The Enduring Artistry of Vintage Tiles

Posted inDesign Culture

In Gardena, CA, just 45 minutes outside of Los Angeles (traffic depending, of course), there’s a large building just off the freeway that’s painted bright purple. “B&W Tile” emblazons the facade in large black letters, beckoning all manner of builders, contractors, and DIY crafters. 

This is B&W Tile Co., a family owned, full-service tile factory that’s operated since 1947. Inside you’ll find a team of 15 buzzing about a gleaming showroom, displaying tiles of the same colors and styles that they’ve been manufacturing for decades, in an effort to keep this old-world art form alive. 

Just beyond the showroom is where the magic happens— a clay-caked world of kilns and other gargantuan machinery that work in tandem to make each and every tile from start to finish.

I asked the factory’s head of operations, Alex Vassaux, why he thinks B&W Tile has managed to endure for so long, while other businesses of the sort have come and gone. “Mostly because of the passion and dedication of the employees,” he says. “We take pride in creating and keeping alive such historical craftsmanship.” This craftsmanship entails making the tile bisque and glazes from scratch. “Most of these are all done by our personnel,” he says, “even though we use certain machinery and equipment, none of these are automated or computerized. Everything we do is controlled and operated by one or more staff members.”

Despite its impressive longevity, any 70-year-old business has inevitably faced its fair share of struggles. Last year, a factory fire destroyed critical equipment, and their business is still recovering from the setbacks. “It’s really challenging times,” says Vassaux. “But we are positive and focused on the end game.” 

Much like their tiles, B&W Tile has proven durable and persistent in the face of destruction. The factory now runs six days a week to make up for the longer timelines that resulted from the damaged machinery they haven’t been able to replace yet. “Our production deadlines have doubled due to the fire. But we’re looking forward to our new kilns arriving in the next three months and getting back to some kind of norm.” 

While B&W Tile’s dedication to original tile traditions sets it apart from other modern-day manufacturers, they’re not alone in their mission to preserve the trade. There’s been a notable resurgence of dedication and passion for vintage tiles and their preservation over the last few years, fueled by online communities across social media with core members such as Instagram account @vintagebathroomlove.

The curator of the account (who prefers to remain nameless), does so without having any formal or professional ties to the tile industry. They simply do so out of a genuine, unadulterated appreciation for the look of vintage tiles. Their posts of tiled rooms in homes throughout the US come across as a thoughtfully assembled visual love letter to traditional tiling.

“My love for vintage tile probably started in my mid-20s, searching for apartments,” they tell me. “I remember getting a studio apartment in a beautiful Spanish courtyard complex. The bathroom had original hex mosaic floor tile, an original pedestal sink, and an original tub. It was a very modest tile job, but nevertheless, I was hooked. Even at that time, I was amazed that something could be so neglected and still be in such great shape.”

Vintage Bathroom Love views tiles as an accessible form of art that adds beauty to everyday life. “It’s art that is functional, approachable, and relatively affordable to the average person,” they say. “For me, when I see one of these elaborate tiled bathrooms, it feels like I’m looking at a museum-quality piece of art. These tile setters were true artists, their medium was tile.”

When asked about the recent reignition of appreciation for vintage tiles, Vintage Bathroom Love credits the visual nature of platforms like Instagram, which are particularly suited to uplift bright, eye-catching imagery. “Colored tile works perfect for this medium, as it’s very visual and pops. The more colorful and extreme, the better,” they say. “When you look at an all-white marble bathroom on Instagram, it comes across flat and boring (and they are!). Instagram has changed the way we look at the world. It emphasizes color pop and celebrates the unique, which is great. This perspective started as more fringe, but it’s slowly starting to permeate our broader design culture. In the past six months, I’ve seen a Geico commercial set in a vintage bathroom with the vintage sink as a character, and a Target ad pamphlet showcasing their bathroom accessories amongst a colored vintage sink and tub. This is all very new and exciting.”

The nostalgia baked into the look and feel of tiles is undoubtedly another reason for their rise in popularity. “No matter what generation you are, you can always appreciate classic,” says Vassaux. Vintage Bathroom Love adds that we often seek refuge in elements from the past when modern life gets rocky. “We’re living in very challenging times on multiple fronts,” they say. “When times are tough, people seem to gravitate towards the familiar. I would say a majority of people grew up in homes with colored tile, a design feature that they look back upon fondly. So it’s not surprising that, when thinking of their own homes or spaces, they look to the past.”