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The Timelessness of Tile: From Arts & Crafts to Art Deco to Today

By Maureen Neeley

Touring open houses in older neighborhoods of Long Beach can be a heartbreaking experience. The misguided renovations of the 1950s-1970s led to the installation of aluminum sliding doors. The 1980s and ‘90s saw a spate of Southwestern motifs, then moved on to open shelving and track lighting. The 2000s ushered in granite countertops, marble floors and great rooms (which eliminated dining rooms and breakfast nooks by sacrificing built-in bookcases, desks and cabinetry). All of these trends sounded the death knell for the original intent of 70+ year-old homes. Finding ways to work within the architecture of older homes is an art. Fortunately, it’s not a “lost art.”

Let’s start with tile. It was a hardy and practical design element for most homes from the Arts & Crafts era of the 1900s-1920s through the Art Deco period from 1926-1941. Ceramic tile countertops are the workhorses of the kitchen. They can withstand hot skillets and knife edges. Grout can be cleaned and resealed. The same can be said for the tiled showers and wainscoting in the bathrooms. The Art Deco era (1926-1941) ushered in an explosion of COLOR: pink, black, yellow, green, mauve, mustard, and more!

Wild colors of seafoam green and tangerine were the ultimate in Art Deco style in this Belmont Heights home

The combinations are endless and equally long lasting. An original bathroom tile scheme can provide a unique pop of color and texture. Floor patterns ranged from basket weave to hexagons to squares – both 4” and 6” – providing a pattern separate from the subway tiles along the walls. Almost all of these baths used border tiles and many incorporated liner tiles (narrow bands, some with a design), to bring even more definition to the walls or floors. Today, these would cost a bundle.

Tile manufacturers could be found all over Southern California during the first half of the 20th century. Today, books and catalogs highlight such companies as Malibu Potteries, Catalina Pottery, Gladding McBean and Company, Batchelder Tile Company, Pacific Clay Products, Taylor Tilery, D & M Tile Company, and Hispano-Moresque Tiles. Their designs and techniques varied, but the endurance of the product is similar. If one is lucky enough to move into a home with original kitchen or fireplace tile, rejoice in the good fortune of owning a small piece of art history. First, know that the original tiles are worth more than one thinks. Second, nearly ALL tile can be repaired and is much less expensive than removal and replacement.

This Batchelder design has a scene of the Arroyo as a keystone tile

According to John Douglas of Old House Artisan, “Most tile fireplaces, including Batchelder, can be repaired. Cracks and chips, water damage and fuzzy moldy surfaces, broken or missing tiles are not deal-breakers. I remind my clients how rare, valuable and special these tiles are. To recreate a fireplace with reproduction tiles today would cost thousands of dollars. Rare vintage California tiles in your home is something to fight for.”

Douglas is not the only restoration specialist available, but be sure to interview potential craftspeople for their skills and technique. He reiterated, “Regardless of how it is accomplished, saving artisan tile is worth the effort.”



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