Vintage Decorative Tiles Holding Court to Mass Production Contemporary Tiles

by Emmi Micallef January 24, 2017

Vintage Decorative Tiles Holding Court to Mass Production Contemporary Tiles

Are we born liking a certain aesthetic or are we influenced to like a certain aesthetic?  I ask this question to myself often since, in our business, it is quite clear the penchant of our taste.  When I entered into the tile, wood and stone business 17 years ago, there were the few big players who began it all - probably 15 years prior to me.  They were out traveling the world and brought back to the United States traditional hand made decorative tiles from France, Spain, and Italy.  Back then - this was so thrilling.  It was new to us, and America being so new herself, the enthusiasm for old world antique or antiqued tiles consumed the market.  Soon kitchen backsplashes around the country were installed with decorative wall tile in an array of vibrant colors and designs.  There were the tiles from Provence with the ocher tones depicting lemons, the Spanish tiles with geometric designs in the Spanish green and pink glaze and there were Majolica tiles from Italy with their cobalt blue glazes and vivid floral patterns.  All these colors and designs made kitchens lively, to say the least.  Mixing and matching the subdued American aesthetic with this Mediterranean flare was a sight for the eyes.  Trade shows would show more old world European decorative tile, reaching into the Middle East with mosaic tile, Zelig tile and hundreds of colors of glazed ceramic tile - still hand made, still old world.

Then something shifted.  Instead of authentic artisans from around the globe creating these beautiful hand made tiles following century old traditions, factories, computers and machines began churning out tiles with the same designs, but certainly not with the same soul.  This began the mass production chapter of old world vintage decorative tiles.  And it went everywhere. And one knows if a song is played too much on the radio....you get that point.  

With the new technological advances in the ceramic industry and the eye fatigue of old world decorative tiles, contemporary tiles began their march into the American home. Subway tile, anyone?  This is actually an American phenomenon thanks to the New York City subways, keeping the tunnel walls clean and bright with ubiquitous 3" x 6" ceramic glazed wall tiles. The love affair of subway tiles was clear.  They created a clean wall, easy to install, one felt zippy perhaps and free from the decorative wall tile patterns in too many colors that started to feel crash and...very out-dated.

However, the popular subway tiles began having competition again from old world European tile designs with advancements in the ceramic tile industry.  From water jet technology to ceramic print processing - old world decorative tiles began making a serious comeback.  Mixing materials from stone and metal to terra cotta and glazed ceramic or porcelain, thousands of historic old world European decorative tile designs began flooding the market.  Colorful at first and overdone for American tastes, these decorative tile designs morphed into a subdued color palette of grey, beige, tonal blue values and creams. Soon a revolution was at hand - a competition between subway tiles versus machine made "old world European Americanized decorative wall tiles" ...the question being which tile format could fill the most homes and hotels across this great country of ours?  And this is what I saw...homes looking and feeling like hotels and hotels looking and feeling like homes. 

I sigh when I see these old world decorative tiles printed on large porcelain tiles decorating kitchen floors and hotel lobbies. Interconnecting decorative wall tile patterns on kitchen backsplashes that partner with the decorative pillows to match.  Hotels and homes...with mass production and materials used to allow mass consumption, the line has blurred.  What makes a home?  Does it have to feel like a hotel?  Cookie cutters we are...and alas...I return to my drawing board.

I ponder this question...do the many throws of people who buy these "historic decorative tiles" know from where these designs began?  People obviously relate to them.  But why? Unless one is an art history major, I believe too many are unaware that all these designs began from the souls of cultures around the world hundreds and thousands of years ago. 

It was not my choice to create my own decorative wall tile collections. It was something of a force beyond my intellectual rational. How could I, why would I add to the pool of ever growing ceramic decorative wall tile???  My love for history and art in history is deep and real.  I  relate to the humanity behind the craft, their lives while they were creating. I relate to the stories.

Can you imagine I have this conversation with my husband...about how the new generations may be unaware that before the hotel version of old world decorative tiles, there was the authentic, raw version - where life was real and hard but beautiful?  And I ask François...how do new generations appreciate what was before them if all they see is a hollow shell of itself, cheaply made but easily obtained in any color and design at a click of a tile pattern button on a screen?

I further contemplate...with the love of reclaimed stone tiles and reclaimed or aged oak floors on the market today...what does one put on the walls to go with these historic surfaces?  Glazed ceramic subway tile again?  A porcelain machine made decorative tile that seems false next to a patina that is from the 18th century?  A water jet cut stone mosaic backsplash that reads contemporary?

My passion was fierce and with pencil and paint in hand, I began creating a collection of historic decorative tiles.  I did not fray from either original museum pieces or from authentic historic designs - I wanted this collection to be true.  I did stay in the realms of blue and white, grey-on-grey and parchment color hues for, wanting a partnership with reclaimed French and Belgian building materials, colors beyond that would have been crash compared to my aesthetic goals.

These collections, with two more coming have been a labor of love.  I hope from this blog, amid the swirl of product on the market, you feel calm.  Choosing what to put in one's home is personal and for some, terrifying.  I say...if it speaks to your soul, don't question this...don't worry about your neighbors...stay true to your instincts and your home will remain classic and endure.

The rest of this blog gives some examples of my tile designs and what I would personally partner with them.  Yes...this has nothing to do with a hotel...at least not one from the 21st century.

Aged French Limestone Tiles and Decorative Wall Tiles

Aged French Limestone Tiles with Decorative Wall Tiles for Kitchen Backsplash

Aged French Limestone Tiles with Vintage Decorative Wall Tile for Kitchen Backspalsh

Reclaimed Engineered Oak Flooring and Vintage Decorative Wall Tile for Kitchen Backsplash

Reclaimed Engineered Oak Wall Cladding and Vintage Decorative Wall Tiles for Kitchen Backspalsh

French reclaimed Terra Cotta tiles with Vintage Decorative Wall Tile for Kitchen Backsplash

Reclaimed Engineered Oak Flooring and Vintage Decorative Wall Tile for Kitchen Backsplash

Reclaimed Parquet Oak Flooring and Vintage Dutch Blue Delft Tiles

Dutch Blue and White Delft Tiles with French Reclaimed Terra Cotta Tiles

Blue and White Decorative Wall Tiles for Kitchen Backsplash with French Reclaimed Terra Cotta Tiles Hexagon

Grey Decorative Wall Tiles for Kitchen Backsplash with Belgian Grey Reclaimed Terra Cotta tiles

There are two new collections in the works; one inspired from English encaustic tiles and the other from decorative glazed Moresque tiles, which are actually designs blending Islamic motifs with those of the Italian Renaissance.  I am painting these in a warm grey tone and charcoal respectively.

Finally, I want to finish this blog by answering the question that began it: "Are we born liking a certain aesthetic or are we influenced to like a certain aesthetic?"  My answer is both.  I believe we do have a penchant for certain designs.  Surrounded by vintage materials, my nearly 11-year old daughter is contemporary all the way - preferring metal and cool whites. However...she did just say to me the other day that adding in reclaimed wood floors would look cool with her favorite glass mosaic tiles.  I smiled and said...now that is an eclectic idea!  Which is yet another point...meet in the middle.  Mixing styles old and new birth beautiful and interesting rooms - that are all your own.

Thank you for your time,

Emmi Micallef
Historic Decorative Materials, a Division of Pavé Tile, Wood & Stone, Inc.



Emmi Micallef
Emmi Micallef

Author and Co-owner of Historical Decorative Materials, a division of Pavé Tile, Wood & Stone, Inc.



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