Considering Art Deco Tiles

I would not want to fill my home with Art Deco tiles. I do not care much for their streamlined designs in bold colors or their polygons, hexagons, and octagons. Nor am I entranced with Art Deco’s celebration of both the machine age and all things ancient Egyptian. But I do find much of the movement fascinating. I like the notion of using tiles to accent the exteriors of skyscrapers, to give directions in subway tunnels, as signs in bookstores, and fireplace surrounds. In that sense builders during the interwar years got it right: clay is a wonderful architectural material.

I have been mud-obsessed enough myself to make floor, countertop, and range hood tiles for my home and know the challenges of such. But my tiles are very simple and unadorned requiring little technical know-how; I deeply respect the extraordinary skills of the Art Deco tile makers who worked on a large scale for a wide range of uses.

Hand Van Lemmen, who is President of the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society, a freelance historian, former member of the faculty at Leeds Metropolitan University, and tile expert has recently added to his list of books on tiles with Art Deco Tiles, new from Shire. It’s a rich little book, filled with illustrations, history and Lemmen’s overview of the manufacture of these colorful tiles.

Lemmen describes the great British tile factories such as Carter & Co. and the artists who worked for them.  The Carter firm had been in business making floor and wall tiles since the second half of the nineteenth century, “but in 1921 a new partnership was set involving Cyril Carter, Harold Stabler, and John Adams. Cyril Carter was the businessman and Harold Stabler and John Adams were trained designers and artists.” Stabler and Adams brought their wives, Phoebe Stabler and Truda Adams, also artists, into the firm. Alas, Truda divorced Adams and married Carter, but no matter, artists held an important role in tile making. In fact, Lemmen points out that it was during the Art Deco years that women were no longer mere decorators but designers in their own right.

In addition to the manufacture and design, Lemmen discusses the uses of Art Deco tiles and shows us an electric fireplace, a gleaming tiled bathroom, tile clad buildings, and more. This is followed by a section on collecting and a useful bibliography. He has an even better bibliography on his website which is worth a visit.

Terracotta Roof Birds of Bali

A few weeks ago the House of Terracotta Facebook page posted a series of photos of Balinese earthenware birds on the ridges of wooden rooftops. The plump birds were lined up on the roof top in the way of real birds, facing various directions, and at one end of the roof, there was a large bird, a partridge maybe, or pheasant, something with plumes. I was entranced. And whenever I am entranced with something in clay, I think at once I must have it, or even, I must try to make it. At the very least, I must read about it.

There are buildings with tile roofs here in New England, roofs that have withstood the vicissitudes of our weather, but I think that clay birds set along the roof peak might not fare well in our snow storms, northeasters, hurricanes, and in recent years, tornadoes. Global warming has not been kind to us. Perhaps instead, the birds should sit in the garden and come inside for the winter?

And then curiously, while thinking about the clay birds, and looking at the photos on House of Terracotta’s page – as is so often the way when something that is new to you or that you haven’t thought about in awhile suddenly starts popping up here and there in your life  – Majapahit Terracotta: The Soedarmadji Jean Henry Damais Collection arrived in the bookstore and there, lo and behold, were more Balinese terracotta roof birds.

This little book, published in Indonesia in 2012 and available internationally, in English here, is a look at the wonderful ancient terracotta of Bali as collected by Mr. Damais who co-founded the Indonesian Ceramica Society. In addition to the charming clay birds in his collection he has elaborate pillar bases, miniature shrines, basins, containers, ewers, gargoyles, ornamental garden statues and offering stands. He admits to a bit of a problem with provenance of some of his pieces, and even the possibility of fakery, as there seems to be a thriving business in fake antiques in Bali. With this in mind, he has devised some reliable tests to ascertain the antiquity of those holdings in doubt.

The Majapahit Empire was at the height of its power around the middle of the 14th century. It “covered an area from the Kedu valley eastward on the island of Java, as well as the islands of Madura and Bali.” The Majapahit were fine crafts workers, using primarily wood, bronze, stone and clay. They were master brick makers and bricklayers whose skills astonish the modern eye when looking at the intricate temples and gates they built. Some still stand all these centuries later.

Majapahit Terracotta is a little gem with excellent photos. A nice introduction to some really good ceramics.