Hanessian’s handmade tile fireplace surround, finished and installed.

The years 1852, 1984, and 2016 are all meaningful dates in a personal time line that helped shape the telling of this story. As we enter this time machine, the underlying circular story begins and ends with my love of ceramic tiles. I roamed out into the world of handmade tiles and ceramic art, returning many years later with new digital tools to my former love, the decorative tile.

It Begins With a New House

I begin my story in the fall of 2014 when I went to the Penland School of Crafts for an alumni Core Student retreat. While there, I decided to use my time to make as many 4×4 inch tiles as possible for our new home that was under construction. Many of the tiles were for the front wall of a bathtub, but my main desire was to create a tile fireplace as the centerpiece of our new home. I wanted the tile to reflect the Craftsman-style bungalow architecture, but also to bring a sense of the handmade into our lives. I wanted the house to have two vibes: hygge, a Danish word that means creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with friends and family; and wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic that values the imperfect in life.

Synthesizing these two design philosophies was important, as I wanted to make the tiles by hand, but use contemporary digital tools. These worlds came together after finding original 1930’s-era English wallpaper (from RetroVilla.com) and installing it at the top of the nearby stairs. The “aha” moment happened when I scanned the wallpaper pattern to create the decorative tiles. This unleashed a variety of new digital techniques that I was excited to try out. I ended up with a contemporary looking fireplace that has historical references, looks imperfect, all while using digital tools in its creation.

Tiles from glaze experiments, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, hand-pressed porcelain tiles, fired in an electric kiln to cone 10, 2016. Fireplace detail (corner), to 5 in.(13 cm) in height, hand-pressed porcelain tiles, fired in an electric kiln to cone 10, grout, 2016. Photos: Mathew Adams.

The Origins of My Love of Tile

To more fully tell this story, I must travel back in time to 1984. My passion for tiles ignited after working at the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The Tile Works is a living history museum with public tours, a store, and a catalog to sell the historically based traditional tiles and mosaics that are recreated there. The Arts-and-Crafts Renaissance man, Henry Chapman Mercer, initially started and designed much of what is produced at the Tile Works. After traveling the world, he brought back objects that he then used as molds for making tiles and mosaics. These ranged from stove plates to bronze Persian platters. He built a home, Fonthill, next to the Tile Works and the Mercer Museum up the road to house all of the tools he collected along the way. All of these buildings used an innovative architectural style of poured concrete. In Fonthill and parts of the Moravian Pottery and tile works, he encrusted much of the concrete with tile or mosaic. Mercer was a tremendous influence and inspiration on me.

In 1985, I had my next ceramic-tile epiphany. I accompanied my mother to Barcelona, Spain, where I saw the organic shaped towers covered with mosaic tiles by the great Catalonian architect, Antoni Gaudi. I was enthralled by the sculptural forms embedded with mosaic pieces at the Parque Guell, a hillside park overlooking the city along with the amazing concrete construction of the exquisite Catholic Church, the Sagrada Família that Gaudi spent the last years of his life exhaustively working on.

Gaudi and Mercer both were born in the 1850s, died within five years of each other, and lived to the age of 74. Gaudi organically used tiles in his buildings and parks whereas Mercer copied others. Mercer was inventive in his concrete architectural structures by including mosaic and tile. Gaudi, too was a genius in his use of concrete and tile.

As I write this, I have just finished installing my fireplace in our family home and am once again in Spain visiting the Parque Güell and the Sagrada Família. I am again reminded of how we can fall back in love with our earlier muses.

The Egril tile pattern altered in Photoshop to create a high-contrast black-and-white image for laser cutting, 2015. Setting up the digital image of the Egril pattern to be laser cut, 2015. Laser cutting on wood for the Egril tile, 2015.

The Technical Processes

When working on this tile project, I spent a long time experimenting and going in circles until I got the results I liked. This is similar to the approach I take in my (very different) ceramic art practice.

