If there’s one distinguishing characteristic of Southern California architecture — one thing that can tie together the Mission Revival, Mediterranean, Craftsman and even Baroque styles that you’ll find throughout the area – it’s our tile.
You can thank our natural, rich clay deposits for that. It’s a native art form that arose from the earth itself.
Beyond just the terracotta roofs of Spanish Colonial buildings (which became so hugely popular after the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-1917), more than 40 companies produced a far more decorative style of tile between 1910 and 1940.
The tidal wave of tile swept through Southern California in the early 20th century, when the local craft captured the imaginations of architects, interior designers and homeowners alike.
The advent of World War II and the subsequent rise of Modernism may have put the brakes on the widespread use of these tiles, but the works these pioneers left behind continue to ignite the passions of preservationists, as well as those who inherit historic homes or simply love a good treasure hunt for historical ceramic decorations.
There are too many tile-tastic places in Southern California to list them all here, but you can narrow down your choices by following the paths of these five great tile makers. Using this as your guide, you can explore the legacy of the California tile industry that was hewn from the very geology hiding underfoot to the craftsmen who are carrying on the tradition in more modern ways.
1. Malibu Potteries, Malibu and beyond
Malibu Tile is the stuff of legend in the world of Southern California ceramics, even though Malibu Potteries had only been in operation for a handful of years before it burned down — squarely during the heyday of California's decorative tile manufacturing. And on the beach by the Malibu Lagoon, at the mouth of Malibu Creek, there stands a stellar showcase for Malibu Tile: the Adamson House. Designed at the behest of Malibu Potteries founder May Knight Rindge, with a number of Moorish influences in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, the house features tile work in every style that was offered by Malibu Potteries at the time. That includes the distinctive cuerda seca (which involves outlining the colors in black so they don’t run, a technique also seen in art of the Islamic world) and the cuenca method of depressing the pattern into the clay so the colors would sink in and not run into each other (also seen in Spanish tile). And incredibly, the only tiles that really show any wear and tear (despite many of them exposed to constant sunlight and moist air conditions) are those on the kitchen floor, presumably because of heavy foot traffic. May built the Adamson house as a vacation home for her daughter and son-in-law, but you can see where May herself lived by heading up the hill across PCH to Serra Retreat. May never got to finish her “dream home,” though, and this "citadel by the sea" (upon what used to be known as "Laudamus Hill") was sold to the Franciscan friars in 1942, the year following May's death. Much of what’s there now isn’t original and was rebuilt after the 1970 Malibu Canyon wildfire. But fortunately, some Malibu Tile was rescued and preserved. Although the original factory burned down more than 80 years ago, the Malibu Tile legacy is being honored by several modern tile manufacturers – like Malibu Ceramic Works and Native Tile & Ceramics.
2. Batchelder Tile – Pasadena, Downtown L.A. and beyond
You can’t talk about California pottery and ceramic tile without name-checking Ernest Batchelder. The tile maker lived in a 1910 Craftsman bungalow along the Arroyo Seco, where he built his first kiln and installed many of his tile works — fountains, pavers, a chimney — right on his own property. And his was one of dozens of potteries along the Arroyo, though his name probably has the most celebrity associated with it. While his tile can be found scattered throughout Pasadena (including as part of the fireplace and fountain at Pasadena Playhouse), among his most celebrated works are the Dutch Chocolate Shoppe (1914) and the Fine Arts Building (1925), both in Downtown Los Angeles. The interior of the Dutch Chocolate Shoppe is absolutely covered in chocolate-colored tile murals, but all those Dutch boys and girls and all those windmills and other Dutch scenery had been hidden behind the walls of an antique store for decades. Since its re-discovery, it’s been open only occasionally during Art Walk and for private tour groups. The Fine Arts Building, on the other hand, is publicly accessible pretty much any time of day or night — as long as you stay within eyeshot of the security guard in the lobby of this 12-story, Romanesque Revival palace. Rotating art exhibits in the display cases range from neon art to watercolors to mixed media — with frequent opening and closing receptions, also during Art Walk. Look for the terra-cotta faces of humans and gargoyles that loom above its 7th Street entrance. And since original Batchelder tiles are hard to come by, highly collectible and pricey to boot, there are reproductions faithfully produced in the same muted, earthy hues and matte glazes by Revival Arts Studio, Heritage Tile and Pasadena Craftsman Tile.
