Tiles and Tiles of Texas

Forget the boring, cookie-cutter designs in your kitchen and bathroom. These days, studios in Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio are creating tiles that are nothing less than works of art.

November 1997By Comments

WHEN I AM WORKING ON A STORY, I believe in doing in-depth research; so one weekend not long ago I made a tile. I had been conducting interviews on the extraordinary renaissance of fine tile making in Texas and around the country, and I decided I needed hands-on experience. One of the tile studios I had visited allowed me to invade its space, and for several frustrating hours I sculpted, molded, punched, and smacked a hunk of clay into four vaguely tilelike objects. Then I painted them (a bit like decorating cookies, except you can’t eat the dough), fired them, carted them home, and hid them away in the deepest drawer I could find. My appreciation of the skill it takes to conceive and execute a presentable, much less artistic, tile ascended into the stratosphere.

Not since the twenties and thirties has there been such an outpouring of tilemaking creativity in this country. You see it in the form of art in public places, such as the huge nine-story tile mural by artist Jesse Treviño that was unveiled on the exterior of a San Antonio hospital last month. You see it at scores of schools, housing projects, and parks (Corpus Christi’s memorial to tejano-music singer Selena, designed by Cornelia and Ed Gates and actually painted by South Texas children, is one example; the similarly kid-created tile mural at Ingrando Park in Houston is another). But mainly you see evidence of the tile renaissance in people’s homes, where boring, monochromatic kitchen tile has been relegated to the background in favor of gorgeous ceramic murals of ripe apples, figs, and pomegranates and where bathroom countertops and shower stalls are aswim in rainbow-bright parrot fish and angelfish.

The appeal of art tiles, with their luminous glazes and deeply saturated colors, their durability and marvelous originality, is instant and obvious. America’s tile artists have turned traditional tile design upside down with carved “relief” tiles, multilayered colors and glazes that look a mile deep, and images that draw on everything from architecture to textile design. When asked to account for the current resurgence of interest, several artists mentioned the idea of escape. “Cocooning,” said Claudia Reese of Cera-Mix, referring to Americans’ urge to turn their homes into retreats from the scary outside world. Alan Barber of Architerra had a related theory: “The last time tile and other crafts had such a widespread, sustained rebirth was following the Industrial Revolution. I think we’re seeing the same kind of emotional reaction to the digital revolution now.” Tile muralist turned painter Malou Flato of Austin said simply, “Peo-ple want handmade things.”

At this point you may have decided that you want to turn your home into a cocoon. Fine, but prepare for sticker shock: $15 to $35 a square foot for solid-color tile, $50 to $200 and up for decorative tile, compared with $2 to $5 for plain machine-made tile. If you use art tile just as an accent, though, you can dress up a kitchen backsplash for as little as $100. There are any number of ceramic artists in Texas who do individual tile projects, and do them very well. But if you are looking for someone who specializes in tile—who designs and manufactures original lines and markets them through tile showrooms—there are essentially only four names to remember in the state today: Dunis Studios of San Antonio, Cera-Mix and Architerra of Austin, and Saba Studios of Dallas. (Clayworks of Austin does some of the most Texas-oriented tiles in the state, in its appealing Critter line, but it markets them only locally.) None of the four is large (six to ten employees are a lot; sales of $1 million a year would be nice someday), but all are on the cutting edge in their design and the unlimited vision they have for the future of art tile in Texas.

On my way to Dunis Studios in San Antonio I got lost and had to stop for directions. “Oh, yeah, that’s the building that looks like a Chinese restaurant,” said the man I asked. The contemporary, angular structure didn’t look at all like a pagoda, but it did have an exotic twenty-first-century quality. Inside, 50-year-old Susan Dunis, her brother, Gill Aldridge, 55, and eight workers manage and run her manufacturing operation as well as an airy showroom that displays the work of 22 other tile artists from around the country. Even in such company, Dunis’ work—beautifully carved, sensual images of fruits, flowers, and animals—stands out, filling every inch of every tile and spilling exuberantly over the edges. “What you usually see are these timid little artichokes and eggplants centered on a white background, all stiff and cautious,” she says. “I wanted ours to be voluptuous and lush and three-dimensional and wild.” Dunis came to tilemaking from painting and fabric design, a background that has helped rather than hindered her. “I didn’t know enough to say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that,’” she says, so she broke a lot of rules. Obviously, bucking tradition has paid off. Her work is carried by sixty showrooms nationwide, and the business is only four years old. 23645 N. U.S. 281 at Marshall Road, 3.5 miles north of Loop 1604, San Antonio; 210-497-5787; open to the public.

