Using Patterned Tile from Around the World
Off the top of your head, you can probably think of a handful of cultures, or broad geographic regions, that are known for their gorgeous colored tiles and ceramics. Chinese ginger jars, Mexican tile, Moroccan trellis patterns, and Spanish tiles are all coveted for their handmade charm and colorful patterns. The Mediterranean region is well-known for its signature blue and white scheme that conjures images of balmy afternoons on the Greek isles.
From the tropical beaches of Mexico to the deserts of the Middle East, you’ll find tiles in hot climes where flooring and finish materials are chosen as much for their cooling ability as for their beauty. This Spanish Revival style bathroom benefits from the inclusion of three different Spanish tile patterns that each integrate and establish a coherent color scheme.
The world’s leading purveyors of ceramic tile share more than just a common climate. They share a stake in the timeline of global cultural development. The tradition of ceramics and pottery was transmitted culturally through patterns of colonization, with the Moors of the Muslim world colonizing Spain during the Middle Ages, and Spain later colonizing Mexico. Each culture left traces of its own rich tile-making heritage that was then adapted regionally.
Patterned ethnic tiles mix beautifully within the same room. To make this look work, choose a solid tile to serve as your base color, choose a contrasting tile as a border, and a patterned tile as a decorative accent, used here just below the blue wall border and around the shower wall. These bold tiles are a durable and visually appealing way to make a small bathroom feel extra special. Just make sure to purchase them already glazed, or have them glazed before installation!
Naturally, you’ll find this look most commonly in the American Southwest and Southern California, which are closest to our southern neighbor, Mexico. As colorful as Mexican tiles are, you need not drench your entire space in sunset hues if you’re more of a natural-textures person. A sparing application of Mexican tiles as an accent works well against plaster walls and wood for a rustic look.
Elaborate tiles always seem to make such a cultural statement that you’ll be surprised to know that the large faux tile wall mural pictured here does not represent any particular ethnic tradition but is instead an agglomeration of flourishes found by the artist in dishes, rugs, and gates, which were used as inspiration to create a wholly original mural for a California client.
Most of the Mexican tiles featured in this ideabook so far have been Talavera tiles. Talavera pottery originates in Spain but is most commonly associated with the colonial Mexican city of Puebla. Characterized by a white base glaze under hand-painted floral motifs, authentic talaveras are shown here in this close-up of stairs in a Mediterranean-styled Tampa residence.
These hand-painted tiles work beautifully as a shaped fireplace surround. The flourished header above the mantel mimics the styling of the medieval and colonial churches and mosques for which tiles were originally milled, making this one of the more authentic, inspired examples of using Spanish or Mexican tiles in Mediterranean-style architecture.
The kitchen is another logical place to add local color through ethnic tile, and you’ll see this done commonly in beach houses in expatriate communities around the world, where homebuyers crave some of the modern amenities of their Western homes but want an authentic sense of history that local materials and architectural traditions deliver.
Going a step further, swap out an ordinary sink for a piece of pottery made by the same artisan who made your tiles, if possible. Even if your tile manufacturer can’t get you a coordinating sink, the beauty of Mexican tile is that it looks just as intentional with a riot of varying patterns and colors, so you may as well go wild with the most colorful design you can find.
We’ll cross the ocean now to the North Africa where this type of encaustic tile first got its architectural start. Tile artisans in Morocco developed an encaustic process known as zellij (sometimes spelled zillij) whereby geometric shapes were cut from baked tile, glazed in batches of color and inlaid into cement or plaster. Both historically and currently, Moroccan tiles were used to cover bathroom surfaces, interior and exterior walls, floors, ceilings, patios, and more.
Click on this photo of a Moroccan tile accent wall in Encinitas, California to see how this fundamentally classical tile can complement a “bold, modern, and hip” interior. The turquoise color is the star here with the intricate medallion pattern reading as more of a texture than a pattern, from afar.
Since Spanish Revival architecture makes ample use of arches, you can feel confident that Morrocan tile will be an inspired choice for a wall covering anywhere you have an arch. Some walls are more tile-friendly than others, though, so work with your architect to ensure that your walls can handle the weight.