Editor’s Miscellany: Time and Tile

July 19, 2012

By Kyle Hoepner

There have been occasions over the past couple of years when I’ve been certain that modern interior design is finally outgrowing its birth pains. Much like modern architecture, professional interior design (in the English-speaking world, at least) remains greatly influenced by its early twentieth-century founders, such as Elsie de Wolfe. Her style–and the same is true of other seminal tastemakers like Syrie Maugham–was very much a reaction against Victorian and Edwardian looks. And to this day such nineteenth-century looks have never really had a comeback.

But recently there are hints that we’ve traveled far enough down time’s road for Victorian style not to seem so threatening. A full-fledged renaissance may not yet be imminent–what would we call it? Neo-Nineteen?–but hints and traces are surfacing in houses and shelter magazines near you, in the guise of dark woods, heavy velvets, aggressively mixed patterns and Gothic accents.

The living room of designer Elaine Griffin and Michael McGarry’s apartment in an 1890s Harlem brownstone. Photo by Joshua McHugh, from the May 2011 issue of Elle Decor

I’ll think about writing a more extended post on this topic soon–but for the moment there’s one particular Victorian element I’m happy to be seeing more of: encaustic tile.

From the same house in Harlem: a floorcloth (I think) in the designer’s home office gives an effect similar to encaustic tile patterns from Victorian times. Photo by Joshua McHugh, from the May 2011 issue of Elle Decor

I love the luscious sense of depth encaustic tiles give–especially when unglazed–both because of the actual, physical properties of their inlaid clay or cement, and also because of their often repetitive, Op-art-ish patterns. They may remind you of parish church floors, or perhaps the “downstairs†spaces in an English country house. Or maybe they recall the foyer of an old brownstone or apartment building you lived in as a student.

Photo from collarcitybrownstone.com

Their Moorish- or Latin-flavored incarnations can also be very welcome.

KJ Patterson Collection encaustic tile can suggest a bit of the old Malibu Potteries look. Photo courtesy of Filmore Clark

But even in sparer, more contemporary environs, I love the way encaustic tiles add a piquant bit of complication to the larger simplicity.

Architects Shubin + Donaldson designed this kitchen for Biscuit Filmworks in Hollywood. Photo courtesy of Shubin + Donaldson

Paccha tiles from Ann Sacks. Photo courtesy of Ann Sacks

An encaustic tile wall makes a florid backdrop for a clean-lined wooden tub in this bathroom by Abramson Teiger Architects. Photo from houzz.com

A similar application, this time surrounding a fireplace. Photo from valerielavinedesign.blogspot.com

Here’s a reclaimed vintage Victorian tile you can buy on eBay. What would you do with a bunch of these?