If Susan Dunis’ tiles are quietly luxuriant, Claudia Reese’s are emphatic and bold. They employ an au courant vocabulary including triangles, squares, dots, and dashes—so much so that a curved form like the gracefully swimming koi on her Fish Cameo tiles comes as quite a surprise. For sixteen-odd years Reese’s Cera-Mix studio concentrated on dinnerware, but four or five years ago she and her husband and partner, 46-year-old Phil Martin, began to notice that a lot of their trade- and craft-show customers were fascinated with her then-experimental tiles; at the same time, some galleries and stores that carried Cera-Mix’s dinnerware closed. Reese began to push the tile, and that part of the business doubled for three years running. “My style is about pattern and color, not about form,” says the 48-year-old artist, sitting in her two-story warehouse studio with mango-yellow floors and cobalt-blue stair rails located in the hills west of Austin. “I use a lot of printmaking processes—stenciling, masking things off, overpainting, sponging.” She might start with white clay, paint it black, top that with a crisp color, and finally cut or scrape through to the white. “You have to be insane to do these complicated processes,” she says, laughing, “but the results are great, and our tiles don’t look like anybody else’s.” 709 N. Tumbleweed Trail, Austin; 512-263-5018; open by appointment. 

“Contemporary” is the last word you would use to describe the style at Architerra of Austin. With their deliberate fissures, cracks, and nibbled corners, the company’s tiles look as if they’ve been knocking around for years: Maybe they came from the ruins of a Greek temple, or perhaps they washed ashore from the hold of some molting Spanish shipwreck. “We got the idea from finding a bottle on the beach,” says 44-year-old company co-founder Dede Spontak. “It looked so old and intriguing that we said, ‘Let’s make something that gives that sense of mystery.’” Now eight years old, Architerra focuses on making its own lines of weathered-looking, three-dimensional tile with Greek keys, Celtic knots, pine cones, and cacti. But it also shows the work of others. When you arrive at the door of the company’s South Austin warehouse, you can turn right, into the big, semicluttered production space, or you can turn left, toward the well-laid-out showroom, where niches, mantels, and tile-topped tables create an inviting gallery setting. Spontak and the other partners—co-founder Alan Barber, 52, and relative newcomer Marc Holm, 39—know their strength and have absolutely no intention of modernizing or slicking up their product. Let others flirt with the future; Architerra’s enduring love affair is with the past. 1701 Evergreen Avenue, Suite 2, Austin; 5124418062; open to the public. 

Sitting in her warehouse-cum-studio in Dallas’ design district, distractedly stroking an ancient and beloved cat named Floyd, Theresa Saba Tenney discusses the frustrations of running two-year-old Saba Studios. Her pretty but predictable, moderately priced flat tiles bring in the money, but it’s the highly carved, expensive art tiles that give her satisfaction. Of the handful of Texas tilemakers who are chasing national exposure via the showroom route, Tenney is the newest, and some days she still seems astonished at what she is attempting. “Until 1994, we had never done a line, only small custom jobs,” she says. “Then we got a contract to do fifteen hundred hand-painted tiles for a luxury hotel in the Bahamas. That’s when I realized we could handle the volume.” Today she, her associate, Mario Arreola, and two employees turn out the rather ordinary fruit-bearing kitchen tiles that many customers like (Tenney is carried by six showrooms nationally), but her heart is in new, challenging designs like her seashell series, in which meticulously detailed three-dimensional starfish, sand dollars, and snails seem ready to slither off the table. “I’m so focused on this I’ve lost touch with my private life,” she confesses. “But when something I’ve worked hard on turns out well, it makes it all worthwhile.” 1315 Manufacturing Street, Dallas; 214745-1151; open by appointment.

Where to See It: Selected Tile Showrooms

Austin: Architerra, Materials Marketing.

Dallas: Antique Floors, French-Brown, Waterworks.

Houston: Architectural Design Resources, Materials Marketing, Walker Zanger.

San Antonio: Dunis Studios, Materials Marketing, Palmer Todd.

What to Read: Recommended Books

Tiles: A Thousand Years of Architectural Decoration (by Hans van Lemmen, Harry Abrams, New York, 1993, $60);best current book on tile history.

Tile (by Jill Herbers, Artisan Books, New York, 1996, $35); investigates the present tile renaissance as well as how to use tile in your home.

Tiles: Choosing, Designing, and Living With Ceramic Tile (by Olivia Buehl, Clarkson-Potter, New York, 1996, $40); also looks at the recent tile revival and suggests ideas for home use.

Handmade Tiles: Designing, Making, Decorating (by Frank Giorgini, Lark Books, Asheville, North Carolina, 1994, $24.95); a copiously photographed how-to book on contemporary tile. You may also contact the Tile Heritage Foundation, P.O. Box 1850, Healdsburg, California 95448, for an extensive book list (free) and a tilemaking video ($49.95).

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