A New Age of Architectural Tile: 5 Tile Designers to Watch

Many of the techniques still used by artists today can be traced back to the architectural tiles of Ancient Egypt, Asia and Mesopotamia. Like other art forms, architectural tiles offer insight into societies all around the world and all throughout history. Terry Bloxham explains in her introduction for The Tile Book – a text published by the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2019. Bloxham writes that “the story of tiles is inseparable from the history of place, politics, economics and culture.” The shapes of architectural tiles might reflect a society’s religion. Colors might reflect its natural resources. Motifs might reflect its cultural practices. Thousands of years after the first hand-crafted tiles, many modern architectural designers continue to draw inspiration from ancient techniques, organic colors and historical motifs. In this post, we identify five architectural tile designers to watch. From Marianne Smink to Alex Proba, follow below to learn all about the artists ushering in a new age of architectural tile. To take a trip through time, check out the V&A’s tile collection online here.

Five Architectural Tile Designers and Studios to Watch

#1 Marianne Smink

Originally a fashion designer, Marianne Smink now designs and hand-makes unique ceramic tiles at her studio in Portugal. She began experimenting with tile design at a local studio – where she screen-printed raw clay. Today, Smink draws inspiration from Japanese artisans and Dutch architecture from the early and mid-20th centuries.

In the 2020 feature “The Smink Tile Effect," Alden Miller Interiors interviewed Marianne Smink. They described her bespoke architectural tiles as either “screen printed individually or made in a relief style where shapes are pressed into the tile.” A single tile might not tell a story on its own. It is but one piece in a puzzle. Instead, Smink tells AMI that she loves "'the way individual tiles come together to create a layout.’”

Indeed, many of Smink’s tile designs resemble fractals – making them perfect for arranging and rearranging into endless compositions. Soft washes of color and ever-so-slightly imperfect shapes make Smink’s tiles incredibly versatile. One of our favorite new designs from Smink Studio is their After Lowry Relief Tile – pictured above. Like a sundial, Smink’s relief tiles cast shadows in different directions as the hours pass and light fades.

#2 Stan Bitters

Stan Bitters is an established name in sculpture, tile design and ceramic art. At 86 years old, the California artist remains one of America's most respected Modernist sculptors. Organic, raw and highly textural, his work is still sought after by designers, architects and collectors.

As Lila Allen put it in a 2018 article for Metropolis Magazine, Stan Bitters is "a ceramicist of a different breed." With his "physical," "visceral" and almost "primal" approach to handling clay, Bitters "helped define an expressive, even carnal side of modern Californian clayware."

The California-based architectural tile company Heath Ceramics -- which was founded by Edith Heath in 1948 -- collaborated with Bitter several years ago. Tiles designed by Stan Bitters for Heath are described as "tactile" and "dimensional."

Crafted by striking clay with wooden sticks, these hand-hewn tiles were designed to replicate Bitters' "monumental ceramic murals" at a smaller scale. Heath recently updated the Stan Bitters tile collection with a new series of glazes. These include Mid-Century White, Museum Black, Modern Blue and Barley. Original glazes like Redwood and Soapstone are still available through Heath. Find the entire collection here.

#3 Elisa Passino

Next on our list is Elisa Passino -- an Italian textile, fashion, graphic and tile designer. Passino launched her first tile collection -- which was inspired by Portugal's centuries-old Azulejos technique -- back in 2019. Elisa Passino founded her studio around this time as well.

What Are Azulejo Tiles?

For those unfamiliar with the tradition, Nina Santos explains in her article "A Brief History of Portugal's Beautiful Azulejo Tiles" for Culture Trip. Santos writes that "azulejos date as far back as the 13th century, when the Moors invaded [what is now] Spain and Portugal." The word was originally Arabic for "'small polished stone.'"

According to Santos, the first azulejos tiles were "fairly simple structures cut into geometric shapes in neutral tones." Eventually, these blue, white, yellow and green geometric shapes "were replaced by more ornate decoration." Centuries later, azulejos remain popular across the globe as both exterior and interior decoration.

Elisa Passino Studio Tile Collections We Love

Handmade tiles from Passino's most recent collections take inspiration from Portuguese azulejos but also recall mid-century modern design and Bauhaus architecture. Her Geometrie Componibili collection is an excellent example. In an interview with Modern in Denver's Elizabeth Liberatore, Passino described the goal for this collection.

Looking to Modernist architects like Le Corbusier and Luis Barragán, Passino hoped to "'transpose the traditional azulejo into something contemporary and eclectic.'" Geometrie Componibili collection of screen-printed tiles won Interior Design Magazine's "Best of the Year Award" for architectural tiles in 2020.

One of our favorites collections by Passino was created during the COVID-19 pandemic. Passino's Souvenirs d’été collection of terracotta tiles is serene and soothing. Combining joyful colors with whimsical shapes, each tile from the Souvenirs d’été collection is named for a different coastal destination. From Cancun and Crete to Bali and Belize, Passino's newest collection evokes all the joys of summer.

#4 Alex Proba

Well-traveled German artist Alex Proba -- founder of Studio Proba -- has designed everything from AR apps and NFTs to painted murals and concrete tiles. As Leilah Stone put it in an article for Metropolis, "no surface is off limits for [Alex Proba's] designs and patterns."

Proba agrees, noting she has "'a bucket list of projects [she] really wants to do at some point...but they’re all over the place.'" Her work has graced Louis Vuitton window displays, the swimming pool floors and gallery walls.

In many ways, the colors and shapes of her latest collaboration with Concrete Collaborative recall the work of French Fauvist painter Henri Matisse. However, Proba points to a recent trip to Morocco as her primary inspiration for her Aurora Collection. Concrete Collaborative recommends mixing and matching different tiles "for a fun and playful work of art for your shower, backsplash or floor moment." The Collective actually installed Proba's tiles in the bathroom of their New York office.

#5 Mercedes Austin

Trained in Italy, artist Mercedes Austin founded her Minneapolis-based tile studio Mercury Mosaics back in 2002. The Mercury Mosaics factory opened in 2017 after fifteen years of success in the industry. Today, the company boasts thirty different artists and artisans who craft hand-painted tile at Austin's direction.

In an article for The Growler, Morgan Mercer notes that "Mercury Mosaics is one of the only handmade tile companies...that creates custom mosaics." Over the last twenty years, their work has been featured in the pages of many national publications. It has also graced the walls of airports, restaurants and more. Though based in the Midwest, tiles crafted by Mercury Mosaics can be found in residential and commercial spaces all over the country.

In an interview with Midwest Home's Anna Bjorlin back in 2020, Austin describes her studio's approach to tile design. According to Austin, her handmade tiles are special because artisans "hand-brush the color on, so no two tiles have the same color."

But what makes Mercury Mosaics tile truly unique is the "maker's mark" borne by each piece. Austin tells Bjorlin that "'you might find...a fingerprint, a little divot, a pressed-in corner.'" Each of these marks is a sign that "'an actual artisan took time to bring that piece of tile to life.'"

Other Tile Designers to Follow

Looking for more inspiration? Check out architectural tiles designed by Michelle Aaro, Gemma Lofthouse, Allison Eden, Megan Coleman, Nawal Motawi, Michael Pratt and Reta Larson.