The history of tiles can be traced further back than the birth of Christ, to the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. Early techniques of ceramic decoration were carried from the shores of this sea to Northern Africa and Western Europe, where an important centre was established in Holland. Stone, marble and glass, particularly in mosaic form, were features of Roman buildings, and many of their decorations are preserved on historical sites today.
An interest in this history has led many independent designers to experiment in limited editions of distinctive handmade tiles. Now tiles for wall decoration and protection can be chosen from an array of glazed and unglazed ceramics, glass, iridescent glass, mirrored glass, mosaic, stoneware, relief, metallic and cork.
Small independent workshops have abandoned the familiar sizes too: just about any dimension and proportion can be found or ordered. For example, a tile range 7.5 x 15cm is available, which was inspired by London tube stations. A happy compromise between the old imperial 4¼ and 6in square choices is found at 13 x15cm. As a consequence, it is a better idea to select tiles before working out areas, as handmade designs can differ in their dimensions.
Whatever tile size you favour, you will find that the border tile,glazed over two edges, and used at the edges or corners of the wall design, is no longer made. Today’s universal tiles or square edge tiles have at least two edges finished and glazed, so that they can be placed either in the middle of a tile run, or at a corner. These tiles were often called field tiles in the past and were fitted with spacing lugs at each edge. Noe, they have either a universal joining system based on bevelled edges, which butt at the base, or are squared up and require separate spacers. In both cases the resultant surface gap is then filled with grout.
Kitchen areas, bathrooms, shower units and splashbacks are traditional places for tiling. A vast range is available today to replace or upgrade your existing finish. Don’t neglect other areas, though. Handcrafted tile sets complete with a choice of matching or contrasting border tiles and a ceramic dado rail will give a traditional welcome to your visitors in the entrance hall.
Internal windowsills and surrounds that receive a lot of light will look better if you fix tiles that do not reflect it. Try a finish quality similar to stone, containing muted, subdued colours with an almost satin-like sheen. Stoneware tiles are also suitable for work surfaces in kitchens; they can often provide an attractive alternative to dreary mass-produced worktops. Their slightly uneven surface causes imperfection in colour and variation, which breaks up large areas visually. In a food preparation area, however, you will need a waterproof adhesive and a special grout, for hygienic reasons.
On smaller areas of wall, such as splashbacks, wafer-thin metal designs that are sandwiched between layers of glass give a particularly unusual light effect, with the colours in the metals appearing almost lost inside their tile. Glass is transparent, so the tile adhesive must be evenly applied on a good, flat surface. If you use a notched spreader, the ridges will show through.
For partitioning off small areas without reducing the light levels try glass blocks. They can be bought as a kit, which includes spacers, reinforcing rods and mortar. The last can be coloured to appear as a grid.
It is important to remember, however, that glass blocks tend to be heavy and will therefore need to be positioned on a substantial foundation. They cannot be built onto a suspended wooden floor.
Cork has been around a long time, mainly as thin floor tiles. However, it is unsuitable for flooring because it is easily damaged by heels and heavy furniture. It will serve well on a complete wall surface, though, or as part of a half-and-half wall. Thick cork tiles (about 12mm thick) make a good studio or home office pinboard. You can apply them to form a square or make a shape out of the tiles, then edge them with mitred timber battens.