Transformed by Tiles

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

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.

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.

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.

But tiles are distinct from mosaics. Although tiles have sometimes been made to look like mosaics (particularly, it seems from the chapter in this book by Susan Tunick, in the United States), in general their paths do not cross over. For a start, a mosaic is always made of stones. Tiles are made out of fired clay. And mosaics are not painted on - while tiles frequently are.

There is a tradition in the use of tiles over the centuries that runs counter to the repetitive-unit concept. It might be called the pictorial use of tiles - tiles conceived as panels on which a large image might be painted, ignoring the edges of each tile. A panel of tiles was seen as a rather permanent way of attaching a picture to a wall. One example of this shown in Van Lemmen's book is an enchanting painting of Jack and the beanstalk, one of a series of panels from the children's ward in old St. Thomas's Hospital, London. It is in the tradition of tiles used as a support for a picture, the tiles themselves more or less disappearing under the overall image. These panels were saved when the old building was closed, and have today been incorporated in the new hospital.

Although it is true that tiles have suffered from all forms of destruction over the centuries, the obverse is also strikingly true, that in some cases tiles have shown an extraordinary capacity for survival. The tiled interior of the Pfund Dairy in Dresden, Germany, is a remarkable case in point: It survived the terrible bombing of the allies in World War II.

In some places today, there is a growing awareness of the need to conserve notable tile schemes, to view them with pride and see them as part of a cultural heritage. Sometimes old schemes have been hidden for one reason or another: in ecclesiastical buildings during the Reformation, for instance; or because of fashion, only to be uncovered in more appreciative times. The extraordinary Art Nouveau tile schemes in the food halls of Harrods department store in London were hidden behind false ceilings for a while. Now they are once more visible in all their glory.

ALTHOUGH this book concentrates on strikingly decorative tiles and tile schemes, it might have mentioned perhaps the importance of plain tiles with a little more emphasis. There are a couple of plates of post-modern buildings in France and Germany in which entire exteriors are covered in a skin of one-color tiles.

The modernist ideas of earlier 20th-century art and architecture also used tiles in their own way, as simple geometrical units of color and shape. Tiles do not have to be over-patterned and excessively decorative. Nor do they have to be thought of as cosmetic, as merely a surface, though in fact that is what they are. They also have a kind of honest, down-to-earth quality; they are, after all, made of clay.

Since the 19th century's industrialization of tiles, there have been various reactions in the form of handmade tiles. These craftsmans' tiles have contributed in their own way to the development of the tile as a sensitive art object, having a kind of integrity that machine manufacture cannot achieve.

But tiles seem, in the end, to be whatever their makers and users would like them to be. Something of their adaptability is suggested by a quote in the book from American architect-designer Squire J. Vickers.

He wrote in an article of 1919: ``If a little color be needed, enrich the rough and rigid surface with bands or plaques of tile.... It may be used with restraint to soften a facade even as a piece of tapestry tempers a wall of stone, or if it be desired to emphasize any feature a plaque of joyous brilliant color may be placed which will shine resplendent like a rich jewel roughly set.''

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