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Laying the Foundation: American Art Tile

July 9 - November 5, 2005


(above: Majolica, hand-painted tile, 6 x 6 inches. Broadmoor Pottery, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1933-1939)


The American Museum of Ceramic Art is proud to present Laying the Foundation: American Art Tile. Major U.S. tile manufacturers will be represented by more than 450 tiles from the collection of Norman Karlson, Los Angeles resident and author of American Art Tile: 1876 - 1941 and a soon-to-be-released, four-volume, encyclopedia on the history of American ceramic tile. AMOCA establishes background information through tile samples from Holland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and England, all exemplifying designs and techniques that influenced the early development of American's own tile industry. The core of the exhibition tracks America's love affair with tile from the time that European artisans started fledgling East Coast companies; to the burgeoning, turn-of-the-century tile production in the clay-rich states of the North East; to the Spanish influence found in Texas and within California's hot tile market. Laying the Foundation: American Art Tile also includes a separate component of contemporary tiles, both "revival" and "cutting-edge." (right: Ten tile mural mantel set, 30 x 12 inches.  American Encaustic Tiling Co., Ohio, c. 1910. American Encaustic Tiling Company (AET) was founded in Zanesville Ohio in 1875.  The company rapidly increased in productivity making it necessary to move several times to larger facilities. In 1892, AET was dubbed the largest tile factory in the world. At one point AET had two satellite manufacturing plants in Southern California, Vernon and Hermosa Beach. The ten relief tiles in the photo are from the left and right sides of a fireplace surround set.  The unrepresented connecting, top piece depicted an Aladdin style pot with flames.  Referred to as Victorian art tiles, they were made by AET during the late 1800s or early 1900s)

Early examples of ceramic tile can be traced back to the ancient cultures of Egypt, China and Babylon; however, the tradition of tile making as we know it today began with 13th century Moroccan zellige (mosaic) tile work. Techniques and designs found in ancient Persian luster mosaics, Syrian underglaze-painting, and Spanish tin-glazed luster ware had a profound influence on the historic development of tile production. During the Renaissance period, Italian craftsmen contributed tin-glazed majolica tiles and Della Robbia plaques in high relief. Further diversification occurred in Spain and Portugal where alazulejos were painted for architectural decoration, in Tunesia where the cuerda secca (dry line) technique was perfected, and in Northern Europe where the Germans produced small tiles, mounted in copper frames to serve as stove adornments. During the 16th century cuerda secca and polychrome techniques were refined by Ottoman Empire artisans while in Holland majolica tile decoration was introduced. By the 17th century, the Dutch were creating Makkum and Delft tiles. Further diversification of tile-making techniques continued to spread, culminating in England, where Art Nouveau and Victorian designs proliferated in the 1800s. It was the English production which had the largest influence on American tile production.

The first-known production of American tile began with the Pittsburgh Encaustic Tile Company, established by Samuel Keyes in 1876. Born and trained in England, Keyes' immigrated to America where he began to produce ceramic ware very similar to that which he produced in his homeland. His became the model for a number of European ceramicists who followed, bringing skills and trade secrets to a new land. It is small wonder that the first American tiles looked exactly like those being produced in England, Holland, France or Germany -- encaustic tiles, pressmold relief tiles or transfer (decal) tiles.

The initial success of the American tile industry was dependent on the ceramic craftsmanship of immigrants who first began production in New England, using the styles and techniques of their homelands. As the nation grew, tile companies flourished and artisans began adopting a more American style of decoration, influenced by fresh history and a new environment. As with all American industrialization, the movement was from the east to the west coast. Along the way, tile became an essential element of the Arts and Crafts movement, which lasted in America through the mid 1920s. Eventually reaching the West Coast, Californian tile production favored Moorish or Aztec designs compatible with the Spanish architecture, popular at that time. Companies such as Catalina Pottery, Tudor Pottery, or D. & M. Tiles chose glaze colors suggestive of California colors -- warm, saturated, and complimented by the bright southern coastline sunlight. (left: Nameplate tile from Rookwood Pottery, 4.5 x 9 inches, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1907-1913. The Rookwood Pottery was founded by Maria Longworth Nichol, the granddaughter of a Cincinnati real-estate millionaire. With the assistance of her father, Nichol established her own pottery in an old schoolhouse in 1880. In those days, pottery was considered an acceptable profession for socially prominent women. Nichol organized clubs of women who hand painted pottery and attended the Rookwood School for Pottery. In a few short years the business grew, and its success made Rookwood a household word. To diversify Rookwood began producing commercial architectural pieces about 1902 which soon began to appear in buildings across the country. Rookwood tiles became quite well known through their use in major hotels, subway station stops in New York City and train terminals such as Grand Central Station. By the 1920s Rookwood had grown dramatically into a thriving concern employing over 225 workers. The nameplate tile in the photo, produced by Rookwood in the early 20th century, was used as a commemorative or promotional piece and never intended to be used in an installation.  Over the years Rookwood became quite a progressive company.  As such it is quite possible that this might have been a "give away" or used in a storefront display)

Today, strong interest in Arts and Crafts furnishings has prompted a revival of tile making, with an emphasis on replicating those styles popular in the 20s. With the recent building and remodeling boom, home owners are abandoning bland and neutral tiles, popular since the 50s, for more elaborate and unique tile designs. Their choices often include textured border or trim tiles, hand-painted tile vignettes or stand-alone scenes. (right: Relief portrait tile, 6 x 6 inches, influenced by English tile-making traditions, Trent Tile Co., Trenton New Jersey, mid 1880s)

In addition to the Karlson Collection, the works of several well-known Los Angeles contemporary artists are showcased, including Dennis Caffrey, Ralph Bacerra, Lance Henriksen, Dora De Larios, and Marlo Bartels. Caffrey is founder of the digital print and hand painted mural provider, Urban Clay. Examples of his recent tile murals may be found at both the Crenshaw and North Hollywood Metro Stations. Bacerra is known primarily for his intricately decorated ceramic vessels, yet recently created a wall for the Western Asset Building in Pasadena, a portion of which will be shown at AMOCA. Henriksen is best known for his many film and television roles, though his ceramic work is also attracting serious attention. Inspired by his most recent movie, Alien vs. Predator, Henriksen created hand-carved relief tiles to commemorate the experience. De Larios' most recent work is an impressive 7.5' x 39' clay mural for the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, depicting a blue porcelain seascape. AMOCA will show the sample for that wall. Bartels has created indoor and outdoor tile murals, fountains, floors and furniture, as well as free-standing sculptures since 1977. His work can be seen at Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga, the Irvine Medical Center, the Hilton Hotel in Huntington Beach, and many public and private residences.

Other important local artists will include Ricky Maldonado, Renee Lotenero, Laird Plumleigh, Porntip Sangvanich, Stephani Stevenson, and Diana Watson. Laying the Foundation: American Art Tile affords a complete view of the evolution of tile manufacturing during the last century as the trade made its way from East coast to West, but also provides a sample of what contemporary artists are producing amid the current resurgence of tile use. (left: Claycraft Potteries, Los Angeles California, 1921-1939)


About the museum

Founded in 2001 and opened in September, 2004, the American Museum of Ceramic Art is one of the few museums in the United States devoted exclusively to ceramic art and historic innovations in ceramic technology. It is located in an area abounding with ceramic history and internationally recognized clay artists from the Arts and Crafts Movement, the 60's Clay Revolution and the current Studio Pottery Era. The museum is located at 340 S. Garey Avenue, Pomona, CA 91766. Please see the museum's website for hours and other general information.



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