Venetian Red Notebook: Baked Earth, a Gallery of Decorative Tile

Dutch tileDelft tile, Holland, 16th Century

The Egyptians invented tile over 6000 years ago. Tile, made from baked clay, has been used for centuries on walls, entryways, floors, roofs and gardens. It has been used  to enhance every type of architecture, from modest domestic interiors to palaces and cathedrals. At its simplest, tile provides protection from heat and water—or can, through its pattern and design, reveal the history of ornamentation, dress or customs of a specific time and place. Painted tiles can also provide a narrative of events like this harbor scene below.

Azulejos tileAzulejos from the National Tile Museum of Lisbon

The surface of tile, cool and durable, can take many forms. Glazes—double-glaze, crackle, metallic—provide a depth of color that remains unchanged for centuries. Tile can be smooth or rough, raised or engraved.

Meredith TIle, sampleMeredith Tile, glaze sample

Tiffany tileTiffany & Co. favrile glass tile with iridescent glaze

Tiles can be a white, simply glazed in saturated color, or have elaborate complex patterns. Each tile design can be self-contained, or serve as an element in a larger, overall pattern. In some cases, as in the New York subway, the London tube or the Paris Metro, tiles can spell out directions, tell us where we are going, when to get off the train—and also bring art into a public space.

Astor PlaceNew York subway, Astor Place

Bleecker StreetNew York subway, Bleecker Street

Columbus CircleNew York subway, Columbus Circle

Gants HillLondon underground, Gants Hill

Hotel de VilleParis metro, Hotel de Ville

In other uses, patterns in tile may relay secret messages or contain symbolic representations. In the Topkapi Palace, this Iznik-style tile adapted Chinese motifs to create stylized flowers, since representations of living things were not allowed.

Iznik-style tileTopkapi Palace, Turkey, 15th century

The Arts & Crafts movement in England yielded a lot of beautiful tile work.

William MorrisWilliam Morris & Co. tile, 1861-1880
Birmingham Museum

Peacock tileWilliam de Morgan, Peacock House, London

Here’s a sampler of reproduction 1920-1930s California tile by Malibu Ceramic Works.

Malibu Ceramic Works

When patterned tiles are joined together, the effect is dazzling, as shown in these black and white illustrations. These are from Dover’s 376 Decorative Allover Patterns from Historic Tilework and Textiles.

Tile pattern

Tile pattern

Tile pattern

Tiles can be used to define spaces, large or small. So many effects are possible—laid side by side they can provide vast areas of clean, uncluttered space, densely packed ornamental design or depict legends, myths and historical events. This scene below is from the National Tile Museum in Lisbon.

Azulejo—Tile Museum, Lisbon

To read more about tiles, VR recommends: Tile by Jill Herbers, Photographs by Roy Wright, Artisan, New York.

4 Responses to “Venetian Red Notebook: Baked Earth, a Gallery of Decorative Tile”

  1. You’ve been busy! I wish i had some good photos of the tiles in the Moscow subway to share. V

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      I remember you telling me about the tile in Moscow and I looked but was unable to find any good photographs…

  2. Hello,
    the Delft tile you listed there is actually a 20th C. copy of a 17th C. example.

    Kind regards,

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Hi Rob,
      The Delft tile is definitely an original, not a reproduction. It comes from a very old family house in Holland and was given to me by the homeowner. It was unearthed during a renovation, under other layers of tile—it was one of the tiles in the original stove surround. Many were very damaged, this one is relatively intact.
      Originally I had the Delft tile dated as 17th century and then was told by the person who gave it to me that it was more likely 16th so I changed it. Can you tell me how to distinguish between a 16th and 17th century tile?

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