Handmade tiles, highly prized at the turn of the century with their characteristic mottled colors and slightly irregular edges, are in demand once again.
In the Arts and Crafts style, they are being used to invest individuality in fireplaces, counters, floors and wall treatments. Pictorial tiles, which have a charming touch of yesteryear, are being used individually as accents.
The demand for these decorative tiles has encouraged four women to revive their grandfather's business in Yardley, Pa. It was believed that the secret of William H. Fulper's tile glazes died with him in 1928, but his formulas, handwritten in code, were found in notebooks in the attic of the family home in 1983.
"We were cleaning out the house after our father died and trying to get everything in order," Rada Fulper recalled. "Lo and behold, there the books were, just tucked in under the eaves in the attic."
Instead of donating the notebooks to a museum or selling them to a collector, the sisters--Agnes, Anne, Julia and Rada Fulper--set out to decipher the codes and in 1985 set up Fulper Glazes Inc. in Yardley.
About 14 of the original 65 glazes are in production, available directly from the company or through tile dealers nationwide. Prices start at $62 a square foot. Custom tiles and designs are also available. An eight-inch-square trivet, for example, is $40.
Fulper Tile--which also produced vases, lamps, candlesticks and other decorative wares--was one of several art potteries that once dotted the country. Two other widely known companies enjoying a revival are the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown, Pa., and Pewabic Pottery in Detroit.
Moravian Pottery is producing tiles by hand at the pottery's original site set up by Henry Chapman Mercer in 1897. The company serves as a living history museum and is overseen by the Bucks County Department of Parks and Recreation. It markets its products directly to the public.
"There are hundreds of different designs," said Adam Zayas, head ceramist at Moravian Pottery. "We use local clay, and each tile is a little different from every other one, which makes our product very different from the tiles produced today using commercial clay and industrial processes."
The most famous Moravian tiles are four-inch square, half-glazed terra cotta with a relief design. They come in a range of 16 colors in matte, glossy and smoked finishes. Prices range from about $20 a square foot for plain unglazed tiles to $80 a square foot for patterned half-glazed tiles. Mosaic tiles for insets especially popular as fireplace surrounds are $100 a square foot. Six-inch souvenir tiles sell for $9 to $25 apiece.
Pewabic Pottery sells embossed gift tiles through museum stores and gift shops and has a national network of wholesale distributors of architectural tiles. Decorative tiles start at about $25.
The company was founded in 1903 by Mary Stratton. When she died in 1960, it was willed to Michigan State University and is now run by the Pewabic Society, a nonprofit foundation, as a tile works and historical site.
Appropriate for fireplaces, countertops, floors and walls, Pewabic tiles come in a variety of glazes and colors. In addition, there are a number of tiles with relief designs such as those of animals, plants and fairy-tale characters. Prices begin at $69 a square foot.
"All the tiles have a soft mottled look with rounded corners, similar to the first tiles made at Pewabic," says Helen Broughton, director of exhibitions.
Like Moravian, Pewabic Pottery is maintained as a historic site. There is a gallery with a collection of Pewabic pots from the early years, an educational program and a research library.
For further information or brochures:
Fulper Glazes Inc., Box 373, Yardley, PA 19067. (215) 736-8512.
Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, 130 Swamp Road, Doylestown, PA 18901. (215) 345-6722.
Pewabic Pottery, 10125 E. Jefferson Ave., Detroit, MI 48214. (313) 822-0954.