Handmade decorative tiles are like snowflakes: no two are exactly alike. But unlike snowflakes, tiles are able to survive for centuries and delight generations of appreciative owners.
Saied Hussain, the only producer of handmade decorative cement tiles left in Egypt, testified to the powerful sensation that comes with their creation. “When you do it, you feel like you’re an artist,” Hussain said in a recent interview with Business Insider.
As a building material, cement – which comes from the Roman word caementicium – can be traced back to ancient Greece, Macedonia and Rome. These regions’ inhabitants relied on a cement recipe of crushed volcanic ash and lime, which delivered the makings of long-lasting roads, aqueducts and the open dome of the Pantheon. By the 18th century, however, cement had evolved into two separate types: non-hydraulic and hydraulic with their setting processes dictating their uses.
Non-hydraulic cement needs carbon dioxide in the air to cure, which limits its applications because it takes weeks to set. It is primarily used for indoor stone or brick work. Hydraulic cement, which is also known as Portland cement, cures within days, thanks to a chemical reaction between lime, silicates and aggregates. Its faster curing time makes it suitable for handmade tiles, but such tiles require an additional step: they must be fired at high heat to render them as encaustic tiles and ensure their hardiness.
The process by which Hussain creates his encaustic tiles has not changed since cement became a favored building material in the 19th century, when factories that produced handmade tiles were much more prevalent. But encaustic tiles, whose name is derived from the Greek infinitive meaning “to burn,” date back to the 5th century and they were made in much the same way.
The first step involves sifting white cement powder to remove any heavier material. Dry background pigments are gently mixed with the sifted cement and water, then stirred to a well-blended consistency. After that, one color at a time is painstakingly poured into each section of an elaborate metal pattern set within a sturdy mold. Artisans shake the mold to make sure all of the pigments are set completely before they lift the metal pattern to reveal the final, colorful design. Finally, the whole is covered with a mixture of sand, cement and limestone to keep the pigment in place and then tightly tamped down by a press (Hussain uses a hydraulic one) to form a hard-packed tile ready for firing. Finished cement tiles are typically destined to become floor pavers for indoor and outdoor spaces.
The American Encaustic Tile Company (AETCO), which thrived in Zanesville, Ohio from 1892 to 1935, was the major producer of handmade encaustic tile during the Arts and Crafts Movement, and its products sometimes appear at auction. Encaustic cement tiles are generally not as bright as other handmade tiles because the pigments shine through on their own, rendering glazes superfluous. But other types of handmade tiles cannot be completed without glazing.
Handmade ceramic tiles are almost always glazed. Instead of sifted cement, their base ingredient is organic clay, which is molded and cut into shape – a less time-consuming process than that of cement tiles. Ceramics must be fired at very high temperatures but, as noted above, they also require a glaze, which can include ash, lead, salt or even tin. This extra step yields a hard, brick-like surface with an impermeable layer that protects the tile from moisture and decay. And of course, glazes can add a welcome splash of color. Ceramic tiles are more delicate than porcelain, but have a wider range of indoor uses than their cement cousins.
Porcelain tiles are made from organic clay, as well. Their decorations come from colored glazes that penetrate deeply into the clay. When the feldspar within the clay melts in the heat of the kiln, it renders a tile that is harder and more impermeable than a ceramic tile, but not as hard as an encaustic one. And because the glaze runs deeper, a scratch or a missing piece isn’t as noticeable as in ceramic tiles, which gain their glazes as thin, applied layers.
Yet another popular form of handmade tiles is fashioned from pottery clay and hand-painted to accent fireplaces, tables and countertops or serve as wall decorations. Pottery tiles are fired at high heat to maintain their glazes, and they resemble ceramic tiles in their hardness and permeability.
Lastly, there is sgraffito, an ancient artistic tile made in a manner not unlike that of fresco painting. The finished clay is fired with layers of different color pigments, with the design etched or incised directly into the tile before firing to give it its unique design. Sgraffito (an Italian word meaning “to scratch,” which gave rise to the word “graffiti”) has been around since at least the 15th century and became prevalent during the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late-19th and early 20th centuries, most notably on building facades and as wall decorations.
Taken together, the range of different types of handmade tiles allows the collector to amass a visually stunning collection that is one of a kind. Auctions feature vintage and contemporary artistic choices in an array of styles, and each is, in its own way, special because it is the work of a human hand, and not a machine.
“If you’re not an artist, you will not be able to do this job,” Hussain said. “Maybe, God willing, this craft will last for a hundred more years.” As long as masters continue to make tiles by hand, and as long as collectors embrace their masterpieces, Hussain’s craft should continue to thrive.