By Megan Beauchamp with House Beautiful
As anyone who follows us on Instagram can attest, patterned tile is in. Take, for instance, the stunning backsplash showcased in our kitchen of the month, the graphic bathroom floor featured in the black-and-white bathroom of our dreams, and the Moroccan-inspired tiled fireplace that’s so gorgeous we’re actually hoping for a late spring.
Whether you prefer intricate motifs or minimalist designs, there’s no denying it: bold, patterned tile is on the rise. But not just any type of patterned tile—encaustic tile. Made using multiple colors of clay in a process that dates back to medieval times, the old-school trend is having a moment right now.
Boasting intricate patterns that appear inlaid, encaustic tiles are made up of at least two (and up to six) colors of clay that comprise both the design and the body of the tile. So, unlike glazed patterns, which sit on the surface, encaustic patterns are essential to the makeup of the ceramics and won’t wear off over time. While encaustic tile has been popular for a while in Europe, the method is now becoming more of a trend in the States, thanks to advances in technology that have made the tiles easier to produce.
To find out how encaustic tile is made, we turned to none other than Chris Clamp, co-founder of Cement Tile Shop, a go-to source for popular interior designers like Emily Henderson and Shea McGee. Encaustic tile is traditionally made from clay, but today, most modern versions of the tile are made using cement and are often referred to simply as cement tile.
“Cement tile is handmade, entirely of concrete (not painted), in a metal mold and hydraulically pressed,” explains Clamp. “The tile is made upside down in the metal mold, and colors, made of portland cement, powdered marble and natural colorants, are poured into the different sections of the mold to make the pattern,” he continues.
Once the pattern is set, the mold is removed and additional concrete is added to the bottom to give the tile strength, continues Clamp, talking us through the production method. “The tile is then pressed at high pressure in a hydraulic press, and then the compact tile is soaked in water and put on drying racks to cure,” he adds. “In some parts of the world they are called hydraulic tiles.”
According to Clamp, cement tile is gaining popularity due in part to the rise of social media. “It was a previously hard to find product that’s received new exposure,” says the Cement Tile Shop founder. If your Instagram feed is anything like ours, it’s filled with beautiful backsplashes and drop-dead gorgeous floors that can attest to Clamp’s contention. With endless eye-catching color and pattern options, it’s easy to see why encaustic tile is quickly becoming a staple in interior design.
As with any major design decision there are a number of factors to take into account, ranging from aesthetic to durability and price. (You can find our quick guide to shopping for floor tiles here). Clamp touts cement tile’s flexibility, unlimited patterns, and shapes as reasons for opting for the material. “Cement tiles are also eco-friendly,” he adds. “Unlike ceramic tiles, they are not fired in an oven and there is no manufacturing waste.”
Of course, the material also has its cons, as Los Angeles-based interior designer Joyce Downing Pickens of JDP Interiors points out. “Personally, I prefer ceramic tiles for a couple of reasons,” Pickens explains. “Ceramic tile usually has a layer of thick glaze on top after it’s been fired at kiln temperature which creates a much more impervious barrier and protection against spills, water, bath products, you-name-it,” she adds. “Cement tile is cured at room temperature with a much thinner top layer, and therefore, is much more porous.”
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