Hand-crafted fireplace tiles are back, thanks to the ever-growing revival of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The strength of the designs and the use of natural materials gives them enormous appeal and staying power.
When talking about the present day revival of Arts and Crafts tile in Amer-
ica, Professor Richard D. Mohr of the University of Illinois at Urbana sums it up best: "Mention tiles and most peo-
ple envision those characterless bathroom coverings we all grew up with and continue to see too much of now.
During the decades
flanking 1900, though, tiles of a different sort grout-
ed their way into many dimensions of American life, enlivening both public and private spaces with a sumptuous
array of color and texture. Companies such as Batchelder Tiles of Los Angel-
es, Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati, American Encaustic Tiling of Zanesville (Ohio), and Grueby Faience of Boston took the tilemaking techniques of 18th-century Spain and fused them with the design ideals of Britain's 19th-century Arts & Crafts Move- ment to produce a distinctively American look in useful clay — the art tile. Intended to be functional as well as attractive, art tiles were used architecturally in ways that have long been underappreciated, but can still amaze and delight us today."
Professor Mohr goes on to state: "Homeowners placed art tiles at the visual center of family life by setting
them in hearths and mantels. Their matte glazes and peaceful, if often sentimental, subjects provided the perfect
backdrop for rest, reading, contemplation, and conversation. Be-
yond the inglenook, art-tiled fire-
places could also be found in dining rooms, bedrooms, libraries, and home offices. Admittedly, an art-tiled fire-
place was an objet de luxe and only the wealthiest could afford one. The least expensive fireplace surround with mantel shown in Rookwood's
1909 tile catalog — four simple molded decorative tiles set in a field of plain tiles — cost $50 at a time when the average American worker earned $5 a week. A fancy Rookwood fireplace with an overall design of lilies was equal to a year's salary, even though it was made entirely of molded stock items, and Rookwood's mark-up on tiles was only half of what it made on vases."
One of the few surviving studios from the original Arts and Crafts era is the
Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The brain-
child of Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-
1930), a leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement in America in the early
20th century, Moravian Pottery's hand-crafted fireplace tiles are a testament to its founder's vivid imag-
ination and creative genius. Though the Pottery and Tile Works is now
a nonprofit working history museum housed in three historic buildings -- including Mercer's picturesque castle-
like home, Fonthill (shown below in bottom photo) -- it continues to re-
produce the original designs in a manner similar to that originally developed by him.
Uniquely distinctive among Arts & Crafts designs of the period, Moravian Tiles are unlike any others made before or since. Both glazed and unglazed, the colorful fireplace tiles are filled with images of equally colorful storybook characters like Rip Van Winkle . . . . .
or characters from popular American culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Arkansas Traveller . . . . .
or historical figures and events such as the landing of Christopher Colum-
bus in America . . . . .
even depictions of various seasonal activities like picking grapes in the fall.
The fireplace tiles of Henry Mercer were mean't to tell a story and their varied themes reflected his
broad interests and experiences in the fields of archaeology, literature, history, and folklore. Sometimes
they were ad-
aptations of tile designs of the past. The result was a picturesque prod-
uct in which each Moravian Tile installation was truly unique.
Fonthill, home of Henry Mercer
The many tile styles and tile making techniques of the Arts and Crafts Movement have inspired countless
present day artisans and studios to re-
create the rich legacy of designs, textures and colors from that period. In addition, they are creating a host of new designs influenced by the styles and motifs of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The examples that follow provide a sampling of the many different looks currently available in Arts & Crafts-inspired fireplace tiles.
The hand-crafted detailing and ageless designs and motifs of Arts and Crafts reproduction and adaptive fireplace tiles make them a "natural" for surrounds and hearths. In addition, quoting Professor Mohr once again, "More than the ever-growing revival of the Arts & Crafts Movement, post- modernism's embrace of color, texture, decoration, historical referencing, and . . . well . . . fun have made this design philosophy the perfect vehicle for the return of tile and decorative terra cotta to architecture."
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