Residential Tile

(From Ceramics Monthly 1994)

The first time I saw a handmade sink in a tile counter was shortly after I moved to New Mexico in 1976. It was from Mexico and I thought it was lovely. It was being used as a bar sink in the middle of one of the more prestigious galleries in Santa Fe. There I was at an opening, barefoot and scruffy as I often was in those days, on my hands and knees looking up under the sink to see how it was made. "I could do that," I thought. A few months later, a friend commissioned me to make a sink and tiles for her bathroom, and they have been part of my repertoire ever since.

I've always loved architecture and architectural decoration. I grew up near Oak Park, Illinois, where Frank Lloyd Wright lived and built over 50 homes. As a teenager, I would ride around Oak Park on my bike, stopping to sketch the Wright houses. More than once I got caught peering in the windows of private residences hoping to catch a glimpse of some furniture or a light fixture Wright had designed.

Later, in art school at Washington University in Saint Louis, I registered late one semester and the only elective with an opening was ceramics. I soon found I wanted to spend all of my extra time in the ceramics department making castles and miniature villages. The houses had fanciful tiled roofs, gargoyles and elaborate window treatments. My professor, David Hershey, told me he wanted me to learn to throw. (I suspect because he didn't care for my sculpture.) It's a skill that has served me well over the years. I have essentially made my living working in clay since graduating from art school in 1974.

For a few years during and after college I was a musician as well as a potter. I played ragtime and swing violin in a series of bands. We traveled around playing music in the streets for nine months. I quickly found that if we were enjoying ourselves people would stop to have a good time with us, and we would make lots of tips. If for some reason we were not in a good mood, we wouldn't make any money, even if we played well. Having fun while I work is still important to me.

I quit music to work full time in clay when, during band practice, I found myself thinking about what I wanted to be making in the studio. It was, admittedly, quite a meager living at first; but one could live cheaply in those days,
and I was too stubborn to do anything I didn't want to do-like get a job. Though I started out making a lot of functional ware, I never had the temperament to become a production potter. My work has always included sculpture, large decorative pots and architectural pieces, such as towel racks and candle sconces.

For nine years, the main venue for marketing my work was an artists' cooperative gallery. I hated craft fairs and rarely did well at them; nor did I like the hassles inherent in consigning my work to out-of-state galleries. The coop allowed me to show whatever I wanted and put customers directly in touch with me, unlike regular galleries. Many years after leaving the co-op, I find that a large percentage of my business still comes from designers and customers I met there.
Several times over the years when poverty seemed imminent, friends helped me gather the names of shops, designers, architects, design showrooms and private clients, then I'd go off to some distant city with my truck full of work. These trips were always successful. On one such trip to Los Angeles in 1984, I happened upon Brian Flynn Associates' tile showroom in the Pacific Design Center, which represents both commercial and handmade tile makers. I began to show with them and soon found that tile showrooms could generate more commissions than galleries.

Back then, not many showrooms considered working with artists. Perhaps there were not as many ceramics artists working in tile then. But there are hundreds of us throughout the country now, and this has helped to create a market for our work. Tile showrooms are actively looking for exciting handmade tile to show their clients.
Presently, my best showroom is local: Counterpoint Tile in Santa Fe. It's important (and easier) to develop a relationship with local outlets. I believe that if showroom salespeople know me and understand my work, they are more comfortable selling it. Also, clients gravitate toward buying from local craftspeople. Probably about two-thirds of my commissions are local.

A trip to Europe in 1981 was a profound catalyst for change in my work. I saw Victorian decorative relief tiles used profusely on buildings in England, Moorish geometric mosaics in Spain and Morocco, Gaudi's shard mosaics in Barcelona and the pictorial reliefs of the Della Robbias in Italy. Each of these styles influenced my designs for various projects in the ensuing years.

By the mid 1980s, I found that one-of-a-kind tile installations were my most enjoyable, satisfying and lucrative pieces. I decided to phase out most of the other work I was doing. In addition to commissions, I presently produce extruded tile trim and simple raku bowls made in collaboration with my friend Amber Archer. I also make a line of press molded tiles that were originally developed for specific commissions.

I like commission work for many reasons. Mostly, I find it thrilling to see my work permanently installed in buildings, and I prefer working large. The mechanical and aesthetic problem-solving involved in installation work is challenging. Also, I'm happy knowing that a piece is sold before I start.

A commission starts when a client sees my work in a showroom, an installation or in my brochure. I keep color prints of my installations on hand, and send photos appropriate to each specific request, along with pricing and ordering information. After discussing the area to be tiled, the type of design wanted and taking fairly accurate measurements, I quote a price to the clients and let them know my terms. If they wish to continue, I do a scale rendering. Should they not want to continue after they see the drawing, they are charged $25 per hour for my time. I require a 50% deposit before I start a project. My wholesale prices start at $100 per square foot and go up, depending upon the complexity of the piece.

I don't always get to do the designs I would choose, but I usually have a lot of freedom within the constraints of each job. Sometimes clients' requests take my work to places I wasn't expecting; for example, they might have me juxtapose colors I wouldn't normally have put together. I find that exciting. I've been fortunate over the years to have had many clients who were brave enough to challenge me to do a piece unlike any I'd done before, instead of asking me to repeat what they'd seen. Once the design is accepted, my first task on any project is to take the final measurements, then to calculate pre-shrinkage measurements. I often work from blueprints, but prefer to take measurements myself whenever possible. I make cardboard templates of any curved surfaces and paper templates of any arches. I then draw a full-size cartoon on newsprint (roll ends purchased from a local newspaper publisher). The design is transferred to clay slabs by laying the cartoon on the clay and tracing over it with a pencil. Many jobs require plaster press molds to be made and special dies to be cut for extruded borders. Others require me to build forms to bend tiles over.

I usually brush damp tiles with slips made by watering down my clay body, and adding stains and a little frit. After bisque firing, I brush and spray a combination of commercial glazes and my transparent base glaze with stain additions. Most of my work is raku fired. I have been doing raku installations, including bathroom sinks, since 1979. I warn my clients beforehand that raku is delicate and not suited to all uses, but I have had no reports of a piece not holding up. I also have installed a raku sink in my own house to see how it wears.

The client is required to hire a professional tile setter. My time assisting the tile setter during installation is included in the original quote. I send detailed instructions with any work sent out of town. All of my tiles are numbered. For complex out-of-town installations, I travel to the site and assess my travel expenses separately.

I generally work in my studio five days a week, up to ten hours a day. I love my work and look forward to Monday mornings, but dislike those times when I am too busy and 1 have to work nights and weekends. My work and attitude suffer if I don't have time to hike, dance, travel and read.

I have two part-time assistants and cherish my few hours a week alone in the studio. Once I had three assistants and found I was becoming a ceramics administrator. I prefer to have my hands in clay. My assistants press mold, apply slips on repeating tiles, extrude trim, mix and spray glazes, and roll out slabs. This frees me to do the things I enjoy most: designing and laying out one-ofa-kind pieces, making molds and forms, firing kilns and organizing the flow of work through the studio.

I tend to worry more about being too busy than too slow. Watching friends' businesses grow big, I've noticed their stress levels grow too. For this reason I am always assessing how my business is going, and trying to make sure that it dovetails well with my life and my goals.