Arts & Crafts Fireplaces

By 1908, the reliance on English fireplace tiles had faded. Both American and Canadian markets had looked to American suppliers for their fireplace tiles. Matte finish glazes became popular, and the plainer, ‘Art tile’ gradually started taking over the market. Manufacturers in places like Zanesville, Ohio, were major suppliers of fireplace tiles through this period.

A cautionary warning: Sometimes fireplaces were not designed to have tiles. Especially in the Arts & Crafts period, but also in the late Victorian period, brick was sometimes used to be the facing material for a fireplace surround. To add tiles to this sort of fireplace, thinking that it was ‘left bare’ or ‘unfinished’ is doing the house a disservice. Learn to appreciate the original design of the house before altering an original historic feature.

An original brick fireplace from 1912.

Often, when tiles were used on a fireplace from 1900-1920, they were plain tiles, even in good houses. The design was focused on the colour of the tile, and the placement of the tiles, which gave a pleasing pattern in the lines of grout.

A beautiful pale yellow tiled fireplace in a Tudor Revival house from 1908. The ‘Arbutus’ wallpaper by William Morris designed by Kathleen Kersey in 1912 is available from Charles Rupert Designs

A small library fireplace with dark green tiles c 1912

A bedroom fireplace c 1912 with plain yellow English 2″ x 6″ tiles laid vertically, surrounding a polished steel surround

When one is restoring fireplaces in an older home, it is usually impossible to find enough old tiles to do the job. Therefore, rather than falling back on an alternative (and inappropriate) material like marble, one can use reproduction historic tiles.

Reproduction historic tiles are the best to use, because a fireplace is part of the architecture of a house. If a fireplace has the wrong tiles, it inevitably looks dated in a few years. I am sure that all those people who put the orange sunburst tiles on fireplaces in the 1960’s thought they were terrific, but why are people tearing them off now? Because they were not appropriate for the fireplace, or the age of the house.

Tiles need to be the correct size – usually 6″ x 6″; or 3″ x 6″; 2″ x 6″ or even 1 1/2″ x 6″. They also need to be the correct colour – and that means getting tiles with the correctly coloured glazes, with the right chemical content. Old dark green tiles for example, (and good reproduction tiles), are made with copper based pigments, which give the wonderful, deep lustrous dark green colour that is right for the old fireplaces.

Approximately 80% of fireplaces built between 1900 and 1920 had fireplaces that were tiled in dark green or burgundy tile. Other colours sometimes used included pale pink, yellow or pale blue or cream, but those colours were often reserved for bedrooms.

Fireplace tiles can be a good place to start when choosing an effective interior design for an early home. Starting with an architectural feature such as a fireplace (or a stained glass window perhaps) can effectively inspire an entire colour scheme appropriate for your home.