For the Museum Store, L’Esperance Tile was commissioned to craft two custom tiles inspired by the J. & J. G. Low Art Tile Works tiles found in the Driehaus Museum—which, with their embossed natural details, jewel-toned colors, and sheen, are among the most stunning surviving elements of the this 1883 mansion.
The founder of L’Esperance, Linda Ellett, is based on the East Coast, not far from where Samuel and Mathilda Nickerson were originally from before moving to Chicago (in fact, as coincidence would have it, during the course of preparing this blog post we discovered a few degrees of separation—Ellett’s sister’s husband’s family is related to the Nickersons). She has been creating reproduction Victorian-era tiles since 1979, and among her favorite tile designers of the era are John and John G. Low, who formed a father and son partnership based in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1877. She had never visited the Driehaus Museum before we got in touch, but was delighted to hear about the Low tile adorning the walls and fireplaces of the Nickerson Mansion.
In addition to offering L’Esperance’s hand-crafted magnets and ornaments inspired by Low designs in other houses of the period, we invited Linda to create two larger tiles for the Museum Store based exclusively on the Nickerson Mansion.
The first is the abstract patterned tile used for the brilliant sky blue wall fill in the Moorish-inspired Smoking Room (#423 in the Lows’ 1881-82 catalogue above), scaled down for household use as a coaster. The next was an abstract daisy pattern taken from the fireplace hearth in Mrs. Nickerson’s bedroom.
Ellett has been kind enough to share with us about her process in creating these, lending behind-the-scenes photos as well. I’ll let her take it from here.
“Creating Reproduction Tiles for the Driehaus Museum,” by Linda Ellett
Although we make many different styles of tile, those of the Victorian era are especially beautiful. I love the beauty of the glossy transparent glazes, and how the modeler was able to use glazes to create more depth and fine detail in the carvings. I aspire to the talents of the Lows’ chief modeler, Arthur Osbourne.
There are definitely some differences between tile-making in the late 19th century and today. The Lows’ factory was the size of a football field, had to process their own raw materials (from grinding quartz rocks and other minerals with large stones, to sieving and mixing it), and they used a large screw press instead of the automated ones we have today. But these processes all come to the same end—making beautiful tile!
First, I like to have a loose tile to work with, since being able to see and touch it is the best way to get a sense of the relief and detailing. But because the ceramic tiles are intact and on display within the Driehaus Museum, that wasn’t an option! So I used photographs, which I put into Photoshop and increased the size by 11 percent (to account for the shrinkage of the claybody after it’s pressed, dried, and fired). Then I printed the image to use as a guide for my wax carving.
My carving area is the most creative and challenging area in the studio. I need a nice, clean canvas of wax to carve the design into. I melt wax from old and partially-melted candles that my mother gets from her church (I call it my “holy wax!”). I also add a red candle—I’ve discovered that a light “emberglow” is easiest on my eyes as I carve. Then I pour the wax into an enamel pan with an extremely smooth surface. Once cooled, the wax will pop out of the pan—a wonderful blank page inviting me to carve into it.
I lay the image on the blank wax, secure it with tape, and begin to trace the edges and details using a ballpoint pen and firm pressure. I use the marks as a starting point for carving out the details. Using the photo as my guide, I start to cut the depth and details of the drawing, using small, curved tools of varying sizes.
Next I need to create a plaster mold from this carving, making a negative image of the design. Then I’m ready to press the tiles into wet clay. The slabs of clay are extruded, then cut into squares for pressing with our handpress. Then the tiles go into a drying cabinet, where they can dry slowly without warping or cracking. Then comes the first firing, called bisque firing.
After the tiles are bisqued, I brush the glazes onto the surfaces and edges—so, if they’re used as coasters, trivets, or wall hangings, they’ll be beautiful from every angle. At last they’re fired again in the glaze firing.
It’s always satisfying to re-create a bit of history, and at the end, I find myself hoping that what I’ve made reflects the beauty of the original maker’s intent.