In recent years, a few important collections of Art Nouveau tiles have been donated / bequeathed to European museums and become accessible to the public. These tiles were collected between the 1960s and 1980s by Art Nouveau enthusiasts when no one else was really interested in them. Today, we can be grateful to those collectors, for they have safeguarded an important element of our European Art Nouveau heritage. One tile at a time.
In this article I will first go into the rise of the ceramic Art Nouveau tile, and then I will share the beautiful collections that have become accessible recently.
The Come-Back of the Ceramic Tile
Ceramic tiles were not new to the Art Nouveau era. The use of glazed bricks and tiles goes back as far as the 13th century BC in Iran, and they have been used ever since. But thanks to innovations in the production process, the rise of the bathroom as well as a greater appreciation of the benefit of hygiene, the ceramic tile became an exceptionally popular building material (again) at the end of the 19th century.
The Industrial Revolution
According to wikipedia, the Industrial Revolution, now also known as the First Industrial Revolution, was the transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the United States, in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from manual production methods to machines, the increasing use of steam power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the mechanized factory system. This Industrial Revolution led to an unprecedented population growth.
An economic recession occurred from the late 1830s to the early 1840s when the adoption of the original innovations of the Industrial Revolution, such as mechanized spinning and weaving, slowed and their markets matured. Innovations that had developed late in this period, such as the increasing adoption of locomotives, steamboats and steamships, were not powerful enough to drive high rates of growth.
Rapid economic growth began to occur again after 1870, springing from a new group of innovations in what has been called the Second Industrial Revolution. These new innovations included new steel making processes, mass-production, assembly lines, electrical grid systems, the large-scale manufacture of machine tools and the use of increasingly advanced machinery in steam-powered factories.
Innovations revolutionised the production of tiles
As said, the mechanisation of many – often agricultural – processes led to an unprecedented rise of the population. Workers migrated en masse to the cities in search for work, and deadly pandemics regularly escalated in overcrowded slums. Thanks to two inventions that revolutionised the production of tiles, and thanks to the fact that tiles were easy to clean, the square glazed plates experienced a strong upswing throughout Europe.
|Inhabitants x 1000||1800||1840||1870||1900|
©Institut Mathildenhöhe Städtische Kunstsammlung Darmstadt, Foto: Gregor Schuster
The first innovation concerned the invention of transfer printing. Decorations that had previously been painted by hand could now much faster be printed on tiles. The second invention was engineer Richard Prosser’s 1840 dry pressing process. This process involved the use of specially prepared dust clay with a low moisture content, which was compacted under great pressure in a metal die in a large screw press. This method allowed for much faster production and less drying time. It also allowed relief decorations to be machine-pressed directly onto the surface of the tile.
Another impetus came from the fundamental biological discoveries of French chemist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and German physician Robert Koch (1813-1910). Pasteur is remembered for his remarkable breakthroughs in the causes and prevention of diseases. And Koch was one of the main founders of modern bacteriology. Their discoveries were ground for new building stipulations in regards to hygiene.
The uncontrollable growth of cities created a rapidly increasing demand for industrially produced ceramic tiles, which were the answer to the demand that buildings should be made fireproof and hygienic. Tiles are waterproof, fireproof and pollutionproof, and relatively cheap (compared to plastering, they have a longer lasting wear and lower installation cost. They also cost far less than stone). And since tiles can be very decorative too, they were used both in the interiors as well as on the façades of buildings.
“Whether in public or private spaces, in libraries, museums, or schools, department stores or underground stations, entrance halls, kitchens, or bathrooms: at the turn of the last century, the ceramic ornament embellished virtually all areas of daily life” Stefanie Patruno explaines in the book Ornament im Quadrat.
Art Nouveau Designer Tiles
Architects and designers were influential in the development of art and, because of their new interest in polychrome decorations for façades and interiors, promoted the use of architectural ceramics and tiles. Unlike Morris, whose handmade products were reserved for an exclusive class of consumers, Arts & Crafts designers such as Walter Crane and Charles F.A. Voysey strove to have their tile patterns also realised with the help of mechanical production methods and decorations processes. In Germany, large companies such as Wächtersbacher Steingutfabrik and Villeroy & Boch hired renowned craftsmen and architects, including Joseph Maria Olbrich, Peter Behrens and Hans Christiansen, to create designs for serially produced floor and wall tiles.
3 European Art Nouveau Tile Collections
Roberto Pozzo began collecting tiles from flea markets in Belgium during the 1970s. He ended up with an impressive collection of over 9,000 tiles, especially Art Nouveau tiles, and mainly tiles manufactured in Belgium. The collection became a reference for Belgian ceramic tiles and a unique testimony to the industrial tile manufacture between 1840 and 1940. In order to ensure the preservation of his collection and to make his tiles accessible to the general public, Roberto Pozzo donated them to the King Baudouin Foundation in 2016.
The things that interested me about these tiles were not just their aesthetics and the techniques used, but also the people who made them and the circumstances in which they were produced.
