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Fired with enthusiasm

Deborah Osburn's book lovingly extolls the beauty of tiles

If you’ve ever been entranced by the tilework of the Alhambra or Seville’s riotously ostentatious 19th century Plaza España, marvelled at domestic Delftware or wondered at the Victorian polychromatic frenzy that is Leighton House in Kensington – then you’re a tile-head.

Relax. It’s okay – you’re not alone. After years in the wilderness, the humble tile is finally being reappraised by modern architecture, with the profession rediscovering a love of coloured ceramics. I’ve been blown away by the vibrant blues of OMA’s  azulejos-plastered  VIP lounge at Porto’s Casa da Música, thoroughly charmed by the floor of architect David Kohn’s Carrer Avinyo apartment in Barcelona, (done by the firm that supplied tiles to Gaudí) and nodded approvingly at the tessellated facade of FOA’s Ravensbourne College in Greenwich. It’s as if the traditional idea of ‘craft’, for so long at odds with the Bauhaus concept of mass production, is finally being welcomed into the canon of Modernism.

You'll see evidence of that in Deborah Osburn’s lovely book ‘Tile Envy’, which includes the last two quoted projects among nearly 60 examples of modern tile design and use. It turns out Osburn caught the bug 30 years ago when she came across a cathedral that was unremarkable but for its amazing spire of deeply coloured mosaic tiles. Since then, she developed an obsession, claiming her own part in their resurgence.

  • Carrer Avinyo apartment, Barcelona. David Kohn Architects.
    Carrer Avinyo apartment, Barcelona. David Kohn Architects. · Credit: Jose Hevia Blach
  • Plaster and silicon tiles.
    Plaster and silicon tiles. · Credit: Daniel Wilding
  • Concrete tiles by Timorous Beasties.
    Concrete tiles by Timorous Beasties.
  • Handpainted slipcast porcelain tiles – Giselle Hicks.
    Handpainted slipcast porcelain tiles – Giselle Hicks.
  • Cement and ceramic 'Hex' tiles by Kismet (Tracy Reinberg).
    Cement and ceramic 'Hex' tiles by Kismet (Tracy Reinberg).
  • Quartz 'Chini' tiles by the Isnik Foundation - reproducing Ottoman tiles from the 16th century.
    Quartz 'Chini' tiles by the Isnik Foundation - reproducing Ottoman tiles from the 16th century.
  • 'Fluffo pancakes' ceramic tile by artist. Greg Hicho.
    'Fluffo pancakes' ceramic tile by artist. Greg Hicho.
  • 'Swanson song' ceramic tiles by Greg Hicho.
    'Swanson song' ceramic tiles by Greg Hicho.

The book splits design types into ‘illustration’, ‘texture’ and ‘pattern’, with nearly 60 examples, ranging from one-off hand crafted ceramic ‘art’ tiles, to screen-printed and computer designed concrete ones. In fact, in 125 pages Osburn covers the full range of processes, materials and methodologies, offering a modern snapshot of the skills of the tile industry and the kind of designs that can be realised with them. I’ve yet to see the fruits of Grayson Perry’s ceramic collaboration with architect FAT at the Essex House for Living Architecture, but while I wait in cross-legged anticipation, Tile Envy substitutes as a satisfying compilation of curios.

Tile Envy by Deborah Osburn is published by Cicada Books. £17.95