Transformed by Tiles
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Part of the appeal of old Dutch tiles is that each one was individual, with a different and often charming, little image; they can be enjoyed as single objects. These tiles did not blanket entire walls, necessarily, not even when they were first used in 17th-century Dutch interiors.Skip to next paragraph
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A 1671 painting by Vermeer, ``A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal,'' shows how a single line of these small square tiles, each with a central figure in blue, were used like a skirting board to grace the join between floor and walls. Such use of tiles could not be described as magnificent display, a phrase that is certainly applicable to the great pictorial or decorative tile schemes of earlier periods and cultures. But the very modesty of Dutch tiles is what has made them so attractive to collectors.
IN the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution transformed - slowly in some parts of Europe, and faster in others - and then proceeded to bury the hand-craftsmanship that had previously distinguished even the most productive of tile workshops.
With mass-production, tiles became accessible to all strata of society in ways that even 17th-century Holland could hardly have guessed at. And yet, strangely, when industrial producers like the British firm Minton started out, their clients were public rather than private - mainly churches and town halls - particularly those institutions taking part in the ``Gothic revival,'' the medievalism that gripped much 19th-century architecture.
Imitation medieval tiles were even made by modern methods. Designers sympathetic to mechanized production started to design - rather than actually paint - tiles. The modernity of process was largely tempered, however, by nostalgic or historical imagery. When the technology of photography was successfully applied to tiles in the last decade of the 19th century, the images that proved most popular were views of abbeys and churches - old ruins even - as well as towns.
Gradually the comparative cheapness of mass-produced tiles meant that they began to be used in virtually every context and role imaginable: in pubs and restrooms, in butcher and fish shops, in theaters and cinemas, and on gateposts and gravestones. In the ordinary person's home, they surrounded doorways and windows; they covered kitchens and bathrooms, front porches and back pantries; they decorated nurseries and helped to keep the damp out of cellars.
Tiles were private decoration - but they remained public. By the late 19th century, institutions like hospitals ameliorated clinical environments with decorative panels of tiles. Stations above and below ground were happily humanized by tiling that was both practical and decorative. In business premises, tiles still acted as symbols of status and importance, but were also used for commercial persuasion - as trademarks, signs, and as a highly durable way of making advertisements.
Tiles were used in public buildings, as well as in parts of ordinary homes, because they became associated with hygiene. They are clean and cleanable.
The tiles in which Robinson swathed his Farrago home play with one aspect of tile culture - the way in which they can build up an almost excessive degree of pattern and accumulation of color by the simple act of adding square tile to square tile. They are, like bricks, essentially little units that do not necessarily lose their repetitive littleness even when they spread and cover vast areas. The skin of the Milan water tower - La Torre Arcobaleno - acknowledges this aspect of the tile, by making what is actually a kind of abstract mosaic.