In many British homes, shaped tiles were once restricted to tessellated floors in Victorian hallways, but today a greater choice of tiles for all surfaces has opened up the possibilities for devising patterns. Square, rhomboid, diamond, hexagonal, pentagonal, brick and strip shapes allow for angular designs in regular or abstract formations. The simplest geometric shapes can look dramatic when viewed on a grand scale, while large-format square and rectangular tiles have a flowing, seamless look that creates a sense of space and calm. Tiles based on Moorish designs with curved arabesque and scallop shapes add an exotic touch. Used in a palette of toning shades, they create an illusion of rippling texture, while areas of single colour are defined with contrasting grout lines.
Whether your style is glamorous or understated, decorative effects suiting either preference can be achieved with tiles that rely on texture or finish for interest rather than colour. For an opulent look, mirrored and metallic tiles are unsurpassed, while tiles with a pearlescent glaze deliver luxe with a lighter touch. Contrasting textures is an intriguing way to add impact, and a glossy motif set against a matt or satin surface produces a delightfully subtle pattern. A graphic alternative is to combine plain high and low-sheen tiles of the same colour. Tactile surfaces enrich the textural mix and here the choice is wide. Moulded tiles in Victorian and Edwardian relief patterns can be used to add an edge or border, or down-play the effect with embossed tiles that have a geometric, textile or leather grain design.
Tiles were an important decorative element in 19th and early 20th-century homes, though the most ornamental examples were used to create a dado in the entrance hall or set into cast-iron fireplaces. The kitchen and bathroom were regarded as service areas and their walls clad with functional plain, brick-shaped tiles. Some of the most beautiful designs of the time are still in production today and if you crave an authentic look, seek out the work of artists such as Philip Webb, William De Morgan and William Morris. Patterned tiles with a vintage look can be used to give a sense of the past. Taking inspiration from Monet’s charming farmhouse kitchen at Giverny, mix them in a patchwork themed by design or colour and use them to create a striking splashback, shower wall or floor.
A plain floor may be versatile and easy to live with but there’s a school of thought that regards this area as a ‘fifth wall’ demanding decoration. Up until recently, carpets and rugs were the default choice for patterned floors in living areas, but underfloor heating has opened up the options to include tiles. The choice of designs is plentiful, from traditional Spanish-style patterns to geometric grids and abstract motifs. Choose tiles with a decorated surface or create your own pattern with an arrangement of plain tiles in two or more colours. Some of the most interesting examples are encaustic cement tiles, handmade using techniques practised since the Middle Ages. Formed in a shaped mould, the design is produced using different coloured clays. Although the method of manufacture is ancient, the latest designs offer a range of styles in a broad colour palette.
Perhaps it is the diminutive size of their component parts, the materials from which they’re made, or the perception that applying them is fine and intricate work that bestows mosaics with an almost gem-like quality. The individual tesserae are often made from precious-looking materials including glass, polished porcelain, marble or even mother of pearl in a range of shapes to form patterns or simply to produce a shimmering, light-reflecting surface. Use them in small areas to provide a sparkling accent, as a decorative border for larger format tiles, or over a whole wall in a bathroom or dressing room for full impact. Mosaics can be used on the floor too but are best reserved for areas of light wear.
From plain to patterned, tiles provide the perfect blend of style and function for your bathroom, kitchen or hall. Follow the tips in the above gallery to use tiles creatively in your home this season.
This feature first appeared in the August 2017 issue of Homes & Antiques.