The history of decorative tiles is an extensive one, one that is marked by periods of waning and revived interest. Roof tiles have been around for many thousands of years, used in places such as Egypt and Ancient Greece for decorative and functional purposes. Tiles for a purely decorative and aesthetic purpose date back many thousands of years, back to at least the 13th century BC where they were used to design beautiful pieces of art in Assyria, Ancient Mesopotamia, Babylon, Persopolis and ancient Sri Lanka. However, these decorative practices weren’t widespread and mostly confined to grand projects and decoration of prominent and important buildings.
In Rome, small tiles of differing materials were used in the construction of large, decorative mosaics. This technique was pioneered by the Greeks who also utilised the technique to create beautiful scenes and pictures. In the 5th century, with the growth of the Byzantine Empire, the Roman and Eastern techniques were combined to create breathtaking pieces of art. Tiles, however, remained relatively unknown in the West. In the East, in areas such as Tunisia and Iran, tiles were used for decorative purposes. They were often used in mosques, displaying Koranic and Kufic inscriptions on vivid tiles.
From the 10th century onwards, tiles became more common in Western Europe, with large masterpieces being created from them. However, they were extremely expensive, which limited them to only the wealthiest properties and churches. Decorative tiling experienced a new surge in popularity when Moorish invaders, in Islamic Spain, brought along their techniques. These tiles and techniques spread throughout Europe, especially throughout the 16th century, used in palaces and mosques. Hand painted and decorated tiles especially came into vogue as trade opened up around the world in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 17th century, the United Dutch East India Company imported Chinese porcelain which brought tiles into the limelight as everyone desired this hardy and beautiful material. Inspired by this, Dutch artisans in the town of Delft created Delftware, a superior and equally beautiful product which could be decorated to a high standard. These tiles were incredibly popular, being shipped around the world.
It was during the Victorian era that tiles experienced a resurgence of popularity due to the fact that they could now be mass-manufactured as the industrial revolution began to pick up steam. This era also brought back the method of encaustic engraving on a mass scale, allowing for practically every building to benefit from these strong and strikingly decorated tiles. Around this time, decorated wall and floor tiles came into general use, though wealthier families could also benefit from tiles which were hand-decorated.
Today, most tiles are mass-manufactured and readily available to the public without them being prohibitively expensive. Glazed tiles have come into common use, being used in kitchens and bathrooms thanks in part to their durability. Though bespoke, handmade tiles remain a more expensive option due to the craft that goes into them, they are still available to buy. There are many options including ceramic, glass, metal and brick tiles and different materials are often combined to create unique looks. Today, tiles can decorate everything from walls to floors and can be used more extensively than their forebears.