3. Catalina Pottery – Avalon and beyond
With chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. at the helm, the Santa Catalina Island Company didn’t miss a beat in its operation of the island. Among its subsidiaries was Catalina Clay Products, which used local red clay to produce building materials (like brick) as well as pottery that was both functional and decorative (some of which could be bought as souvenirs). The designs of the time became synonymous with the “Early California” theme of the tourist town. The tile-making business on the island started in 1930 and kept the island going through the Great Depression. But in 1937, it was sold lock, stock and barrel to one of the “Big 5” California potteries, Gladding, McBean & Co., which moved all of its operations to its Glendale plant (now closed) but only continued to manufacture Catalina tile until 1942. Some of the most historic destinations for the glazed, decorative tiles on the island include the Catalina Casino and the monument at the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden in Avalon Canyon. Look for telltale colors with fanciful names like “Catalina Blue,” “Descanso Green” and “Toyon Red.” Much of what you can see now when you visit Avalon today, however, is a reproduction — and locally-based Silver Canyon Pottery provides the opportunity to not only tour the historic tile displays of Downtown Avalon but also to visit their present-day factory and even learn how to make tiles of your own. New tiles are constantly being added to Avalon’s public spaces as well, like the “Sombrero Fountain” at Avalon Bay.
4. California China Products Company, San Diego and beyond
The National City-based California China Products Company wasn’t one of the “Big 5” producers of tile in California, and it wasn’t even the biggest or best-known of the tile makers in Southern California. But its rightful place in the treasure trove of tile history is right at the beginning — at the Panama-California Exposition, after which Southern Californians went “tile-crazy” with the building boom of the pre-Depression 1920s. And at the heart of the new movement was the California Building and Tower in the California Quadrangle (Plaza de California) of the Expo (now the Museum of Man in Balboa Park), whose 60-foot dome featured a bright and saturated tile design. Although inspired by the Church of Santa Prisca y San Sebastian in Taxco, Mexico, the tiles were fired locally by California China Products Company, the nation’s first tile factory to mass-produce such colorful tiles using ancient techniques. The largest of three domes, it feels both distinctly Mexican and Moorish — and it’s just a sample of the over 10,000 pieces of tile in this style that CCPCo contributed to the construction of the Exposition grounds. In many ways, CCPCo set the standard for the tile makers of the future — in no small part due to the fact that this is where tile pioneer Rufus Keeler got his start, before founding his own California Clay Products Company (a.k.a. CalCo) in South Gate and before co-founding Malibu Potteries with May K. Rindge. In addition to the former Expo grounds at Balboa Park, you can also see CCPCo’s tile work in the main passenger waiting room of the Santa Fe Railway Depot in San Diego, built in 1914 to complement the architectural scheme of the coming Expo.
5. Arto Brick, Los Angeles and beyond
You may have never heard of the company Arto Brick before, but you’ve likely seen its work. Be it the tile restoration at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel or the Spring Street-facing courtyard of Los Angeles City Hall, the Ace Hotel or the aboveground pavilion entrance to the Mariachi Plaza subway station in Boyle Heights, the company's original and reproduction tiles may have gone largely unnoticed. After all, there are so many other tile makers from Southern California whose names have big marquee value — but Arto has been both designing and handcrafting bricks, cladding, wall tile and pavers for over 50 years now and without the celebrity status. Its current owners and operators are the sons of the namesake and founder of the company, Arto Alajian, born and raised in Egypt as a child refugee from the Armenian Genocide. Although Arto the man passed away in 2014, the factory is alive and well in Gardena — and available for free, monthly public tours! When you visit the manufacturing facility, you can see newly-fired floor tiles (like those used in the restoration of the Roosevelt) drying in the sun, in both the "Mission Red" and "Cotto Gold" colors. They may look like terra cotta, but the energy crisis in the 1970s forced the company to switch over from natural clay to concrete (and, eventually, cement) — which they somehow manage to give an "old world" look. In fact, just like real clay, travertine or limestone, the concrete and cement bricks and tiles evolve over time — developing a patina that will supposedly "enhance the character of the material" and serve as "a record of the life around it." The company’s artistry is even more evident, however, in the "deco" tiles that its design division, Arto Tile Studio, has been producing — reviving that classic "California" look of vintage, decorative tile. During your visit, you can watch Arto’s artists literally paint every piece by hand.
Bonus: If you want to become your own tile detective, the Tile Heritage Foundation can help you identify the origin of pretty much any tile you find, based on as little as a photo. And if its experts don’t know, they’ll forward the request to others who might. If you don’t happen to already have any historical tile installed at your home or office, you can start your collection by visiting Wells Tile & Antiques in Westlake.