Barbara Elza Hirsch: My Tile Crush

March 26, 2013

Simply said, I have a thing for tile.

Whether it’s for a kitchen or a bathroom, a porch or a living room, a floor tile or a wall tile, I find the array of available tile selections in today’s market remarkable. Glass, cement, wood, marble, ceramic, metal, porcelain, mosaic….the choices are limitless. In fact, I always tell my clients that visiting a tile showroom can be extremely tile, oops, I meant time consuming.

Tiles have been created and applied to surfaces for centuries and continue to be installed by hand, just as they did in Egypt or Spain ages ago.

Some tile technologies were developed more recently:  glass molding technologies such as cast and fused glass techniques appeared in the 1990’s or, even cement tiles, which first started appearing in France and England in the 19th century when the English discovered how to make Portland cement, a fine powder derived from limestone.

Cement tiles are air dried and very porous, so they cannot be used for all applications. An outdoor application for instance, would not be recommended due to the risk of freezing. Sealing cement tiles is recommended to protect the tile from water and liquids.

They are beautiful, as attests this traditional cement tile offered by Avente Tile:

Photo courtesy of Avente Tile

These modern patterns applied on cement tiles are made using ancient encaustic techniques in Morocco by Popham Design.

Photo courtesy of Popham Design

This gorgeous cement encaustic tile by Swedish designer team Claesson Koivisto Rune is breathtaking, no? Shown here in Dandelion, aubergine.

Photo courtesy of Claesson Koivisto Rune

Encaustic tiles are made in high fire using stoneware body (a type of clay) and are very dense. These types of tiles were used in many countries throughout the ages:

Encaustic tile floor is made with tiles from California tile maker K.J Patterson; Photo courtesy of K.J. Patterson

Encaustic tiles, according to Lee Nicholson, a twitter friend and tile showroom owner based in California, are labor intensive to produce but extremely durable. They offer the advantage of being usable for both indoor and outdoor applications.

A striking wall application of encaustic tile by Patterson. Photo courtesy of K.J. Patterson

Ceramic tiles are best applied to walls or light traffic areas, according to Nicholson. However, some ceramics fired at higher temperatures can be applied to swimming pools.

One of my favorite kitchen ceramic tile application, photo taken from the book Lars Bolander’s Scandinavian Design by Heather Smith MacIsaac. Photo courtesy of

Tile can be used to create an accent walls such as this swirly mural ceramic design by Ann Sacks.

Asian wave mural in jade and raw silk by Ann Sacks. Photo courtesy of Ann Sacks

Porcelain is often confused with ceramic tile. Porcelain tile made a marked appearance in the U.S. market about two decades ago, and, according to Nicholson, is much sturdier than ceramic due to low water absorbency and its frost resistance qualities. It can be mass-produced and can be used in diverse locations, from your living room to your bathroom to your porch.

A big trend currently is the porcelain wood tile.

And an example of wood porcelain by Porcelanosa in a room. Photo courtesy of Porcelanosa

Mosaic tiles offers a multitude of refined applications. They have been around for centuries and tend to go in and out of fashion according to Nicholson. The way they are being designed today brings me to think they are here to stay. Below, Vintage Glass tile mosaics collection by Walker Zanger. Its unique look is created by blending opaque and transparent glass, à la Louis Tiffany, the celebrated 19th century lampshade and vase designer.

Photo courtesy of Vintage Glass.

When asked how she feels the tile market has evolved, Lee Nicholson answers that we have moved from a basic, square tile to rectangular tiles in diverse formats. Square tiles are still found in very small-size applications such as the mosaic tiles (see above), but one definitely notes the end of the white 6″ x 6″ tile as we used to know it. The rectangular tile is being applied in bigger and bigger formats and the scope of sizes is impressive, from 2″ x 6″, to 4″ x 12″, to large applications such as 12″ x 25″. Yet some specialty tiles still come in squares.

Keep in mind an excellent tile installer is paramount. Each tile has unique installation specifications that need to be respected to avoid issues down the road. I recommend you do not attempt to install tile yourself! Nicholson notes that glass, in particular, has to be installed professionally, as the surface needs to be perfectly flat and the temperatures have to be optimum for the adhesive materials.

Chicago Satchmo Sticks Gloss Mosaic Blend glass tile; 11″ X 12″ X 1/8″;

Photo courtesy of Artistic Tile 

Maharajah Stripe: A great chevron design in Calacatta Tia and Thassos.

Photo courtesy of Studium 

Mixing different sized tiles has grown very popular as has creating a focal tiled wall in the shower or behind the sink for instance.

This copper tile stovetop backsplash was designed by Artistic Tile using their “La Leaf”, a collection of gold, silver and copper leaf tile applied to the underside of glass tile as seen in

Photo courtesy of

You guessed it, I could go on and on, but your head would spin. The choices are out of this world. The tile industry is huge and comprises a multitude of options. From custom designed tiles by local U.S. tile artisans to mass produced porcelain tiles, to marble tiles, glass penny tiles, leather tiles and metal tiles, there is a perfect match out there for every project.

I’d like to give special thanks to Lee Nicholson of Filmore Clark for generously sharing some of her tile knowledge with me for this post.

Barbara Elza Hirsch

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