Mission: Modern

The Old House Web

By Sabra Waldfogel

Ernest Batchelder would have felt right at home in the Minnesota workshop of North Prairie Tileworks.

Batchelder, a famed Arts and Crafts tile maker, died in 1957. But his favored methods live on today at North Prairie Tileworks.

Like Batchelder, the company's artisans sculpt their molds and decorate tile surfaces by hand. Their field tiles are glazed in complex, muted colors, like Batchelders own early tiles. And their decorative tiles have motifs that Batchelder would find familiar -- designs that are tributes to early 20th-century tile.

In the world of Arts and Crafts inspired tile, everything old is new again.

batchelder tile
Photo: Courtesy RagoArts.

This 12" square Batchelder tile combines his interest in birds and geometrics.

Tile with an attitude

Today's tile makers freely acknowledge their debt to the great tile makers of the early 20th century.

They reproduce the designs of Henry Mercer, who founded Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in 1899. They replicate Batchelders motifs. And they pay homage to William Grueby, active between 1909 and 1919, and famous for his thick, rich, complex green glazes.

Photo: Courtesy of North Prairie Tileworks.

This contemporary geometric design is based on a design from a Rookwood pottery piece.

Contemporary tile makers share more than colors, glazes, and designs with their early 20th-century predecessors. They also share the the attitudes and choices of content that define Arts and Crafts tiles, says Joseph Taylor, president of the Tile Heritage Foundation.

Like their predecessors, contemporary tile makers often use nature as their subject. Theres definitely a connection between Arts and Crafts and nature," Taylor says. "Nature can be broad -- from as simple a detail as a pinecone to a landscape.

Batchelder often used flowers, plants, and animals as motifs, and Grueby was well known for striking murals of natural scenes. The contemporary tile makers draw inspiration from a similar source. The north woods are the backyard of the Minnesota studio of North Prairie Tileworks, and the inspiration for their Arts and Crafts tiles, says company president Roger Mayland. "We have turtles, frogs, fish, dragonflies, loons, bears, lily pads, herons, cattails... he says.

The attitude toward the craft of tile making is remarkably similar across the decades. Early 20th-century tile makers deplored the influence of the machine over modern life, and looked back to the medieval period for traditional ways of designing and making tile.

"Its the same today as it was one hundred years ago. Taylor says, The artist relates to the medium, getting his or her hands dirty with clay as an integral part of the experience. The conscious connection between the artist and the earth is essential to the Arts and Crafts ideal."

npt tulip
Photo: Courtesy North Prairie Tileworks.
This ginger tulip tile is a contemporary piece inspired by a stained glass window.

npt bunnies
Photo: North Prairie Tileworks.
Rookwood "bunnies" tile is a faithful reproduction of an Arts and Crafts original, and was used in a fireplace surround.

The same, but different

Contemporary tile makers are combining the essential elements of traditional Arts and Crafts tiles in new ways.

North Prairie tile makers start with traditional motifs and then experiment. Their ginger tulip design, for example, was derived from a stained glass window.

"A homeowner said, 'I have a design. Would you guys make it? Mayland recalls. The original color scheme, a green speckle, evolved as customers saw the tile and asked for something different.

On the other hand, Mayland says, The Rookwood bunnies came straight from the Rookwood books."

21st century homeowners are using the tile differently, too.

Arts and Crafts architects and tile makers viewed the fireplace as the center of family life. They felt that decorative tile belonged on the mantel, around the fireplace, and on the hearth. Decorative tile was for public spaces like foyers, floors, and exteriors between 1900 and 1930.

"The bathroom," Taylor notes, "was still a Victorian part of the house, not a room that you talked about or decorated.

Today, the heart of the home is not necessarily the hearth. Now the kitchen has become the gathering point," Mayland says. People no longer feel the need to hide bathrooms, but instead enhance them with handmade tile. Even utilitarian spaces like the mudroom or laundry room often get tile treatments.

Tile goes everywhere, says Leigh ODell, marketing director of Pratt and Larson Ceramics.

Ernest Batchelder might be surprised to see how the tiles he inspired are being used in homes today. But he'd likely feel right at home with the look of the contemporary tiles and the warmth they give to rooms.

pl bath
Photo: Courtesy of Pratt and Larson Ceramics
Tile makers from the early 1900s might be surprised to see decorative tile in a bathroom, but they'd recognize the familiar nature motifs and glazes in rich, natural colors.

pl back
Photo: Courtesy of Pratt and Larson Ceramics.
The modern hearth, the kitchen, is enhanced by a backsplash with an orchard mural reminiscent of Batchelder or Rookwood.

wald back
Photo: Sabra Waldfogel.
A contemporary reworking of a lily pad motif in the author's kitchen.

Early 20th century tile makers
  • Batchelder Tile of Pasadena, CA. Founder Ernest Batchelder, active 1909-1932. Fireplace surrounds; natural and geometric motifs.
  • Moravian Pottery and Tileworks of Doylestown, PA. Founder Henry Mercer, active 1899 to present day (now a museum). Medieval motifs.
  • Grueby Faience and Tile of Boston, MA. Founder William Grueby. Active 1909-1919. Geometrics and murals; complex green glazes.
  • Pewabic Pottery of Detroit MI. Founder Mary Chase Perry Stratton. Active 1903-present day. Complex iridescent glazes.
  • Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati OH, began producing tile in 1902. Plant and animal motifs, landscapes, other pictorial subjects.
Suppliers of ceramic tile
Further information

The Tile Heritage Foundation offers a variety of consultation services and books and publications, including photocopies of old tile catalogs.

Sabra Waldfogel is a historian and freelance writer specializing in the Arts and Crafts period.

About the Author
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