The art ceramic tiles industry in the United States was initially inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, which evolved from the decorative English art. It should be noted that, unlike William Morris, American ceramists and designers saw great potential for commercial success in a man-made tile.
And in the Arts & Crafts movement as well, which in the USA was called American Craftsman, they saw the opportunities for, firstly, realizing the potential of female artists, and secondly, of using man-made products in objects for the middle class, which definitely implied a certain mass appeal of such products. They argued that the simple but sophisticated aesthetics of Arts & Crafts would ennoble industrial production, making American society more harmonious.
The Arts and Crafts movement in the United States became an aesthetic partner of progressivity, the American political philosophy of that period. Interestingly, the American Arts & Crafts began in Chicago’s Hull House, one of the first American social security houses.
It is also noteworthy that the first exhibition of the American Arts and Crafts movement was held on April 5, 1897, at the Copley Hall in Boston, with more than a thousand handmade items being shown and half of them were made by women artists.
In general, technology and, of course, a certain automation of processes were the number one priorities in the American Arts & Crafts, which, however, does not diminish the artistic value of American works of that period.
The first commercially produced ceramic tiles in the Arts & Crafts style was made back in 1876 by Pittsburgh Tile Company (Pittsbury Encaustic Tile Company) by Samuel Keys, an English emigrant who brought this style from the UK.
In general, in the eastern states, many ceramic factories had emigrant workers from Europe as employees, and they brought with them new trends and European designs. However, due to the fact that they gradually moved to the western states, their tiles lost their European style, dissolving in the Midwest culture, and acquired American features and elements. Design elements in the Spanish-Moorish style started to appear in the southeast and east coast of the United States.
At the end of the 19th century, the American art ceramic tiles industry was thriving. American companies exhibited their ceramics and won prizes in Europe. A lot of American tiles were made by the best ceramic artists, who not only had extensive experience in creating handmade ceramics, but also developed new glazing techniques.
At that time, frequent transfers of masters between factories and their communication with each other led to a mutual exchange of ideas. Everything was open and transparent. All of that resulted in creation of new artistic trends, development of technologies and recipes of glazes, which greatly contributed to the prosperity of the industry as a whole.
The production of American ceramics, of course, suffered during the First World War, but enjoyed the renaissance of the 20s and 30s of the 20th century. The industry rapidly developed and bloomed into a post-war building boom. Despite the predominance of mass production, there was always a demand for handmade tiles with signs of imperfection and antiquity. At that time many new companies were created, but unfortunately, not all of them survived the Great Depression.
Below is a list of the most famous American companies and ceramists, who made a great contribution to the art and industrial development of architectural ceramics in the United States, whose works have remained not only in museums, but also in buildings of American cities.
Empire Tile Company was created by the potter John Owens in 1923.
John Owens began making art ceramics somewhere around 1875 in Rosenville, Ohio. By 1891, he had built a large factory nearby, in Zanesville. In fact, John Owens became the father of art ceramics in the United States, because in addition to the production of rather unusual art ceramic relief tiles depicting churches, cathedrals, houses and other architecture, he brought up a huge number of technologists who later headed several of the largest ceramic manufactories in the United States.
One of Owens’ most remarkable employees was Karl Langenbeck, who was considered the best chemist in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1905, the main part of Owens’ company switched to art ceramic tiles production and for a long time the enterprise had been rebranding itself under various names: Owens Floor and Wall Tile Company, Domex Floor & Wall Tile Co. of Greensburg and finally became the Empire Tile Company.
A lot of Owens’ art ceramic works were repeated at different times by his competitors, who often were those who had left his enterprise. Unfortunately, Owens’s company did not survive the Great Depression and was closed.
Mosaic Tile was founded by Owens’ apprentice Karl Langenbeck in 1894 with Herman Mueller of American Encaustic Tiling Co.
The Mosaic Tile Company very quickly became a serious player in the market. The company largely owed its success to the talents of Mueller and Langenbeck themselves. Herman Mueller received an art education in Germany. There he learned not only sculpture and modeling, but also got an insight into the extreme versatility of design – Mueller was not afraid to experiment and was utterly mobile in implementing new design ideas in ceramics. Besides that, he was also quite a good technician – Mueller designed a significant portion of the company’s tilemaking technology.
Langenbeck was a talented ceramic chemist responsible for developing new colors and glazes. In 1908, the company was transformed into the Mueller Mosaic Company, survived the Great Depression and lasted until 1942 a year after Herman Mueller passed away.
The Rookwood Pottery was created in Cincinnati in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols, the daughter of millionaire and philanthropist Joseph Longworth. Her passion for ceramics arose largely thanks to Karl Langenbeck, who at that time lived nearby and once gave her a set of ceramic paints, and thanks to many ceramic crafts, tiles and produces from many parts of the world, including Japan and France, that she saw at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Inspired, like many, by the processes occurring during the firing, Maria Longworth persuaded her father to finance her hobby and purchase a building in the city for a workshop.
Rookwood Pottery is known mainly for its amazing vases with very delicate underglaze painting. Maria Longworth believed that nurturing a creative atmosphere in the workshop and attracting talents could have an amazing effect. And she was right.
