Tiles: decorative and durable

A small but comprehensive exhibition of decorative tiles now at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum at 2 East 91st Street, New York, reminds us of the beauty and practicality of tiles and their impact on architecture and furnishings.

Tiles displayed represent a 400-year history of tilemaking in many countries, although the catalog indicates that tiles were made in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Babylon.

"A tile, like a brick, is a simply formed mass of clay, intended to be the outer casing for a wall, floor, or other surface," says David Revere McFadden, curator of decorative arts for the museum. "Generally flat and thin, usually fired to a hard and brittle state, tiles are often coated with a glaze to provide a surface impervious to moisture and resistant to wear and dirt."

They are extremely resistant, as well, to damage from heat and flame, and are durable. Patterns are carved, stamped, glazed, and painted on tile surfaces. Both Eastern and Western cultures have preserved their own unique approaches to designing and making tiles.

This exhibition shows Persian tiles of the Islamic period that are among the most elegant and refined in the history of the craft, as well as tiles made in Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Holland, England, France, Italy, England, and the United States. Some of them were obviously produced to line entire rooms or cover mosques or vast areas of castles and mansions.

The Cooper-Hewitt is the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Design, which from time to time mounts "for study and enjoyment" exhibits from its own collection of decorative objects.

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