Written by Lia Picard
“The thing with ceramics,” said Charlotte Smith, a ceramist in Atlanta, “is that the possibilities are endless.”
At her studio, Smith has tile samples on display. There are concave rectangular tiles coated in an emerald green glaze; thin square tiles with hand-drawn black lines that form patterns; and circular tiles with matte pastel glazes.
The feature they all have in common is that they were handmade by Smith, who uses an extruder before firing and glazing each one, resulting in tile pieces that are not uniform.
“I think someone can look at this and know that it was obviously not made by a machine,” Smith said. “There are imperfections in it.” But such imperfections, she added, have become a draw for homeowners seeking to redecorate their spaces with something with more character than manufactured subway tile.
The interest in handmade tile seems to have come at a time when ceramics are having a moment more broadly. Seth Rogen’s pottery side hustle and HBO Max’s Great Pottery Throw Down have boosted ceramics’ profile in pop culture, and social media has made it easier for artists to get their wares noticed by a consumer base beyond collectors.
There’s also the Instagram of it all. Ceramics are simply pleasing to look at on social media, which has made it appealing to a younger generation renovating or decorating their first homes. And there is a broader movement toward authenticity on those platforms, where less staged photos are gaining ground.
“There’s definitely a movement toward a more imperfect look,” said Julie Muñiz, a trend forecasting consultant with a background in material culture.
When interior designer Annie Downing wants to “make a home feel a little bit more lived in,” she turns to zellige tile, a type of glazed terracotta made in Morocco, where artisans use molds to shape the clay and then fire the tiles in kilns traditionally fueled by crushed olive pits. With their color variations and chips, no two pieces are alike. Downing, who lives in Austin, Texas, recalled once finding a nail baked into a tile; another time, she noticed a rogue blue fleck in white tile. But she said that was just part of their charm. Her clients will put those pieces “front and center” in kitchen backsplashes, showers and fireplaces, she said.
Melissa Holt, an interior designer in San Jose, California, likes zellige so much that she used it in three different spaces within her own home. She appreciates its versatility. “You can put it in a shower, you can put it in a steam room, you can put in a pool,” she said. “Not all materials can do that.” Using zellige throughout the home, she continued, “makes it feel cohesive.”
Zellige has been around for centuries and appears in tile work throughout the North African region. The term “zellige” originally referred to a type of mosaic tile work, but now it’s most commonly used by companies to refer to a style of tile. Companies like Zia Tile and Clé sell these tiles direct-to-consumer.
Clé, founded in 2013 by Deborah Osburn, was born out of her now defunct blog, Tile Envy, which showcased artisan tiles that weren’t available through distributors.
When Osburn founded Clé, she partnered with artisans that produce zellige as well as cement and other terracotta tiles. Introducing distressed tile to the market came with an Instagram-versus-reality hurdle, though: Everyone who purchased the tiles wanted a beautiful, distressed look for their backsplash, but when the tile arrived they were sometimes surprised by just how distressed the tiles were, and installers weren’t sure of exactly how to install it, either. For instance, when the tiles are affixed to a surface, they sometimes look uneven and the lines don’t necessarily match up — but grout can help fill in the gaps.
Zellige caught on once “visionary designers” took a chance on it, Osburn said, and it has become Clé’s top seller. The most popular color sold by Clé is weathered white, but green is quickly becoming popular, too, Osburn said, a trend she relates to the rise of maximalism.
They don’t come cheap. Handmade tiles come at a premium over their manufactured counterparts. Clé’s zellige square-shaped tile in weathered white starts at $19.95 per square foot, for example, while a tile meant to look like handmade zellige, but isn’t, at the Tile Shop is about $12.50 per square foot.
Handmade tile can simultaneously make something feel modern and lived-in, a quality desired by Amy Heavilin who, along with her husband, owns a fixer-upper Queen Anne Victorian in Franklin, Indiana. Heavilin, 45, is a high school band teacher by day and a DIY-er outside of school. When the couple reinstalled a fireplace downstairs last year, Heavilin wanted its tile to echo the fish-scale woodwork on the exterior of the home’s tower. She ultimately purchased peacock tiles from Clay Squared in Minneapolis, in red, blue and purple.
She likes that the tile is noticeably kiln-fired, and even though the fireplace is clad in vibrant colors, it looks like it’s been there forever. “If you’re installing something and it gets a little chip or a little crack or isn’t exactly straight, to me that actually enhances the project a little bit more and makes it feel like it’s always been there,” Heavilin said.
“I think the ease and permanence of clay is really appealing,” said Beth Ann Gerstein, the executive director of the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California. “I think that probably some of the interest nowadays with terracotta clays or other sort of handmade pieces is that people still want to have that sense of the human touch on their objects.”
Osburn, who has worked in the tile industry for almost 35 years, credits Instagram and other social media platforms for taking tile to the “next level,” saying she did not think she would be discussing “the popularity of some of the oldest tiles available in the world as a new trend in the U.S.” without them.
In Austin, Clay Imports specializes in terracotta tile with most of their products made in Saltillo, Mexico. The rustic nature of handmade tiles is what people are craving in their homes, said Canan Kaba, the head of growth and marketing.
“During the pandemic, everything had to be sterile and sleek,” she said. “I think we crave this natural thing that somebody made with their hand, feel connected to the earth, connected to the people who make it.”
“You might have amazing kitchen gadgets which answer to your voice, but then you have this juxtaposing handmade material in the background,” she continued. “That is just a beautiful thing that goes right together.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.