People have been decorating with ceramic and clay tile for centuries. It's a building material as ancient as the clay harvested from the Nile River and as futuristic as the thermal glass used to protect today's space shuttles. But while tile is as durable as the centuries and as hi-tech as NASA, it's also beautiful, decorative and can now be as personal as you choose on both wall and floor applications.

Ceramic tiles have a unique place in history. They were the first practical but decorative products to become an everyday part of the home environment. Today, almost every home has some tile and the advent of transferring printing onto earthenware has brought quality, decoration and design to tile. 

As early as the 4th century BC, ceramic tiles were used to decorate houses in Egypt.  Clay bricks were dried beneath the sun and the first glazes were blue in color as the copper they contained transformed in the heat.  According to Robert Wilson of the Ceramic Tile Institute of America, it's the durability and affordability of tile that made it a popular material.

Decorative Wall Tile

Clay is found just about everywhere, he said. Since the first tiles were produced, little has changed about the process. Yes, a lot of wealthy people had quite intricate mosaic floors, but clay tiles were readily available for roofs and floors.

The first decorative tiles to appear in Colonial North America were imported from England, after the British reportedly high-jacked the technology from the Dutch. But while tiles were available in the colonies, they were too expensive for utilitarian purposes and where therefore found almost exclusively in the homes of the wealthy.

Today, however, ceramic tiles are used in an almost infinite number of ways throughout the world, and you don't have to consider yourself wealthy to own them or even to find a tile artist who can easily create unique masterpieces for your home.

At the Savage, Maryland studios of Big Blue Heaven Hand Painted Ceramic Tiles, artist Pamela McNay says business is brisk.  This highly skilled decorative tile artist works directly with her customers to create one-of-a-kind tile works to compliment the décor of her customer's home. 

McNay says her work, which is surprisingly affordable, empowers her customers to use tiles to convey any look they want to see in their homes. Instead of the standard factory made designs, custom tiles let the customer use their imagination and come up with something completely original. "I like the process of collaborating with my customers and then coming up with a design that is completely unique for their homes."  

Not just for bathrooms anymore
For the past twenty years we have been in the midst of a renaissance of ceramic arts, involving the enhancement of fired clay surfaces of practically every imaginable description. Tile artists and artisans, most working from their own studios or in small factory settings, produce their own decorative tiles by hand or who create unique relief work, either free-standing or more often for the wall, that serve to bring tile's beauty throughout our homes.

McNay says her tile works run the gamut.  From a design of one or two painted tiles to mark a special event like the birth of a child to murals of over a hundred tiles.  "We even frame designs or use tiles to create mirrors that become the focal point of any room," she said.

Finding the rock of ages
For antique buffs, decorating can also be an adventure.  Just ask Charlie Smallbone.  He spends most of his time traveling throughout Europe, China, India, Latin America and the Middle East examining tiles reclaimed from temples, chateaux, country houses and Roman courtyards for antique tiles and mosaics. 

Smallbone is the founder of Paris Ceramics, a London-based company which has been instrumental in raising awareness of the beauty, durability and affordability of antique tiles.

"This business gets me into some interesting places visiting different cultures," said Smallbone, an Englishman whose company has showrooms in the United States and London.

Smallbone has brought back antique flagstones ranging in color from light beige to dark silvery grey from France's Burgundy region, which, after wine, is known for its hard stone; centuries-old Jerusalem stone from the West Bank; and a white marble floor, comprised of random-sized slabs, from an Andalusian monastery. The antique flooring is acquired from architectural salvagers -- and with the blessing of local authorities.

Smallbone said antique tile flooring offers history, as well as the aesthetic beauty of floors that have become smooth with centuries of foot traffic and scrubbings with soap and water.

"Reproductions can look very close to antique tiles," he said. "But the antique has a color and a texture from years of wear and tear that can't be replicated completely by machine or by hand."

Whether your preference for wall or floor tile is old or new, Big Blue Heaven's McNay says today's tile artists have taken this ancient technique to a whole new edge.  "They're not just your mother's decorative tiles any more," she said.