- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2001

Tile, one of the oldest building materials in the world, also is one of the most versatile. So it wasn’t entirely strange that Ralph Davis opted to put a handcrafted tile design behind the bar of the restaurant he owns in Arlington.

“A lot of pizzerias with wood-burning ovens have tile around them,” he says, explaining how he settled on the decorative tile even though his Circo Pizzeria and Grill at 2300 Clarendon Blvd. is prevented by law from having such an oven because of its location on the ground floor of a modern high-rise building.

Still, Circo — “it means circus in Italian,” he notes — has bene-fited from the piece designed and hand-painted by Liette Marcil, a Boston-based ceramic artist who has done custom work for Ademas tile in Alexandria for more than 10 years. On the advice of Alexandria decorator Florence Hawkins, Mr. Davis also commissioned the artist to do a whimsical sun, 18 inches in diameter and surrounded by molding, for an opposite wall.

“Without tile, the restaurant would not be as interesting,” he concedes. “It’s the focal point of the room.” The idea came up during a recent renovation. “The bar area was a plain spot; we wondered how to jazz it up.” A ruby-red, yellow and cream-colored tile background in harlequin pattern shows up the signature sun design to advantage.

Nothing in custom tile work comes cheap, however. Installation costs have to be considered, as well, and the prices of individual tiles vary wildly from as little as $10 a square foot for low-end square machine-made pieces to $100 for a single hand-painted scene in delicate blue shades from the famous Delft ceramic ateliers in Holland.

Ademas is unusual in being able to offer a complete range, including reproducing on tile any scene or even a portrait that a customer desires.

Jamie Haley of Potomac wanted an 18th-century kitchen scene in tile on the wall behind her stove, a space known in the trade as the backsplash. No problem, said Ademas designer Sara Bernheisel. In addition, Mrs. Haley had contracted through the builders handling her remodeling project to have the designer create original patterns for her pool house and walkway. The result was a portrayal of tiny frogs and grasses in pale green stone tile in the pool changing room. The pool house itself has a slate floor with leaflike inserts.

“I gave her some direction, and she picked the colors,” Mrs. Haley says, full of praise for the finished product, installed this year.

The current trend in home design of creating elaborate kitchens and bathrooms contributes to the popularity of tile. This has happened partly because of an economic boom but also because of a change in people’s lifestyles, says Barbara Sallick, the founder of Waterworks. The company does custom work with tiles for bathrooms and kitchens — for an average minimum of $8 to $12 per square foot — but, as the name implies, it also sells plumbing fixtures and accessories.

“Twenty-five years ago, the bathroom was about hygiene and privacy,” she explains. “The evolution has come about with our increased emphasis on health and having a personal space where we can have quiet time.” The company, headquartered in Danbury, Conn., has stores in 33 cities, including its Georgetown location.

Capitol Hill interior designer Beth Peacock says, “At Waterworks, I can acquire everything I need for a bath: tiles and fixtures, including towels, towel warmers and Jacuzzis. I can go in and in two days knock out five baths.” Her firm, Peacock Co., also works closely with Ademas.

Mrs. Sallick, whose father started a plumbing business in 1925, describes her approach in “Waterworks: Inventing Bath Style,” written with Lisa Light and published in May by Clarkson Potter/Publishers. The book includes information for the layman about various kinds of applied surface materials and how to use them. A more comprehensive survey of the subject is “Tile,” by Jill Herbers, published by Artisan in 1996. A $20 paperback is due out this fall.

A Bethesda native now living in New York City, Ms. Herbers says the medium’s recent popularity relates in part to the saturation in everyday life of computers and high-tech machines.

“It’s the same reason why gardening has become so popular,” she says. “People spend so much time staring at a screen and living with plastic that they begin to crave earthy matters. They get a new appreciation for things made by hand.” Her apartment has tiles “everywhere,” she says: “Islamic tile next to a French country tile,” even around the baseboards.

A visit to Ademas, Waterworks, B&F Ceramics Design Showroom in Newington or the Home Depot Expo Design Center in Fairfax can seem the equivalent of a museum outing. Displays of tile and tableaux dazzle the eye in spaces of 5,000 to 7,000 square feet. The choice can seem overwhelming at first and is reason enough for customers to hire professional decorating help if they can afford it, although all of the above businesses welcome the untutored individual buyer, as well.

“We’re a major importer of Italian ceramic tile,” says Sandy Knight, design consultant for B&F’s commercial and contractor customers. “We don’t have any middleman, so our prices reflect that.” The firm distributes tiles in 17 states in addition to servicing a large number of residential and commercial customers, primarily in suburban Virginia.

Sandy Kline, a sales representative at Ademas, works with so many tile distributors and manufacturers that she calls the showroom “the Smithsonian of tile.” Display samples reflect myriad cultures and historical periods. The company name itself comes from the Spanish word for “a little extra” as in the phrase “what’s more.”

“Tile is a universal medium,” Ms. Kline notes. A great deal of global travel is fueling the present interest, she adds.

“People go abroad and see stone and marble and mosaics for the first time. And places like Home Depot’s Expo Center open up new ideas,” Ms. Kline says.

Magazines that feature home design also contribute to the demand. “We scramble to keep up with business,” she says, adding that “you have to be a psychologist to know the kind of tiles good for each individual that they will love forever.”

A typical client is the homeowner who works for the Department of Transportation and has lived in Portugal, a place famous for tiles. “She knows the real thing and comes in asking for it because she wants an authentic look in her home,” Ms. Kline says

Authenticity is key, whether it is real or virtual. Mosaic tile is made today in Ravenna, Italy, in a fashion similar to methods used centuries ago.

Modern techniques are used to create tiles that appear old or are derived from older periods. A line of green and gold tiles on the Ademas showroom wall are reproductions of some found in ancient Roman villas and have been distressed — given a rough surface — to look 400 or 500 years old. Glass tiles nearby offer a decidedly 1950s look: bright colors and geometric patterns.

“The advantage of glass is its translucent quality,” Ms. Kline says, showing a line of vitreous glass — from Italy — whose surface is burnished with iridium metal. Another line combines glass and epoxy with copper shavings.

Stone tiles, too, are turning up in many places in the home, replacing the trend in slate that was common not long ago. Stone has an organic base, Ms. Kline says, so it is not uncommon to find fossilized particles in the tiles.

Making a distinction between what she calls “the quarter-inch machine-made tile, a production-line ceramic,” and the handmade version in which slight variables give each tile its character, Ms. Kline says most lines come with an option to buy tile in any color or finish — gloss, matte, antique and leather among them.

Typical of original products being made domestically are tiles by Pratt & Larson Ceramics of Portland, Ore., which has taken as its model the Arts and Crafts Movement that flourished in America in the late 1800s until the Great Depression struck in the 1930s. The movement was notable for its many small- and medium-size tile companies producing handcrafted tiles for national distribution.

Imported tiles include polished shells from Indonesia that are sliced microscopically and then put together by hand. The latter are small — no more than 11/2 inches — and cost $20 each because of the labor needed for their manufacture. They are used mainly as accent pieces in a large surface of much plainer tiles.

Tiles for outdoor swimming pools have to be frostproof, but even so, a wide selection of patterned tiles is available, and custom orders can enhance the final design, as Mrs. Haley discovered when approving the one for her pool house.

So committed is Ademas to encouraging creativity in the field that the firm is offering a first-prize award of $500 for an original artwork in tile. The competition, titled “Tile: Out of the Box,” is being sponsored by Target Gallery in Alexandria this fall. Artists of every background are invited to participate.

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