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.