Encaustic Tile Dazzles With Color, Pattern

A Park Slope bathroom by Elizabeth Roberts Design and MADE Architecture. Photo by Ensemble Architecture

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    Renovator’s Toolbox explores the materials, techniques and trends you need to know.

    A pop of color, a play of pattern. Ever notice the exotic-looking colorful tile in old brownstone entries and wonder what it is?

    It’s called encaustic tile, and it’s been around since medieval times when builders used it for church floors. Today, designers are reviving it for creative kitchens and baths.

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    Brand-new clay encaustic tiles identical to Victorian ones cover an entry floor. Photo by Craven Dunnill Jackfield Ltd.

    It looks different from other tile because it’s not glazed. Instead, encaustic tile is pigmented all the way through. If you break, say, a solid blue tile in half, it will be blue on the inside. Ordinary tile, by contrast, has all its color and pattern on the surface — in the glaze.

    Encaustic tile can be made of fired clay or compressed layers of concrete and cement. The more intricate patterns are inlaid, or “encaustic” — hence the name. An artisan presses a pattern into a tile with a mold, then fills in the shapes with cement or clay in contrasting colors.

    Encaustic tile is durable, which is why medieval monks and Victorians used it for floors. Lately, architects and designers have been using it for backsplashes and accent walls in kitchens, baths and living rooms.

    A highly geometric tile, its patterns are created from the shapes, colors, and inlaid designs of the tile. The effect can be intense or subdued, traditional, rustic or modern.

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    This Clinton Hill brownstone has cement tile from Clé in the entry way. Photo by Ty Cole via Design Sponge

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