Tile Talk

Tile designer Michael Golden reveals his inspiration and gives some advice
By Christy Duffner
April 13, 2011

With kitchen cabinets trending toward neutral colors and simpler, more streamlined looks, a beautiful backsplash tile can often be the element that gives a space its personality and charm. Thankfully, today’s tile options are vast and varied, spanning a broad spectrum of materials, colors, finishes, sizes and shapes. But where does this seemingly endless variety come from and how does one go about designing a tile collection?

For the answers to these questions, who better to ask than designer and architect Michael Golden. Golden is the founder of New York-based Avenue Mosaics, which recently created two new mosaic glass lines for Orchid Ceramics. The collaboration follows on the heels of the company’s announcement last year that it would be repositioning to a higher-design, value-oriented, consumer-centric brand and in the process seek to fulfill what it has identified as mega-trends in consumer lifestyles and tastes.

Following is Golden's take on his own process for designing tile, his new work for Orchid Ceramics and why he refuses to be classified as an artist.

Do you have a design philosophy when it comes to designing tile?
As I design products, I do have a philosophy. I try to develop a certain imagery or aesthetic based upon material or process. It’s important to remember that a design may be lovely but may not be possible or would be incredibly expensive to manufacture based on the material—so you need to know about manufacturing before you come up with pretty patterns.

More specifically as it relates to tiles, I have a simple mantra that I live by when designing tile for the American market—I call it the “blue jean ideal.” Consumers in this country need to feel comfortable with their tile choices and their homes and so I design mosaic tiles that are rustic but consistent, rough but controlled and basically are timeless—pretty much like a great pair of blue jeans. And like this great pair of jeans, it needs to last. Tile is not like paint. It is not an easy thing to replace in a home, and as people are becoming more conservative with their home improvement dollars, tile designers need to be more cognizant of the longevity of the product. I have recently seen a definite shift away from consumer demand for “of-the-moment home styles” and truly believe that tiles need to be designed to be enjoyed for at least 10 years; a substantial period for any home design product.

Where do you find inspiration for your tile designs?
Anywhere. I literally find it everywhere. I stop women on the street and ask them if I can take a picture of a pattern they are wearing or I look through magazines and at  fashion design. I review probably 10,000 images a month that are related to designs and am always researching unique patterns, textures and color groups. I am more interested in man-made images rather than nature. It’s important for me to be aware of developments in the aesthetics of tiles and watch how these looks or trends evolve into a strong direction or style. I use the essence of these styles in the design of my own tiles, but obviously adapt it for the American market.

Golden combs through thousands of images to create inspiration boards for his tile designs. Some are explorations of color (top) while others focus on pattern (bottom).

Any advice for young tile designers?
Learn manufacturing first before you try to force-fit a particular aesthetic to a material or process that may not be possible or practical.

As it relates to designing tile or even thinking about any room decoration, you have to consider scalability. In my work, I often find small mosaics that look wonderful alone but wouldn’t work in a large space. One example is the beautiful Zellige tiles that are used in Morocco. You can get a great table of these hand-cut mosaics as an accessory for a U.S. interior, but if you install it for a full room, it can be overpowering and even can take on a strong religious connotation. When designing mosaics, you need to remember the “small” must translate to the “big” and how the sheet will scale up to creating a full room and environment.

Can you talk a little about the collection you created for Orchid Ceramics?
Orchid was looking for a distinct and unique collection that was not only totally new, bold and iconic in the industry, but complemented their existing lines and was accessible to a wide variety of individuals and budgets.

Cubix is a perfect example of taking the essence of an emerging style and transforming it with my “controlled random” theory. In this line, we explored the square inside a square pattern, which we had been monitoring for a while. This pattern is becoming very popular with consumers and is likely to be a continuing trend for the next 10 years at least. By experimenting with textured and colored glass as well as adding some aged metal borders throughout the work, we have created a very distinctive mosaic ideal for accent pieces or a backsplash or larger project.

Tweed from Orchid Ceramics’ Cubix line

The aged metal borders around some of these chips are attached by hand and were actually found on a trip to Asia. The Asian designers did not want to use the metal and were actually going to dispose of this beautiful and expressive treasure. Needless to say, I rescued it and it now adds interest and definition to the Cubix line.

Finally, to offer consumers a wider choice within the Cubix line, I experimented and created two different sheets of tile within each color sku. One sheet contains a more regular design of 1-in. chips and the second sheet has a combination of 1-in. and 2-in. chips, which provides a more random, rugged appearance. Both types can either be used alone or together as the consumer chooses.

You mentioned having a “controlled random theory.” Can you explain what you mean?
Right now the tone of the predominant trend in North American mosaics is a gorgeous texture void of iconography so we try and create a controlled randomness that fits with this trend but still aims to surprise and be unique.

What are you currently working on?
About 20 different ideas with glass, stone, metal and ceramics. I don’t even know where to begin with answering that question.

What are some other tile or design-related trends you’re monitoring?
A great question. Two things excite me now—reduced color as seen in white-on-white, which seems to be coming out more and more, and also over-scaled, natural textures—particularly things that seem to be woven.

Any new and/or unusual shapes, materials or sizes you are experimenting with or would like to incorporate into your work?
Lots of new shapes and materials and sizes, but I think we are at the end of small pieces and contrasts. People are going to be pulling back and looking for larger shapes and sizes—and also pulling away from an overly rustic look.

How do people react when you tell them what you do?
They don’t understand what I do! Or they ask me about my art. I know they are being generous, but in my opinion, this is not art, it’s design. I strive to bring beautiful tiles to our client’s hands with a price they can easy accept. For Orchid Ceramics, their dealers and especially the homeowners, I want the products to speak for themselves. Good design at a fair price is the right value equation that never goes out of style.

Last fall, Golden traveled to China, where he developed colorations by combining the “ingredients” into a defined pattern. “The vendor had been working for weeks to make three sizes of chips with about a half a dozen textures, all in 30+ colors—then times 30 pieces each—producing thousands of chips,” he said. The endeavor involved countless other details, requiring painstaking effort and much time: “We started at 10 am, went right through lunch and stopped as the sun was setting at 6 pm. With music—I made a ‘blend’ playlist—and some soda, we made 28 colorations.”

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