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We have recently moved and I want to replace the dingy tiles surrounding the fireplace in our dining room. I am drawn to Portuguese tiles but am open to other ideas. What do you think?
A delightful idea. Azulejos, the unique tiles that Portugal is so well-known for, are found on the interior and exterior of all kinds of buildings and structures, from grand churches, palaces and fountains to restaurants, park benches and train stations.
They came with the Moors in the 15th century, but fell out of fashion in the early 1900s. Thankfully, a resurgence of interest began in the 1950s and now they seem more popular than ever.
If you want to shop for antique Portuguese tiles online, I advise starting with Solar, a company that specialises in these and other decorative arts from the country. Browse the website and discover an incredible array of colour and pattern.
I particularly love their selection of early tiles, from the 15th and 16th centuries, all azure blues, jade greens and mustards in swirling, kaleidoscopic arrangements.
Heading across the border into Spain for a moment, I am intrigued by Maitland & Poate, a London-based, family-run business that grew from a passion for sourcing reclaimed encaustic tiles from Andalucía. Many of their antique tiles have interesting stories.
Take Cuero Viejo, which features a traditional stencil design in off-white on a burgundy background. These were reclaimed from an entrance to a mansion in Córdoba. Or how about Viso, discovered in the kitchen of a small finca between Sevilla and Jerez de la Frontera? (I love the way the natural pigments in these tiles have faded and aged.)
My absolute favourite might be the Juan Centro tiles with their beautiful diamond-shaped brown, marbled pattern and thin green border. Tiles such as these deserve another life — they’re humble and honest and completely elegant.
They are larger than your standard ceramic tiles, however, and are usually used for floors, although I have seen them surrounding fireplaces. Encaustic tiles are made from clay and cement and are not glazed and decorated in the way that Portuguese or Delft ceramic tiles are.
Speaking of Delft, it could be interesting to consider an entirely different sort of design. I love a geometric tile, but I can never resist a good dose of Delft.
Enter Klaas Regts: a Dutchman who, as a child, found his first Delft tiles (17th-century, decorated with rare animals) in the garden of his family home. Regts was hooked and eventually his stash of antique Delft tiles became the largest private collection in the world.
Regts’s son, Durk, founded Regts, the company, in 2014, and began dealing. They have some beautiful things on offer. I’ve been eyeing up a couple of tiles in particular: mermen from 1650, one playing a violin and the other shooting a bow and arrow.
Admittedly, many are rather expensive (the aquatic archer will set you back €250), but you may not need many for your fireplace — unless you are decorating a larger area of the chimney breast, rather than just within the surround.
(Personally, I adore the idea of a much larger collection of these Delft tiles entirely lining a small room, such as a bathroom. Or even a large room! I’m thinking of the kitchen at the Amalienburg, the hunting lodge at Munich’s Nymphenburg Palace.)
Douglas Watson Studio, by the way, makes excellent Delft-inspired tiles in its Oxfordshire workshop.
Consider, also, English Victorian and Edwardian tiles. Nottingham Architectural Antiques and Reclamation is selling individual hand-painted and transfer tiles reclaimed from various sources including porches and fireplaces.
When I worked for the architectural and interior designer Ben Pentreath, we covered a giant kitchen backsplash in a London house with a huge amount of this kind of tile — each selected for their charming pattern.
Until I have an entire bathroom (or even a fireplace) to tile, I use the odd few I’ve collected as saucers for pot plants. Or I’ll prop one up on a mantelpiece. Whatever you do, go bold with your tiles. And, if you can, choose those with history and a bit of romance attached.
Give neglected old tiles a delightful new home — I am entranced by the idea of using those reclaimed from a crumbling finca, farmhouse or railway station.
Or buy new, but choose well, which leads me to my final suggestion: London’s Balineum makes a fantastic mottled tile in eight colourways, inspired by Victorian interiors. I am desperate to use these somewhere.
The emerald green and sky blue versions are sublime — psychedelic and mesmerising. Stare at this tile and suddenly it’s a hot summer’s day and you’re squinting through dark leaves to a piercing cerulean sky. Much needed in January.
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