The glaze testing and the digital processes began with extensive experimentation. I ended up making two to three times the amount of tile that I eventually needed. I used a cone 10 porcelain clay body and cone 9–10 electric-fired glazes. Some of the glazes were designed for oxidation and others were typically fired in reduction in gas kilns. For the look I wanted, I fired all of them in a neutral atmosphere. In the end, I selected three glazes, Sam Chung’s cone 10 satin mint glaze, which I placed in the kiln next to John Britt’s nickel yellow glaze. The mint glaze was affected nicely by the nickel oxide in the yellow glaze during the firing; The reaction pulled some warm hues across the green mint. Lastly I used a celadon glaze normally fired in reduction that yielded a warm canary yellow when fired in an electric kiln.

The technical, digital aspect of this project required that I use Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, a high-resolution scanner, and a laser cutter. I scanned high-resolution images of the wallpaper to create large digital files, in a tiff format, that I then altered using Photoshop. I converted them from color image at 300 dpi to gray-scale with three high levels of contrast (1). The dark to light grays created three varied levels of depth when laser cut. The next step I took was to turn the altered image into a Illustrator file. This is the type of file needed when using a laser cutter because it supports raster and vector settings.

Fireplace detail, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, hand-pressed porcelain tiles, glaze, fired in an electric kiln to cone 10, grout, 2016. Photos: Mathew Adams. Jazz tile production process (counter clockwise from top center): laser-cut wood positive model; one-part plaster mold; hand-pressed, porcelain bisque-fired tile taken from the mold; three hand-pressed porcelain test tiles, fired in an electric kiln to cone 10, 2016. Fireplace detail, Jazz tile, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, hand-pressed porcelain tiles, fired in an electric kiln to cone 10, grout, 2016. Photos: Mathew Adams.

Several decisions need to be made when working with a laser cutter in clay or ceramics. The type of design, depth, or line quality need to be considered when setting up files. You need to ask yourself whether you will you be carving out areas of the surface or creating discrete lines. I wanted to create depth in the decorative tile so I used the raster setting on the laser cutter (2). Raster settings are for engraving, while the vector setting is more adept at cutting lines or cutting through materials (other than clay). The raster setting can take longer to complete on the laser cutter, while a vector line can have a quicker turn around. The other settings, speed and power, along with PPI (pulses per square inch) are adjustable and need to be determined for each project. These help determine the intensity and duration of the laser beam.

Initially I thought that I would use the raster setting to etch into a soft bisque tile. I had taught a digital ceramics class in 2014 that ended with laser-cut student examples made with wet clay, low-temperature bisque ware (fired to cone 011), samples with layers of slips and underglazes, and glaze-fired ceramics. After reviewing these experiments, the raster setting on a bisque ware tile seemed like the right choice. Unfortunately, it took too long to cut the tiles, even after ganging them up, eight at a time. What seemed more efficient was to raster cut into a piece of wood (3) and then make plaster molds from the wood in varying depths to give two different types of thicknesses to the overall fireplace design (4).

After laser cutting into a piece of wood, I used the typical techniques of creating plaster molds (5). I also made border tiles from wooden molding pieces that I had bought at the local home-improvement store. I used a simple tile press that was made from retrofitted arbor press; a $50 purchase. I then pressed all of the pattern tiles on the tile press and used a 4×4-inch tile cutter for the flat, undecorated tiles.

After all of the tiles were made, bisqued, and glaze fired, I was ready to install them on the fireplace (6). I decided to make it easier by adhering them horizontally instead of directly on the fireplace. I cut five pieces of cement board, then put them up on the fireplace and pre-drilled the holes according to where they would be attached. Back in my studio, I mortared the tiles directly on the cement-board sections. Ultimately, this made the job of positioning them easier than having to work vertically from the ground up. I worked hard to make sure that all of the tiles lined up as much as possible with similar spacing for the grout. Since each tile was made by hand, each was slightly off. I didn’t cement down the tiles in the areas where the pre-drilled mounting holes were located, waiting until it was installed on the fireplace before adhering the last tiles.

If I had been paid to do this, very little profit would have been made for the time it took. It was a labor of love and is now the focal point in our house. I believe I achieved the sense of wabi-sabi I was after as I do see the crooked tile every time I sit down to relax. I am lucky to have had the time and am happy with my choices.

the author Holly Hanessian is area head of ceramics and project director of 3D digital ceramics at Florida State University. To learn more, visit www.hollyhanessian.com.