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Much of the energy of today's tile renaissance comes from the recent explosion of interest in decorative art tiles, both original designs and recreations of traditional styles.

Aside from its visual and tactile appeal, tile can be a powerful way to allude to period or regional styles, and in this respect a few art tiles or a handpainted mural can go a long way toward setting the decorative tone for an entire room. You can choose handmade tiles with softly irregular shapes to create folk or historical allusions, or crisp, machine-made patterns to support a high-tech contemporary look. The gamut runs from charmingly pictorial to dynamically abstract designs.

A rainbow of options

Some art tiles are faithful reproductions of traditional Arts and Crafts, Victorian, or Moorish-inspired designs; others create more exuberant looks that respectfully acknowledge their ancestors but make fresh departures. Still others strike out to create bold, contemporary graphics.

Decorative tiles are generally nonvitreous like glazed wall tiles. Many have glazes that are easily scratched. Traditionally, they've clad fireplace surrounds, stair risers, courtyard fountains, even patio walls in temperate climates. Modern uses include service as kitchen and bath backsplashes, vent hoods, window trim, tub surrounds, and walk-in showers.

Though some art tiles can be used as floor accents, most (with the notable exceptions of encaustic tiles and some decorative terra-cotta) are not meant to handle foot traffic.

Some historic patterns were created from linoleum-block carvings impressed in the clay. Others used wax-based resist lines as barriers between glazes in different colors.

Today, some manufacturers mold their tiles by hand, but others machine-press the clay. Handmade tiles are usually more prized than machined tiles, with "relaxed" shapes and rounded corners, plus variations in size and thickness. These idiosyncrasies, signs of the individuality of the artisan's hand, are part of such tiles' appeal.

Whether the clay body is formed by hand or machine, the depths and nuances of some art tile glazes are nothing short of magic. Glazing formulas and firing times and temperatures are closely guarded secrets; some art tiles may be glazed and refired eight or nine times.

Handpainted tiles are typically decorated in a labor-intensive fashion, with small brushes used to apply the color. Other patterns are silk-screened. Some makers use multiple layers and multiple firings to build colors, and others separate them by using wax borders. Less expensive offerings may use applied decals instead.

Art tiles with raised profiles are termed relief tiles; those with indentations are called counter-relief. Sturdy encaustic tiles, used since the days of England's great cathedrals, fill this recess with a contrasting color of liquid clay, called a slip.

Most art tile producers are small operations, making their tiles to order. However, larger manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon, offering a growing variety of art-look machine-made tiles and borders.

Decorative murals

Tile murals come in two basic types: individual "sheet" murals and large scenes built up from numerous individual tiles. Many murals in showrooms are coordinated with plain field tiles, and some lines also offer border tiles and corner trim.

Most traditional tile murals are built up from numerous individual tiles, handpainted or silk-screened as one, then separated, numbered, and reassembled. Perennial motifs include floral bouquets, fruits and vegetables, animals, and nature scenes. But there's no reason to stop with such subjects: tile showrooms often work with local artisans to custom-design handpainted murals. Treatments can be conservative to whimsical to wild!

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