time people spend looking at screens, according to Rosalie Wild, principal designer at Heath Ceramics.
“It’s not just pattern; it’s also a durable material that has a function,” she says. “As people’s lives are more and more digital, I think things that have a pleasing materiality to them are more and more important in our spaces. I think there are instances where someone in the past might have used wallpaper, and they’re looking to tile because it has a tactile quality to it.”
Cement tile, also known as encaustic tile, is one variety that’s receiving renewed attention from designers and manufacturers. (The Moroccan-inspired Fez pattern from Granada Tile Bestor used in Intelligentsia is encaustic tile.) Encaustic tiles get their color from the material they’re made from, as opposed to glazes applied on top, and because the color is in the material itself, these tiles are incredibly durable and the vibrant hues won’t fade over time. To fabricate tile, the clay or cement body is dyed through with pigment, then the pattern is cut out and molded together. This tile-making technique has been used since the middle ages, and designers today are rediscovering it.
“People always have their eyes and ears open for possible revivals,” says Melanie Stephens, who cofounded Granada Tile with her husband, Marcos Cajina. “Just like in fashion, everything keeps coming back in some form or another. ... My theory, which isn’t proven, is that cement tiles didn’t have a brand name associated with them. There were lots and lots of companies that made ceramic tiles, but they weren’t gigantic and they didn’t have brand recognition. Cement tile by itself doesn’t sound sexy. I think it was only as people tried to say, well, this is really an art form, and it’s beautiful [that it was revived].”
“What we’ve seen is people are gravitating less to really complicated design and more to simpler geometrics, even just things that look like line drawings with two colors,” Stephens says. “It’s very simple lines, yet when you start to put it together you can do umpteen configurations and it looks totally different. Again, it’s that sort of beauty of playing with something until it feels right.”
The Australian interior designer Sarah Ellison took a recent foray into tile design after visiting the Amalfi coast and becoming inspired by the use of tile throughout homes, not just in the kitchen or bathroom. Her Beach Club tile line, developed with Teranova, features warm tones and scallop, square, and half-moon motifs.
“I love pattern and color and had previously designed a wallpaper collection, so this felt like an extension of that, only it was for the floor instead,” Ellison tells Curbed. The new interest in decorative tile, she says, “is a backflip from the minimalist Scandinavian interiors we have been seeing over the last decade. Pattern adds excitement and character.”
This March, the Brooklyn gallery Cooler released a collection of encaustic tile out of an interest in bridging fine arts and manufacturing.
“Tile is an impressive medium because it’s labor intensive,” says Michael Yarinsky, the gallery’s founder and curator. “We’re seeing artists hand-paint and hand-form tiles, but there’s a different sort of hand to using heavy industry. That juxtaposition has always been core to this: Give the artist a medium they can’t use on their own.”
Yarinsky invited over a dozen artists known either for their work in ceramics or in pattern making—like Cody Hoyt, Caroline Z Hurley, and Dusen Dusen—to come up with the designs, and worked with the tile company Concrete Collaborative to produce the Field Formations tile line.
Helen Levi, a ceramic artist based in Brooklyn, is launching a new tile line later this year and, similarly to Yarinsky, was interested in creating a product at a scale she could only do with the help of a factory. While she makes all of her bowls, mugs, plates, and planters by hand, Levi has always been interested in factory production. Last year, she received an invitation to visit a ceramics factory in Guadalajara that likes to collaborate with artists and toured the facilities without knowing what she wanted to produce there.
“The facility was amazing and it made me think, ‘If I was going to work with a factory, what would make sense for me to do?’” Levi says. “What would make sense for me is something I couldn’t produce on my own. Tile is something I couldn’t produce en masse.”
Levi’s forthcoming tile collection will include a hand-painted line inspired by tiles she glazed for her own bathroom, as well as a line featuring a raised pattern.
“Tile is kind of a natural progression,” Levi says. “People have asked me about it in the past, but I never had an interest in pursuing it because it seemed labor intensive.”
Artist tile is an extension of the recent ceramics and pottery trend. According to Yarinsky, many of the artists who contributed to the Field Formations line were interested in exploring how their work as object makers could translate into space making. “Tile is a simple, singular object, but it has the ability to transform space,” he says. “It’s an interesting way to make ceramics a field condition. Ceramics are a very permanent art in a way, and this is a way to make it more impactful in space.”
The permanence of tile is something Heath Ceramics’s Rosalie Wild thinks about a lot.
“Tile is a really enduring material—it’s meant to last,” she says. “It takes some sensibility to look at patterns and think: ‘Is this something I can live with for a really long time?’ Because it should exist for a really long time; it’s not something you want to be trading out in a few years when you are over it, or when the next trend sets in. That’s where I get excited: imagining a tile color or pattern living on through different eras.”
Bold and graphic patterns are just the latest chapter in tile’s long, ongoing saga. As Bestor puts it: “A big thing about this is you get the benefit of an ancient tradition in terms of pattern and tile printed on an eight-inch square.” Tomorrow’s history is being made today.