Commentary: The Power of Tile

Eric Herman Headshot
photo of a tile with the fleur-de-lis pattern
Flickr | Leo Reynolds

One of the first big words I ever learned as a kid was “quatrefoil.” I was about 10 years old, swimming in my best friend’s pool, circa 1970, and while splashing around, I noticed a beautiful tile waterline featuring a strikingly colorful pattern. Pointing to the tile, I asked my friend’s mom, “What’s this?"

“That’s called ‘tile,’” she replied. Well, even at that tender age I knew what a tile was, so I tried my question again, explaining I wanted to know what the interesting shape was called. “Oh, that’s called a ‘quatrefoil,’” she said. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?”

Looking back, that may have been my first introduction to the world of design. What a strange-sounding word, "quatrefoil," and what an interesting pattern, I remember thinking. It wasn’t long after that, while having dinner at a fancy restaurant with my family, I noticed a tiled wall that featured another now-familiar pattern. My dad explained the shape was known as a “fleur-de-lis,” and again, the beautiful shape repeated over and over again in tile captivated me.

Since those days more than four decades ago, I’ve always been interested in shapes and images rendered in tile. Later on in high school ceramics class, I was fascinated to learn about stains and glazes and how all those interesting patterns were created. (I tried replicating a quatrefoil, but found that I was much better at appreciating tile art than I was at making it.)

While taking an art history class in college, I was inspired yet again by tile, this time in the images in books of ancient Roman mosaics, the breathtaking works of Gaudi and portraits of the Sun King, among many other classic images rendered in tile murals.

How amazing it seemed that artisans for millennia past labored so hard to express such vivid artistry, color and detail in this ultimately enduring material. Through it all, it was also apparent that there was a special relationship between tile and water; somehow the two always seemed to exist together in beautifully harmonious relationships — a pairing that has always made me stop and take notice.

Long before my career writing magazine articles about all things aquatic, I was utterly transfixed by what seemed the ultimate example of the relationship between tile and water — the pools at Hearst Castle. For the most part, the pools I had seen up to that point were relatively utilitarian in appearance. Both the outdoor Neptune Pool and the indoor Roman Pool changed that perception forever. For all of the mind-bending art and architecture that make up Julia Morgan’s masterwork in that amazing setting overlooking the Central California Coast, it was the pools and the artistry of their tile and sculptural appointments that first sparked the idea that the use of tile could turn a vessel made for swimming into a stunningly memorable work of art.

That’s part of why over the years I’ve demonstrated an admitted proclivity for covering pools and other bodies of water that are finished in tile. Unfortunately, in the early days of my work covering the industry, when you mentioned all-tile pools the only ones most people could think of were the Hearst Castle pools. For years, the common wisdom was that all-tile pools were the rarest of rarities reserved only for people of extreme wealth.

Thankfully, all of that changed in a big way during the creative explosion that hit the aquatics design business back in the late '90s, a trend that largely continues to this day. Where once the industry was limited to a handful of choices for waterline tile, nowadays there are scores of examples of all-tile vessels across a range of styles using materials from a bevvy of American and foreign manufacturers. And best of all, these materials have found their way into projects ranging from the upper midrange of budgets to the highest of the high end.

Along the way, the industry has seen some wonderful individual artists and artistically oriented firms come into the scene, applying tile designs in a variety of ways. The mosaic works of Craig Bragdy, Michelle Griffoul, Sergio Furnari and David Knox, among many others have fueled the work of scores of designers who share the desire to transform bodies of water – be they fountains, swimming pools, hot tubs, reflecting ponds, baptismal fonts or even the occasional bird bath — into works of visual art that are meant to last indefinitely.

These days there are tile products that have the prismatic beauty of gemstones, the fractured precision of Byzantine mosaics and the textural relief of the world’s finest architectural expressions.

In that spirit, we'd like to introduce yet another amazing tile artist, Stephanie Dittrick, founder of Agape Tile of Fort Myers, Fla. I first came to know her work years ago during my tenure as editor of WaterShapes and have followed her work ever since. She recently got in touch with us at AQUA and I was thrilled when Executive Editor Scott Webb suggested that we cover her work in this issue.

Although Stephanie’s work covers a broad range of applications, she reports that the vast majority of her projects are created in conjunction with swimming pools. Like other tile artists, she has found that pools present some of the best opportunities to express images and patterns in tile, a preference driven by the sheer scale of pools and the fact that aquatic settings are perfect places for fine art due to the already celebratory and even spiritual nature of water itself.

As I was looking at Stephanie’s portfolio, preparing for our discussion, which you can read here, I was struck by the scope of her work and the almost limitless spectrum of images, themes and patterns she executes. From quaint images of fish and crabs to soaring renderings of mythological figures, her work embodies the kind of detail and artistic daring that defines great tile murals, mosaics and portraits.

I didn’t find any quatrefoils in her portfolio, but there certainly were some lovely fleur-de-lis.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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