What is the item all the young, new-wave interior designers are trying to get their hands on at the moment? Not a limited-edition chair from Milan or a sculptural chandelier, but 400-year-old, hand-painted tiles hailing from the small Dutch city of Delft.
Delft tiles were first produced in the Dutch Golden Age as a response to Chinese blue-and-white glazed porcelain, and have since become instantly recognisable throughout the world for their cobalt blue and white-grey colour. They’ve been exported, replicated and collected by keen-eyed connoisseurs ever since production largely ceased in the 18th century, when cheaper British reproductions put Dutch potters out of business.
Recently, a new generation of makers have been turning their hand to the antiquated craft, with Instagram-savvy crafts people and young interior designers drawn to the pictorial designs.
Authentic antique tiles are identifiable by their greyish-white tin-lead glaze (which was found to be toxic for potters around 1900 and is no longer used) and fine, hand-painted illustrations in cobalt blue, which range from ornate depictions of Dutch life — canal barges or village fetes — to drawings of animals, fruits and, in rare instances, mythical creatures.
“The ones I love are those painted with little angels or sea monsters,” says Tony Niblock, co-founder of bespoke cupboard maker Plain English. He began collecting the tiles 30 years ago after viewing a Georgian house that had a Delft-clad fireplace and becoming obsessed. He also likes “the really simple drawings of children, and those with a couple of golfers, or missionaries holding crosses up and marching”.
A tracing technique allowed painters to reproduce the same image repeatedly with only very slight variations, creating a system of early mass production, says Niblock. “You can imagine some poor person sitting down and having to paint the same design over and over again.”
But it’s the slight variations that have drawn young designers to the tiles. “They have so much character to them,” says interior designer Emma Grant, who bought a bundle of 18th-century tiles at auction and has been experimenting with using them as splashbacks behind sinks.
“They all look different, because the makers had to work quite quickly on the tin glaze, so although the designs are in motifs, they’re all in this quick impressionistic style.” Designs vary from classic to bizarre. “I’ve seen one design of some guy vomiting because he’s had too much to drink, another of a mermaid wearing a top hat.”
Why are these quaint, comical little ceramic artworks seeing a resurgence of popularity now? It’s all part of our current desire to be surrounded by handmade objects, says Tyler Hays, an artist and founder of the New York design brand BDDW. His widely followed Instagram account, on which he posts his cobalt and white hand-painted tiles and coffee cups (a recent one featured Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for US president) has introduced the Delft aesthetic to millennials.
“It’s cool now,” Hays says of the newfound appreciation for craft. “It wasn’t 25 years ago. When I started out, all my friends were going on to be dotcom millionaires and I was doing pottery and woodwork and leatherwork — but you see it all over the place now.”
Surrounding ourselves with things that are obviously handmade, with their bumps and wobbly edges, is a logical antidote to the perfect lines and grids we’re used to seeing all day on our screens, says Durk Regts, who runs one of the largest dealers of antique Delft tiles in the world, Regts Delft Tiles. “As the tiles were handmade without the use of modern technology, they are hardly ever perfect. This is their charm.”
Regts ships around the world, with prices for his Delft tiles ranging from tens to thousands of pounds. Niblock, on the other hand, says he caps his per-tile budget at about £30, generally using Ebay and a trusted antique dealer as his sources.
Douglas Watson’s eight-person Oxfordshire studio has built an international reputation on handmade reproductions of Delft tiles, used by the likes of interior designers Emma Grant and Beata Heuman. The studio can produce a large order on demand. “It’s the complete opposite of a standard printed item,” he says.
While Delft tiles were traditionally placed around the fireplace or, as seen in Rembrandt’s 17th-century house in Amsterdam, as skirting boards, in recent years young makers and designers have started using them in new and inventive ways.
Plain English’s Niblock had the idea of putting them in the kitchen. “I was looking at this beautiful fireplace in an old Georgian house and I thought: I wonder what the Georgians would do?” In the present day, he says, rather than the fireplace, “the centre of the house is very much the kitchen. It got me thinking: wouldn’t it be nice if you could put Delft tiles behind the stove and use it as a sort of splashback?”
He ended up using the idea for the Plain English showroom in New York, placing a neat rectangle of simple tiles above a black Aga. “The Americans absolutely loved it,” he says. “It’s almost like a piece of art you’ve put together yourself.”
It is the narrative element that drew Heuman to Delft tiles. “There’s a liveliness to them,” she says. “They have history and they’re handmade, but you can make them feel very personal.” She recently used them around the stove on a project in London, and her client was able to pick the motifs that she wanted. “They’re effective when you don’t have much space but you still want to give a bit of an impression”.
During lockdown, Emma Grant took her Delft obsession to the next level and tiled the wall in one of the bedrooms of her Regent’s Park flat. “It sounds a bit nuts, but I really wanted to give it a go. Ultimately, that’s what they were used for. You get this patina and the movement from the handmade quality; you just don’t get that from a painted surface.”
Talking about the Delft tiles that he used in his own personal bathroom at home, Niblock captures their enduring appeal best: “How wonderful to look at a piece of 18th-century artwork whilst taking your ablutions!”
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