The recipe: Mix clay and water. Then shape, dry and fire.
Making tile sounds as simple as baking a mud pie. But in the hands of a master, the results are original, sought-after works of art.
Paul Burns, founder and chief ceramicist at the Bay Area's Fireclay Tile ever since the company was launched in 1986, started working in this field at age 10. He spent Saturdays and summers learning the skills from his uncle, Ross Chichester, owner of San Jose's Stonelight Tile. By age 15, clients were asking for Paul to help craft their custom orders.
"I've always liked ... turning raw materials into beautiful things," says Burns, who'd spent some time trying to develop and market men's work pants before settling on tile-making as a career, and starting up Fireclay in San Jose with three partners.
"I was working with fabric, rather than clay, at the time, but I realized it was the process (of creating things) that I liked most of all," he says.
As a tilemaker, Burns' biology and botany studies at UC Berkeley have paid off. Eager from the start to incorporate recycled materials in his products, he has created innovative lines such as Fireclay's Debris Series, which contains recycled granite dust, glass and porcelain (as in toilets). The tile in this line is made up of more than 70 percent recycled materials.
Burns' Berkeley studies also have helped him create glazes of unusual depth and beauty. That's part of the reason Fireclay tile has been chosen for such high-profile projects as the new World Trade Center building in New York. They also can be seen at Google headquarters in Mountain View and various Whole Foods stores, among many other locations.
The company's field tiles are available in made-to-order options as well as 100 standard patterns and 60 standard colors. Fireclay also offers elaborately painted tiles, such as its state-of-the-art Cuerda Seca line, made with recycled materials and colored with lead-free glazes in patterns inspired by 15th-century Spanish and Persian tiles.
Burns says, "Cuerda Seca-style tiles ... were frequently used in traditional buildings throughout California (and) in buildings around Stanford, in San Francisco's Marina district, downtown Oakland (and) renovations of Spanish Colonial style homes."
In addition to its lines with traditional looks, Fireclay has commissioned one for contemporary applications. Created by Austin-based designer Kelly LaPlante, the shapes and patterns of this line incorporate a variety of fashion motifs.
"I studied silhouettes and patterns that showed up throughout history, says LaPlante. "For example, a houndstooth pattern shows up in medieval pageboy caps, as well as contemporary handbags. So I designed my 'Cravate' tile to replicate a traditional houndstooth."
For her Chain Homme series, LaPlante selected the interlocking H pattern after noticing it on the watchband of a TSA officer while traveling. For the lobby of the newly renovated Bancroft Hotel in Berkeley, she used three shades of green Chain Homme tiles.
She initially came to Fireclay's attention because she was a frequent customer, who ordered tile with unusual shapes and uncommon glaze colors. She says, "I'm all about using sustainable materials, and Fireclay was doing that in really beautiful colors, rather than the boring beige you saw in early 'green' design. ... I knew that my clients wanted bolder options."
In addition to Fireclay's innovative lines, Burns says he is also proud of its "rectified" tiles, which combine the quality handmade pieces with the consistent sizing and edges of non-custom tile, he explains.
Fireclay's products are made in its San Jose headquarters on West Julian Street, near the SAP Center, and its factory in Aromas, some 40 miles to the south. Fireclay also makes glass tile and thin glazed bricks, the latter in cooperation with McNear Brick & Block in San Rafael.
Later this year, Fireclay will move from the San Francisco location it has occupied on Rhode Island Street since January to a larger showroom. But even with the new location and lines, company CEO Eric Edelson says, "Fireclay Tile has been, and will continue to be, about offering a great handmade tile using sustainable materials in the sizes, shapes and colors our customers ask for. The options are infinite."
Burns says, "We're not just about manufacturing a product; we really want to give people something that's made just for them."
annual 'Boneyard' sale at Fireclay Tile
What: At this event, the company offers first-quality tiles and trim from overruns and canceled orders, as well as some second-quality items and shards of broken tile for use by crafters. Normally priced at $20 or more per square foot, the materials are reduced to about $10 per square foot. Quantities are limited, but in most patterns you will find enough for a backsplash or other small project. And if you don't mind some mixing and matching, you may find enough for a larger project. The items are piled on tables and in boxes. Bring your project's measurements, and dress for getting dusty. Put some boxes in the car for hauling home your choices.
When: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sept. 7
Where: Fireclay Tile, 495 W. Julian St., San Jose
Information: 408-275-1182, www.fireclaytile.com