Handmade cement or ceramic tiles, inspired by those first produced in Portugal, Spain and France, have been lining the most unexpected surfaces lately. From bedroom walls at the new Soho Beach House in Miami to the dining room floor of interior designer Ashley Hicks’s country house in Oxfordshire, tiles are making a comeback.
Although cement tiles were first made in Europe, they are usually associated with former European colonies such as Mexico and Morocco. People typically imagine the patterned tiles of a hacienda or of a colonial-style café. But modernist architects were also enamoured by the material, including Spanish-Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who used tiles throughout his projects such as Parc Güell and Casa Batlló, as well as in his own residence in Barcelona.
This renewed interest in cement tiles is partly thanks to the efforts of Popham Design, a five-year-old company based in Marrakech that was founded by Americans Caitlin and Samuel Dowe-Sandes.
“There is some debate as to who pioneered the original cement tile technique,” says Caitlin. “Some give credit to the French, others the Italians or the Portuguese. Regardless, it was in the late 1800s that the technique emerged and rapidly spread from those countries to other parts of the world, including Morocco.” When the Dowe-Sandes moved to Marrakech in 2006, they were looking for adventure. But in designing their unusual home, an 18th-century three-bedroom riad in the middle of a mosque in Marrakech’s medina, they fell so in love with the process of collaborating with local artisans to invent designs (with patterns such as a playful zigzag or a curlicue called “loop di loop”) that they decided to make a business out of it.
The timing was perfect: their tiles were taken up quickly by US-based manufacturer Ann Sacks, which opened its first international showroom in London’s Chelsea Harbour design centre last year.
Ann Sacks says: “There is a very strong interest in Moroccan-inspired cement tiles, especially in the London market.” John Hart, chief creative officer at Kohler Interiors Group, which owns Ann Sacks, adds: “The resurgence follows a greater trend in mixing styles and combining personal design elements. These tiles look great in a modern environment.”
Craig Verdon, director of Onsite Supply and Design in Sydney, says the global demand for tiles reflects a growing appreciation for brighter interiors: “Beige isn’t so fashionable any more. People aren’t scared of mad colour and patterns. They are staying longer in their houses, personalising them more and are less concerned about resell.”
Verdon says tiles allow for a variety of styles and can be applied to entire walls, not just floors. Examples include the patchwork tile floor by Ilse Crawford at High Road House in Chiswick, west London, and the subdued interior of the Hix restaurant in the Belgraves hotel in central London.
For the latter project, interior designer Tara Bernerd used patterned tiles in black and white. She was inspired by the opulent Leighton House on the edge of Holland Park, whose interiors are lined with elaborate antique tiles from Syria. She loves the idea of lining an entire hallway or salon with tiles.
“It’s about creating layers of patterns and colours and using a product that is both modern and traditional,” says Bernerd. “At the moment there is an embracing of craftsmanship, which is what these tiles are all about.”
Making cement tiles by hand is labour intensive. It begins with the creation of a brass mould, which shapes the pattern of the face of the tile and is fitted into a steel outer mould. Pigmented cement is funnelled into the patterned mould and then cement mixed with sand and ground marble are added to the back of the tile. The tile is then pressed, submerged in water and stacked to dry for three weeks.
When Hicks wanted to produce tiles with designs inspired by his father, decorator David Hicks, he teamed up with Popham Design to produce three designs. The Hicksonian tile, a pattern of four interlocking Hs, is David Hicks’s logo from the 1970s. Hicks used the pattern, in a rich combination of chocolate brown and blue, for the bathroom of his country house. He liked the look so much that he lined his dining room floor with the same tiles in black and grey.
“In an English house they come as quite a surprise,” says Hicks. “But I think cement tiles are fantastic in a non-tropical house. A lot of people here have been using acres of limestone on their floors lately but they can be unbelievably boring and get very dirty. Tile patterns hide things well. And because the colours are mixed by hand you get a subtle variation.”
This colourful, time-worn look also appeals to designers in Scandinavia. PA Ovin, co-founder of Stockholm-based company Marrakech Design, has started to collaborate with several Swedish designers and architects on styles such as the stone and dandelion pattern conceived by architect Claesson Koivisto Rune.
“In Sweden the cement tile trend started to take off about three years ago and continues to grow,” says Ovin. “This is Ikea country but now people want to spice it up. Instead of adding white normal tiles to a white kitchen, they are spicing it up with colourful patterned tiles on the floor or behind the kitchen sink. As the market has grown you see people who want to do something different – line a hallway with them or use them on an entire wall.”
Anna-Marie Ekroth, one of the founders of interior design office Koncept Stockholm, says she appreciates Marrakech Design’s varied colour palette and the fact that you can add your own colour preferences to even a small order. “Just changing the colour scheme of a traditional pattern gives the tiles a modern feel,” she says. She prefers cement tiles to a decorative element like wallpaper because “they age so beautifully. Wallpaper is flat in comparison. I think at this time people prefer authentic materials that last.”
● Ashley Hicks, www.ashleyhicks.com
● Granada Tile, www.granadatile.com
● Marrakech Design, www.contemporarytiles.se
● Pinar Miro, www.pinarmiro.es
● Popham Design, www.pophamdesign.com
● Villa Lagoon Tile, www.villalagoontile.com