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Transformed by Tiles

By Christopher Andreae / December 20, 1993

TILES: 1,000 YEARS OF ARCHITECTURAL DECORATION Hans Van Lemmen Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 240 pp., $60.

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TILES have a way of taking over people. And their buildings. Take David Reynard Robinson, for example. He was a builder in Hull, in the northeast of England, and when in 1908-09 he built a house for his retirement, his ``love of tiling led him to cover completely both the inside and the outside of the house with English, Dutch, and Spanish tiles,'' as tile expert Hans Van Lemmen says.

Mr. Robinson named his house ``Farrago,'' which suggests he had a sense of humor about it - a farrago meaning a conglomeration, medley, or assortment. A photograph of one of Farrago's rooms looks like an extravagantly organized showroom for sample tiles. It would not be easy to feel tranquil in this room - but, on the other hand, it does have a stimulating visual bravado about it.

In its desire to cover all surfaces with color and pattern, Farrago is not very far away from buildings of many and various cultures over the ages, such as the 14th-century Palace of Peter the Cruel in Seville, the 1880s Casa Vicens by Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi in Barcelona, and even ``La Torre Arcobaleno,'' a dull old water tower in Milan elegantly and freshly reclothed in 1990 with a careful gradation of colored tiles from top to bottom.

I know nothing more about Robinson than what can be culled from Mr. Van Lemmen's new book, ``Tiles: 1,000 Years of Architectural Decoration.'' The current volume is a comprehensive chronology. It illustrates (with a large number of fine color plates) the fact that tiles are one of those elements of building, from very ancient times until today, which no period has been able to dispense with, or has wanted to. Tiles have shown themselves to be extremely adaptable both to the changing whims and taste and to technical developments. As this book shows, it is possible to trace the history of taste by tracing the history of tiles.

One of the recurring themes of this fascinating book is the vulnerability of tiles. Sometimes this was because a technology suited to warm places did not prove hardy in colder, wetter ones. The Trianon de Porcelaine at Versailles, built for Louis XIV in 1670, was demolished 17 years later because the Dutch and French tin-glaze tiles on its exterior walls were found not to be weatherproof. Sometimes tiles perfectly suitable for walls were laid on floors - until the tread of feet wore away their glazes and hand-painted patterns.

In 17th-century Holland, tiles became for the first time in their history something for modest middle-class homes. Previously they had been mainly a luxury for the very wealthy and for palaces, or had featured prominently in large and pretentious public buildings like churches or town halls. But of the millions of Dutch tiles manufactured ``for the home market,'' writes Van Lemmen, ``hardly any examples from that period have survived in their original settings.''

He explains: ``Properties changed hands regularly, and interiors were subjected to constant use and alterations in fashion and technology.'' The author credits the survival of old tiling schemes in situ in Spain, Portugal, and Italy to the fact that the patrons in those countries were ecclesiastical or aristocratic, ``not housewives.''

A further contribution to the disappearance of tiles from the walls and fireplaces of Dutch houses is collectors' mania. Since the 19th century, shops in Amsterdam have specialized in old hand-painted Dutch tiles, and they continue to sell them today. There are also shops for modern imitations, too, but they are not at all the same thing and are often the product of modern mechanized processes.