Venetian Red Notebook: Baked Earth, a Gallery of Decorative Tile
Delft 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.
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.
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.
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.
Topkapi Palace, Turkey, 15th century
The Arts & Crafts movement in England yielded a lot of beautiful tile work.
William Morris & Co. tile, 1861-1880
Here’s a sampler of reproduction 1920-1930s California tile by 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.
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.
To read more about tiles, VR recommends: Tile by Jill Herbers, Photographs by Roy Wright, Artisan, New York.