Great artists and technologists worked in her workshop. In particular, the famous American artist Clara Chipman Newton worked at Rookwood Pottery. The company also developed complex majolica glazes: Iris – transparent, colorless glaze; Sea Green – a shade of aquamarine color; Aerial Blue – transparent and deep blue.
With increasing interest in the American Arts & Crafts movement, matte glaze, which could be used for underglaze painting, became necessary. In 1904, Vellum glaze was developed at Rookwood, giving a transparent matte surface through which underglaze painting could be seen. Rookwood Pottery was growing constantly and, in the end, found international recognition and praise: at the exhibitions in Paris in 1889 and 1900 the company’s works got awards; and in 1901, at the art exhibition in Philadelphia and Pan American in Buffalo, the enterprise received medals.
In 1902, the production of architectural ceramics began at Rookwood. In 1903, they made art ceramic tiles for New York subway station decor, which included friezes depicting historical events and new inventions. Tiles were also made for the facade and interior of public buildings and premises. For example, the Lord and Taylor department store building and the Central Station building in New York are clad with Rookwood tiles.
During the Great Depression, the company was forced to cease tile production. In a rather sluggish state Rookwood Pottery continued to exist until 1982, when it was acquired by Arthur Townley, who became its owner for 20 years, solely for the purpose of preserving the recipe and trademarks. And in July 2006, the newly formed Cincinnati Rookwood Pottery signed a contract to acquire all of the remaining assets of the original Rookwood Pottery from Arthur Townley.
These assets included, among other things, trademarks, more than three thousand original forms and hundreds of glaze recipes used by Rookwood Pottery before the Great Depression. Today, the Rookwood Pottery is owned by Martin and Marilyn Wade and is still located in Cincinnati. The company works with full force, – it has been renovated, new kilns and equipment have been purchased. The owners of the company profess Maria Longworth’s principles – looking forward and working with an eye to the future, constantly staying at the cutting edge of technology and preserving the willingness to take risks in the name of the development of art, while being surrounded by talented like-minded people.
Flint Faience Company – The company was created jointly by A. C. Spark Plug Company and General Motors. The company’s product range included more than seven thousand different reliefs with palettes in more than 150 colors. Mostly the company used the stuffing technique, but sometimes there were interesting incrustations. The company was closed in 1933 on General Motors’ initiative: the company insisted on expanding the production of automotive spark plugs.
The Grueby Pottery and Tile Company was founded by William Henry Grueby in Boston in 1898 as a pottery workshop specializing in vases and utensils. Tiled products of the company were not in demand until 1907. At this point, the aesthetics of Arts & Crafts was introduced into company’s tile design, but with a large share of naturalism and the use of matte glazes. Inspired by French ceramics, William Grueby created mainly terracotta art ceramic tiles with a pronounced relief in a rather brutalist style.
As a result, Grueby tiles became a symbol of the American Arts and Crafts movement and were sold worldwide. The company’s works received two gold and one silver medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, medals at the Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo in 1901 and were awarded a gold medal at the Louisiana Exhibition in St. Louis in 1904.
Grueby Pottery and Tile Company is, to this day, the most famous American company owing much of its fame to its artistic and glazed architectural ceramics, which used very unusual forms and plastic reliefs. Its polychromic tiles can be seen in the cladding of subway stations in New York. In the main lobby of the Radisson Scranton Hotel (formerly the Lackawanna Railway Station) in Pennsylvania, there are thirty-six original ceramic murals made of this company’s tiles. The company finally ceased to exist in 1920, after a series of accidents and fires at the enterprise.
Russel Crook Tiles. Russel Crook was known for his stoneware vases decorated with blue stripes of stylized animals. However, his ceramics studio also made tiles in a small kiln behind his house. He was a member of the Society of Boston Arts & Crafts and worked at the Grueby Pottery developing designs and reliefs for the company. After the closure of the Grueby Pottery, Russel Crook created designer tiles dating back to 1923.
Moravian Pottery and Tile Works was created in Doylestone, Pennsylvania in 1898 by Henry Chapman Mercer. Mercer was an archaeologist, anthropologist and collector who became interested in ceramics when he started assembling a collection of pottery tools. He developed his designs for tiles, many of which have historical themes and depictions of early Pennsylvania settlers.
Besides designing and making his own tiles, Mercer was also reconstructing ancient stove tiles of the first colonists of America. By the way, this company still exists, although, of course, it is more of a tourist attraction of Doylestone. Nevertheless, the tiles are still produced using the same technology and with the same forms as Henry Mercer’s, although the recipes for the glazes are slightly changed to be less noxious. Nearby is a very interesting Mercer Museum, which presents a huge number of diverse architectural ceramics and tiled stoves.
In general, American ceramics is also interesting because the creators of the companies have always been focused not only on art, but also on commercial success and profit. And although in a craft with a large share of manual labor and complicated technology, it is rather difficult to achieve commercial success, some workshops succeeded.
It is a pity that handmade ceramics, while remaining untouched for centuries, are, nevertheless, strongly affected by the current economic crises. American art ceramics workshops and enterprises were no exception and for the most part could not survive the Great Depression. However, US contemporary decorative art and, in particular, art ceramics, took all the best from the works of masters of the past, and Arts & Crafts became a large part of the foundation for American contemporary decorative art and design.