Today this amazing collection is kept close to the very place where a large part of the tiles were originally created, in Hemiksem at the Gilliot & Roelants Tile Museum, the only specialized tile museum in Belgium. The King Baudouin Foundation created a website with a digital inventory. And they asked the help of internationally renowned tile expert Dr. Mario Baeck, who devoted his doctoral study entirely to the development of the Belgian industrial tile 1840-1940. The Roberto Pozzo collection can be admired at the Gilliot & Roelants Tile Museum, or at this dedicated website https://pozzo.collectionkbf.be
The second collection I learned about is the Inge Niemöller collection in Germany. Inge Niemöller was born in Essen in 1928. During her youth, she became interested in literature and studied at the German College of Library Science in Stuttgart. After her studies, Niemöller worked at the Goethe Institutes in Cairo and London. And in the twenty years she lived in London, she collected more than 700 tiles from the period between 1850 and 1930. Of these, she bequeathed more than 600 Art Nouveau tiles to the Institut Mathildenhöhe where the collection became the subject of a scholarly research. In 2017, the Niemöller collection was exhibited and curator Stefanie Patruno wrote the accompanying catalogue Ornament im Quadrat. This meticulously researched catalogue (in English/German) can be ordered from publisher Wienand Verlag. After the temporary exhibition finished, a large part of the collection was integrated into the permanent display RAUMKUNST – Made in Darmstadt at Museum Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt.
And now a 3rd collection of Art Nouveau tiles has become accessible to the public as KreisMuseum Zons has published a scientific inventory of the Beatrix and Axel Vater Collection. Axel Vater (a graphic artist) and his wife Beatrix Vater (a biologist) collected the tiles between the 1960s and 1980s. The couple clearly had a preference for floral decorations, ranging from naturalistic to abstract. The wide spectrum of design forms and used techniques in this collection offers an excellent overview of the multitude of decor options around 1900. Günther Kallen, art historian at the museum, has compiled the catalog (in German) and the inventory is also gradually being uploaded to the website https://nat.museum-digital.de.
– KreisMuseum Zons [CC BY-NC-SA]
The two catalogues are surprisingly different. Where the catalogue Ornament im Quadrat mainly focusses on the historical circumstances and extensively considers the technological developments which caused the ceramic tile to experience it’s revival, in Fliesen im Jugendstil the focus lies on the different production techniques and decorative styles. Another difference is that the first catalogue lists the tiles in the collection by tile manufacturer (mostly English) while the second catalogue lists the tiles by production method, decorative style or what they were used for.
I have found a third catalogue that I would have loved to review too: Tiles and Styles (1895-1935) by Ken Forster. This book covers, besides German tiles, also tiles, styles, designers and manufacturers from Central Europe. And since the two earlier mentioned catalogues mainly cover English, Belgian and German tiles, Ken Forster’s book could possibly add valuable information. But as the publisher did not respond to any of my e-mails over the past two years, I have not been able to judge the contents of the book. And I can’t tell if the book is really worth purchasing.
– Manufactures Céramiques d’Hemixem Gilliot & Cie, © Roberto Pozzo
Discoveries from Scottish Tenements
There is one last online tile initiative that I would like to introduce while I am at it, and that is the Tenement Tiles project in Glasgow. The owner of the account is photographing (and thus archiving) discoveries from Scottish tenements. I have followed this account on twitter for a few years now, and over the years the initiative has grown into a serious project. This year, an exhibition is actually being planned and curator Zan told me “the exhibition is due to run July-August at the Glasgow City Heritage Trust offices & then off to the National Trust of Scotland Tenement House for September-October. Obviously, this is all dependant on lockdown protocols nearer the time. The exhibition will consist of 32 images from the 4 corners of Glasgow. They’ll depict the current state we find the ‘wally close’ in across the city.”
I would like to end with a quote from Ornament im Quadrat in which author Stefanie Patruno wonderfully summarises the importance of these tiles: “As both a support for ornamentation and a utilitarian object, the tile reflects the groundbreaking art and culturally historic developments that emerged in the late ninteenth century in both private and public spheres – from industrial and stylistic reformation to reforms in daily life as well as the applied arts.” It is good to see that the Art Nouveau tile is being re-evaluated at last, and that the presented collections are getting the appreciation they so deserve.
Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt – Ornament im Quadrat
Jackfield Tile Museum, UK
National Tile Museum, Portugal
Dutch Tile Museum, Otterlo
Tile Museums of Esplugues, Barcelona (Museums Can Tinturé & La Rajoleta)
Musée Carrelage Céramique, Paray-le-Monial, France
Collectie Gelderland (database Dutch Tile Museum)
Gilliot & Roelants Tile Museum, Belgium
Roberto Pozzo Collection (online exhibition)
The mosaic of my neighborhood – mosaics of Barcelona
Fliesen des Jugendstils (database KreisMuseum Zons)
Mario Baeck’s online publications about ceramic tiles (in PDF)
Imposante verzameling: 9.000 oude Belgische keramiektegels
Wikipedia on the history of the ceramic tile
Rijksdienst Cultureel Erfgoed: Tegels in de 20ste eeuw (in PDF)
Hans van Lemmen – Historical Tiles
Golem Baukeramik – Reproduction of Art Nouveau Tiles
Singapore Heritage Tile Project
History of Czech Rako Tiles from 1883 till now (in PDF)
Stoke-on-Trent – 6 Potteries Tile Trail (English)
Jugendstilfliesen Museum Boizenburg