Tile Envy Between the Covers

Founder of clé Tiles, Deborah Osburn.

clé founder Deborah Osburn.

“My first meaningful encounter with tiles came in the form of an unremarkable cathedral whose only ornamentation was a spire covered in deeply colored mosaic tiles,” wrote clé founder Deborah Osburn in the introduction to her new book Tile Envy. “Not only did the tiles completely elevate the structure from drabness, they also protected it from the elements. Something in the simplicity of the concept, in the complete marriage of function and beauty, really pushed my buttons.”

An artful offering from clé tile

One of clé tile’s artful offerings by Rob Ryan, which he screen prints onto ceramic tile.

When this woman’s buttons are pushed, galaxies collide—in the case of the new book, blogging intersecting with unique tile products that continually push the creative envelope into new territory. The project began organically as the Tile Envy blog, the book created post-by-post as Osburn explored her point of view riffing on all things tile-related. There are 48 contemporary designers and artisans profiled within the book, their creations realized in a multitude of materials that include ceramic, cement, stone, glass, wood, and steel. The inventive photography in the book illustrates the collective talent Osburn draws around her quite beautifully.

Dominic Crinson cle tile

This is one of Dominic Crinson’s patterns, which he digitally prints on tiles.

The first three chapters cover “Illustration,” “Texture” and “Pattern.” The final chapter, “Art and Architecture,” includes innovative ways tiles have been used to define spaces and create sculptural urban-influenced art. One of the things the book highlights so well through example is that methods for producing tiles are as varied as the makers. The array of designs contained within its pages are created with everything from cast, hand-formed and slipcast painted ceramic to digital printing, etching, silk-screening, and photosynthesis.

Marrakech Terrace is in the clé Moroccan collection

Marrakech Terrace is in the clé Moroccan collection of cement tiles.

“I set up the blog many years ago, to share my enthusiasm and inspirations,” Osburn explains. “I had a searing hunch that I couldn’t be the only tile fanatic out there—after all it’s primal stuff, yes?” Absolutely primal, as is Osburn’s drive to explore it, which is what makes her story so compelling. “Surely with a bit of nudging I could enlighten the world, and turn them on to this medium of dreams!” she continued. “Fast-forward to today, and tiles are in the thick of an incredible renaissance. Ceramicists, product designers, illustrators and architects are all pushing the boundaries of the way that tiles are made and laid—getting as hooked on the infinite possibilities of repetition, pattern and color as I am.”

cle cement tile design with yarn

Another fun pattern in clé’s cement tile offerings.

Tile Envy, published by London-based Cicada Books, was released in the United States last month. The cover photo is a retro tile pattern created by my pal Michelle Weinberg, who moves effortlessly between fine art and design, her agility with collage and murals legendary in her hometown of Miami (and beyond).

The cover of the new book "Tile Envy"

The “Tile Envy” book cover: tile design by Michelle Weinberg; photo by Paul Clemence.

Her tile designs are included in the “Pattern” chapter, along with motifs by some of design’s biggest superstars like Patricia Urquiola.

Timorous Beasties, the designers of one of my favorite clé releases—the Rorschach Collection—are included in the “Illustration” chapter. I covered the damask-inspired creations on Productrazzi when they were released in December of last year.

And New Ravenna glass and stone mosaics are featured in the “Pattern” chapter, their artful tile designs a favorite of mine, as you can see from this post featuring their Sea Glass™ Collection.

My favorite project in the “Art and Architecture” chapter of the 144-page book is the Aesop boutique in Berlin created by Weiss-Heiten Design (image below).

Each of the Aesop stores expresses the uniqueness of the neighborhood surrounding it, often with an edgy sophistication the fragrance, skincare and hair-care retailer exemplifies.

Aesop store in Berlin with cle tiles

Berlin Aesop store, designed by Weiss-Heiten Design using cle tiles.

Speaking of blogs that deserve to become books: take the time to stop by Aēsop’s absolutely, um, fabulous bi-monthly literary gesture called The Fabulist. The title is a riff on the narrative form created by the ancient Greek slave whose name the purveyor’s products bear—a mainstay for each edition being Fable, which Aēsop describes as an original prickly parable, pseudoscience fairy-tale, or memoir of a formative moment.

cle tiles at the Collective Design Fair

clé tiles formed the floor covering on the pedestal at Collective Design Fair.

One of my favorite sections is “Shelf Life,” an annotated snapshot of a notable bookshelf that is intended as a counterpoint to the increasingly ubiquitous screen-based text we all devour with increasing frequency. I’ll warn you in advance: I’ve become addicted to it so brace yourself!

If it seems that clé is everywhere these days, you would be right: I spotted the company’s tiles at the Collective Design Fair several weeks ago. Stefano Tonchi, the editor-in-chief of W magazine, had tapped one of their geometric designs to serve as a floorcovering for the pedestal elevating a piece of the exalted vintage furniture in Collective Focus: Italy, the exhibition he curated for the fair.

Collective was my favorite products during NYCxDesign and this was one of my favorite moments strolling through the exemplary offerings of antiques and vintage furnishings. I suggest we give Ms. Osburn a round of applause, don’t you?

Text of Tile Envy Between the Covers © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is an author, poet and journalist based in New York City. Books include Anywhere But Here and Stranded on the Road to Promise. She also produces The Diary of an Improvateur and is a columnist on Architizer.

4 thoughts on “Tile Envy Between the Covers

  1. Thank you for sharing this! I love natural, organic feeling tiles, but that photo of Dominic Crinson’s patterns have just convinced me that digital design can feel awesome, too! I can’t wait to look at the rest of the book.

    • I’ve also been quite amazed at how “natural” some of the more modern forms of pattern transfers can feel, Kristin. It’s a super book, one that any design savant such as yourself will enjoy. Thanks for stopping by, and for taking the time to read and comment!

  2. i’m always inspired when i hear how others encounter this medium that i’ve spent much of my life exploring. thanks so much for sharing your own responses to tile envy. it’s been a big adventure for me!

    • And the world is a prettier place that you have spent so much time exploring it, Deborah. It was a treat being able to review the book. Keep on adventuring!

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