A Rookwood Tile

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The lushly colored tablet on the opposite page is that rare object, a piece of show-room advertising that was so warmly received its makers found they could sell it independently. The Rookwood it proclaimed was the most important of the art potteries that moved into the production of architectural tiles like this one. At the turn of the century—or, to be more precise, for the twenty or thirty years on either side of it—America was tile-crazy. Glazed tiles not only embellished fireplace mantels and doorway frames but were set into furniture, screens, clock cases, iron stoves, and washstands. Encaustic floor tiles were laid in grand entrance halls, and bathrooms and kitchens were tiled, as were the walls of all manner of public buildings, from restaurants and butcher shops to hospitals and train stations. Tiles also existed as self-contained decorative objects and even as advertising plaques, like the one shown here.

In their heyday decorative tiles not only embraced several aesthetics- including the late Victorian, Art Nouveau, and the Arts and Crafts movement—they even reflected issues of hygiene and safety. Their relatively circumscribed surfaces were treated in an infinite variety of techniques- they were pressed and molded, flat or heavily embossed, painted, glazed with glossy and matte finishes, hand cut, and filled in—and their subjects ranged from moody landscapes to crisp portraits.

The craft of tile making was brought to this country by the Pennsylvania Dutch, who carried with them from the Black Forest region of Germany a tradition based on classic Dutch tiles. In medieval Holland there had been edicts mandating the use of tiles on wooden buildings as a protection against fire, and the same threat became a key factor in the renewed use of tile in this country at the end of the nineteenth century. After the Chicago fire of 1871 ravaged so many of the city’s wood structures, architects there turned increasingly to ceramic tile because of its fireproofing properties. At the same time, a growing social mandate to sanitize interiors advanced the use of ceramic wall and floor tiles in the bathroom and kitchen as well; catalogues of architectural materials of the day carried endorsements by doctors lauding the glazed tile surface for its lack of crevices wherdirt might lurk.

In their heyday decorative tiles embraced several aesthetic styles and reflected issueand safety.

The medieval glazed encaustic tile had been revived in England by William De Morgan and others. Its use in interior décor was compatible with the idea that all utilitarian elements of an environment should be aesthetically pleasing and uplifting—one of the basic tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement. Another, which particularly appealed to the American predilection for individualism and ingenuity, was the return to the tradition of hand craftsmanship, in rebellion against the shoddy, fussy, factory-made products of the early Industrial Revolution. There was a spirit of community among the Arts and Crafts people, as reflected in the establishment in New York City in 1877 of the Tile Club, which numbered among its members such influential figures as Winslow Homer, John Twachtman, Stanford White, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

In the meantime some of the art potteries moved into the production of architectural tile. Perhaps the most notable of these was the Rookwood pottery, founded in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols, one of a number of Cincinnati women who had taken up the Victorian lady’s avocation of painting and decorating china and gone on to fuel the art-pottery movement. Rookwood was known primarily for vessels of simple Oriental shapes with rich green and brown glazes and under-glaze painting. William Watts Taylor, who took over the firm from its founder when she retired in 1890, anticipated an eventual decline in art pottery sales; he introduced an architectural-tile department in 1901. A period of frenzied expansion followed, but in the end the Rookwood tile department, despite major commissions from hotels, theaters, banks, and the New York City subway system, proved to be a drain on the company’s resources. Rookwood did not produce the standard four- or five-inch squares but rather heavily embossed mural-type pieces, some as large as eighteen inches, for use outside or as the center-piece over a fireplace. Such tiles, long considered a stepchild of art-pottery collecting, have recently enjoyed a resurgence of interest. An example like this one might now fetch as much as fifteen hundred dollars.

In fact, this plaque is especially interesting. One of several variations on the signature piece bearing the Rookwood logo and the rooks for which it was named, and designed by Sarah Alice (known as Sallie) Toohey not long after she took charge of glazing for the architectural department in 1908, it suggests the range of color and texture available to matte-glazed tiles at the zenith of an era whose very look they helped define.