Tailgate: Jared Becker, Tile Designer
This vice president of design and product development for Walker Zanger gives insight into the art and science of tile.
What are the elements of a successful tile?
I like to think that a successful tile has some originality to it, some unique element that sets it apart from others. What is the color going to be? What is the surface sheen going to be? Is it going to be a crackle or a gloss glaze? If it’s transparent, how transparent? How will the different sizes in that collection fit together? How will they complement each other? A collection of tile for us could have 20 or 30 different elements, including the field tile, decorative pieces, and moldings. We take a long time thinking about how they’re going to work together, so if the client wants to use them in different ways, it’s always going to end up looking nice.
Are you driven by tradition or by wanting to depart from tradition?
We just came out with a collection called Villa d’Oro. It’s a mosaic and water-jet stone collection that draws inspiration from several Mediterranean cultures: Moorish, Italian Renaissance, North African. Some of those designs are very intricate, very colorful, and too intense for most people today. When you strip those designs down to their basic graphic elements, they take on a more contemporary flavor. So I like to mine tradition, but I want to find ways to make it applicable to what people are looking for in design today.
Are there key histories you draw inspiration from?
I have two main touchstones. One is Moorish culture, and what I mean by that is the blending of European and Islamic design that you can find specifically in Spain and Portugal. There is something really beautiful about the Moorish attraction to geometric patterns. Combine that with some European influences, and it softens it up a bit. The other touchstone is Venetian, especially Venetian Gothic, because you get the Byzantine and Northern Gothic coming together. I like a mélange of artistic and cultural traditions.
What is the most unusual tile you have encountered?
We used to sell a tile that was made in Bali, and the original designs were hand-carved in wood by Balinese craftsmen. They would prepare large trays filled with beds of volcanic sand from the beaches there, press the carved design into the black sand, and then fill the impressions with a liquid clay mixture. Once the tiles were dry, they would pull them out, and a thin layer of sand would stick to the tile face. After the tiles were glazed and fired, there would be a really unique, crusty texture with these incredibly vibrant colors. That was probably one of the more unusual ways to make tiles that I’ve seen.
How much of tile making is art, and how much is science?
For ceramic tiles specifically, it’s all science—chemistry, really. You’re dealing with the variables of the raw materials. For example, you’re always going to get variation in the percentage of oxide present in the glaze minerals. Then there is the variation in the clay or the temperature of the kiln. Even the relative humidity at the factory at the time the tiles are made affects the outcome. If you are trying to create a tile that you can reproduce on a consistent basis, in the same color range, then you are talking about pretty complicated chemistry.
What about materials?
We’ve experimented and dabbled in making tile out of metal, glass, cement, and other materials. Right now, we’re making a high-tech porcelain tile in Italy that looks like wood or fabric or all different kinds of textures because we’re using digital technology—there’s science again—to control how the glaze is being applied to the porcelain and getting amazing effects out of it.
That sounds incredibly precise.
Yes. You go into some of these porcelain factories in Italy, and they’re very hightech. Everything is done by computer and machine, but you get a tile out of it that’s really well made. This technology also offers new design opportunities. You want a shower that looks like it’s built out of barn wood? Well, you can do it, because the porcelain tile is completely durable, gives you that look, and is easy to maintain.
What drives you in your work?
The limitless possibilities of being able to create new things. I have at my disposal the technical capacity and creativity of so many different small and medium-size companies all over the world that make tile and stone. I’m able to say, “This is some new idea we have. Let’s make it.” Seeing that come to fruition, and then seeing it end up in somebody’s home, is pretty astonishing.