Piece by Piece

A look at the latest in the handcrafted world of California tile.

Lisa Marie Hart Home & Design, Real Estate


For more than 100 years, California has maintained an obsession sparked by the introduction of bright, glazed tiles at the Panama-California Exposition in 1915. This led to a wave of companies producing these decorative squares.

The state’s naturally rich clay deposits allowed the art form to develop from the ground up — at a time when Mission Revival, Mediterranean, and Spanish Colonial architecture offered a clean canvas on which to display it. Many still love the “Malibu tile” style, but it could hardly be considered hip.

So what’s new at the California tile houses? Tile designers keenly track the trends, which move quickly. Current patterns stay highly graphic (but shy away from chevrons). Fish scales, fans, and scallop shapes lend a feeling of movement, especially when installed in an array of colors. Hexagons and octagons are strong choices, as are tiles designed to create a varying effect depending on which way the tiles are turned. Earthy glazed tiles, such as Moroccan zellige terracotta, bring a shine that still has warmth.

While it’s easy to get swept up in new looks that skitter across backsplashes and tiled showers, these building blocks of beauty can get expensive and laborious to install (and remove). Tile was never made for fleeting romance or a dating game of trial and error. Know your taste. Or choose a timeless option that will still look great when you change the surrounding environment. For those who dare, we tracked down a few new releases from across the state.

Heartland crop 
circles at Fireclay Tile

A beacon of handmade tile since 
1986, Fireclay Tile quips that its 
San Francisco showroom sits “at the corner of Technology and Design.” That metaphorical intersection sums up the Fireclay model.

Founder Paul Burns became his uncle’s apprentice at age 10, carrying on a family ceramics tradition that dates back to the 1920s. Every tile is made to order in California’s agricultural heartland (the factory in Aromas uses repurposed storage buildings that once served an apple orchard). Despite the pastoral 
setting, Fireclay embraces modern methods, incorporating recycled materials into its products and offering custom hand painting (plus an online tool to get you started).

The newest line, the Agrarian Collection (left), celebrates the company’s roots, tipping its hat to the natural landscape that surrounds the factory. Eight patterns in three hand-painted color motifs emulate geometric crop layouts, as captured by aerial photography. Combine them or turn the pattern on its side — this collection is a toy box in warm, cool, and all-white palettes.

In forecasting tile trends through 2018, Fireclay says intricate patterns will shift toward the monochromatic, with interlocking shapes creating subtle texture. Deep colors that evoke emotion are also on the radar; company favorites include Venetian Green, Navy Blue, Hunter Green, and Basalt.

Rustic tradition at Arto

The secret to the elegance of Arto’s ceramic and concrete tile lies in a traditional approach: skilled hands, local materials, and hard work. Born in Egypt, founder Arto Alajian was classically trained as an artist yet found himself working as a milkman when he moved to Venice, California.

For extra income, he made lightweight, Old World–looking brick veneers and sold them to customers on his milk route. His thin clay bricks became the foundation for Arto in 1966. Now his sons keep his legacy alive from the factory in Gardena. Arto’s tiles, bricks, and pavers have transformed large commercial projects, university buildings, resorts, celebrity estates, kitchens, and patios. For the floor of the nave at the Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano, Arto created a custom chevron ceramic tile in Spanish Brown.

Rustic takes many shapes here. Long ceramic bow ties would be at home on a midcentury backsplash; arabesque silhouettes can lean exotic or modern. A tile called Kaleidoscope has an ornateness akin to embroidery or stained glass. Below, two arabesque patterns from the Artillo collection add artwork underfoot at Toca Madera restaurant in West Hollywood. Artillo, a deliberately irregular concrete tile, is an Arto staple; new colors and shapes keep it current.





Rough Relief at Heath Ceramics

One cannot discuss California tile without ultimately arriving at Heath Ceramics. Since 1948, Heath’s many product lines have been handcrafted in small runs by Bay Area artisans.

While other tiles are trending in lively pattern plays and extreme contrasts, Heath’s new collection focuses on jagged textures and muted tones. What the company calls its “most sculptural tiles by far” are a collaboration with Stan Bitters, a ceramics superstar of the organic modernist style since the 1960s. For six decades, Bitters has cast a steady influence on the craft, most often in the form of large-scale installations (sculptures, murals, and fountains) in public spaces. Now his Heath tiles enter our private spaces in three made-to-order sizes. Heath sees an array of interpretations in this rather masculine line, from fissures in a natural stone wall to a bird’s-eye view of a cityscape. Smooth slab tiles, exclusively for purchase as part of this collection, offer a flat surface to juxtapose with Bitters’ rugged ones (pictured).

Heath Ceramics’ newest tile collection is a jagged-edged collaboration 
with Stan Bitters, 
an established 
artist in the organic modernist style.

Matte, glossy, and unglazed finishes from Bitters’ collection are available on Manganese (brown clay) or a mix of recycled clay and reclaimed waste material from Heath’s tile factory (very pioneering). Ten colors reference the natural world’s own palette: Choose from two deep, mossy greens; variations on pewter and ivory; a rusty redwood; and an intense, love-at-first-sight Opal Blue, the alluring hue of a sapphire sea.

Artistic influence at Clé

Clé means “key” in French, and the key to this burgeoning company’s success is simplicity through artfulness. Founder and creative director Deborah Osburn is an award-winning tile-maker. Her delicate Watermark line gives hand-painted porcelain the dreamy look of watercolors on paper.



Operating with just an online showroom since entering the scene in 2012, Clé claims to be “pushing the boundaries of tile” by partnering with artists and designers. Black-and-white photographs of urban landmarks, 17th-century nature motifs, the maze-like swirls of malachite, and Rorschach-inspired Technicolor patterns take the art of tile to a rarely seen level.

Oh Joy! (pictured) is a new collection of square and hexagonal tiles by Los Angeles–based graphic designer, blogger, and 
home-goods entrepreneur Joy Cho. In whimsical pastels with names like Confetti and Streamers, her tiles employ a light touch in adding color and pattern to modern rooms.

In the edgy yet minimalist Shapes collection, seven solid-color tiles span diamonds to scallops.The handcrafted cement tiles come in 50 silky matte colors. Oversize triangles that stretch a full foot on each side put an exclamation point on any design.

Ancient Asian techniques blend to produce the primitive Eastern Earthenware collection. Each terracotta tile is formed by hand, then fired in a traditional beehive-shaped kiln. Uneven firing temperatures produce luminous variations in the glazes.