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TILE ORIGINS. Our eyes are attracted to the rich colors; our fingers delight in stroking the glossy surface; our bare feet are warmed by sun-dappled patio floor. The beauty of fired clay and its seemingly limitless variety has inspired builders for thousands of years, whether artisans who adorned the Egyptian pyramids or designers creating a mural for a skyscraper's lobby. But ancient architects would envy their present-day counterparts. Never have there been more tempting choices, with myriad craftspeople expressing their individual aesthetics in clay.

TILE ORIGINS. Our eyes are attracted to the rich colors; our fingers delight in stroking the glossy surface; our bare feet are warmed by sun-dappled patio floor. The beauty of fired clay and its seemingly limitless variety has inspired builders for thousands of years, whether artisans who adorned the Egyptian pyramids or designers creating a mural for a skyscraper’s lobby. But ancient architects would envy their present-day counterparts. Never have there been more tempting choices, with myriad craftspeople expressing their individual aesthetics in clay.

The history of tile is entwined with the history of civilization. Ancient man discovered that wet clay would dry hard in the sun; then, undoubtedly by accident, he found that when clay was left in smoldering ashes it became harder, more water resistant, and able to tolerate higher temperatures than sun-baked clay. Fired clay tile was in use as a building material before recorded history. The ancient Egyptians used colored glazes more than six thousand years ago and from then on each culture has gloried in the possibilities inherent in the medium. Despite a crack here, crumbled grout there, many of the monuments to the tile artist’s craft are still intact hundreds, even thousands, of years later. Over the centuries tile has covered virtually every type of surface, from the roofs of Chinese temples to the floors of Renaissance cathedrals and the facades if Colonial Mexican buildings. Tile is a democratic material. It is as likely to appear on a peasant’s rough clay floor as it is in an aristocrat’s ballroom. Tile has always been such an integral part of Spanish architecture that a Spanish expression for poverty, “Es tan pobre que no tiene azulejos en su casa,” translates as “to have a house without tile.” Scandinavians treasured their tile stoves, Victorian Brits were partial to ornate tile fireplaces. The elaborately tiled walls of New York City’s subway system added excitement to a new form of mass transportation. Newer work continues to be installed each year, much of it cheerful and fanciful.

The basic formula for making tile has changed little over the centuries, despite technological advances that have sped up the process, and such refinements as the ability to cut tile into almost any shape and produce tiles made of ground-up, recycled glass blended with clay. And in the electronic age, virtual reality has come to the tile showroom in the form of computer design tools that simulate how certain tiles or combinations of tiles would look in an interior.

In addition to tile’s durability, it has the ability to resist heat and corrosion. When designing the space shuttle, NASA scientists selected ceramic tiles for the outer skin, which must withstand the incredible heat generated upon reentry into the atmosphere. As well as being a fire resistant, tile will not emit toxic gases or fumes in a fire. Unlike carpet, wood, fabric, or paint, the color of tile is unaffected by exposure to light; unlike wallpaper, it will not peel. Tile resists dirt, since particles don’t adhere to its surface — routine maintenance usually involves no more than wiping with a damp rag or sponge. Most tiles will not absorb liquids or odors, including smoke, making them hygienic; nor will they retain allergy-inducing elements. Tiles can be repaired. If one tile cracks, it can be chiseled out and replaced. Many tile surfaces are nonporous and resistant to stains, making them ideal for wet places such as baths and entrance halls, and for kitchens, where grease and spills can stress many other surfaces. Tile has high thermal conductivity, meaning it is a good passive-solar collector and an excellent insulator.

Its practical virtues notwithstanding, tile’s beauty and elemental appeal are responsible for its popularity. Tile suggests permanence and quality, and in our current environmental consciousness, its natural qualities are equally attractive. As the years go by, a tile’s glaze may craze or a corner chip, but as the visitor to Portugal or Holland knows, such marks of age only enhance tile’s natural beauty. A decade on the floor of your family room is but a moment in the life of a tile.