Deborah Osburn: Embracing the Art of Tile

 deborah osburn cle tile tilevera and tile envy blog 

Inspired by People: Each month we seek out inspirational figures in the world of design – those with an unwavering passion and quest for discovery, creation and exploration of beautiful decorative design. This month we bring you our interview with the fascinating founder and creative director of clé, Deborah Osburn.

Deborah combines a fine arts education coupled with a 25 year tile career as she searches the world for remarkable hand crafted tile. The culmination of this search results in her newest venture, clé, which provides for a forum of discovery and conversation about what she loves most; tiles created by impassioned artists creating remarkable surfaces.

TDD: Your passion for the beauty of tile is evident in your blog Tile Envy. When did you first notice that divinely crafted tiles brought you joy? Was it as a child or perhaps later in life? Was there a particular tile, design, or architectural use of the material that set off your lifelong love of this art form?

Deborah: I was trained as a sculptor. Everything I do references that training. When I began to use found objects in my work, I became interested in a myriad of materials and the processes of using each material. One day, I spotted a beautifully tiled roof of an old cathedral. I couldn’t stop looking at it and wondering about the grandeur and durability of the centuries-old work of art. I was hooked.

TDD: Do you remember the first tiles you designed? What did it feel like to hold that creation in your hands? What did you experience emotionally when you saw your designed tiles installed?

Deborah: My tile manufacturing days started very simply. It was a million years ago (when I was an infant) and I had noticed a trend of tile clients searching for a way to add some design appeal to their plain white tiles. At that time, there was very little available to them. It dawned on me that if I created a simple accent liner in a variety of colors, we could affordably give a bit more to the common tile project.  I tried to enlist any number of people and companies to make these simple tiles- with no luck. One day I asked my retired father if he wanted to help me make tiles. He laughed. But I got my spirit of adventure from my dad so I set out to make these tiles with his help. Our first tile, though simple, was a true wonder for us! These tiles became the first decorative tiles used extensively throughout the US! And are still being used.

tilevera_panel_litho_damask_blackPhoto: Detail view of damask shower panel in Deborah’s home.

TDD: In your home which is your favorite hard surface design element? Why?

Deborah: That’s a tough question to answer. As an artist and a designer, every surface matters. So even though my humble abode is far from being completed, there are a number of surfaces that I love, like my honed black stone counters, metallicized limestone entry and my distressed mirrored walls. Each holds my fondness for varied reasons. But I’d have to say that one of the most intriguing is our printed glass shower panel in black damask. It’s a traditional pattern on a modern surface, which makes it very edgy. It is a fun surprise every time I enter that room.

TDD: Trends in home design and architecture can be both exhilarating and frightening to homeowners. Trends in hard surface materials probably more so intimidating, because once it goes in (at considerable costs) it can’t easily be changed out. So I find that homeowners are quite conservative with their tile choices. What advice to you have for homeowners that want to add some personality, and an artistic flair to their hard surface design but who at the same time don’t want their homes to look dated in a few years’ time? 

Deborah: I have argued against that perception my entire tile career. In the good old days, we were taught to sell tile as a material that would outlast your home. But just because it could, did not mean it would. Trends change, homeowners change, and often times many tiles are not of the quality that should survive those changes. For those clients that want tiles that will last several lifetimes, stick with the classics- stone, glass, and ceramic for the main surfaces. Then add decorative sections around those classics. Be willing to change out the decorative sections at a later time, if your tastes change. But if you choose your classics well, you can keep those for a lifetime. My biggest advice for anyone building or remodeling- design a house for yourself- not the future owners!!

cle-studioh-shakespeare-glamour-300Photo: Studio H. tile from the Shakespeare series.This collection was conceived by Deborah and created by Dutch artist Hanneke Steenmetz. (Hand screened on limestone. 12" x 12".)

TDD: You link fashion and tile design on your blog. On the surface it is easy to understand why: beauty, pattern, color and other objective criteria. But seldom is the outward appearance of the item we desire the motivating factor for our purchase. What we are looking for is the experience. A certain dress makes us feel pretty, the Chanel red lipstick bolsters our confidence – so how does having beautiful tiles in our homes nurture us and our emotional need to be fulfilled? Why is it important to have things of beauty in our homes?

Deborah:  I find that we all consider “shelter” to be one, if not our most significant of investments. My design partner, Ann and I have placed a lot of tile surfaces on our projects (it’s the part we look forward to the most) and when tile is given the chance to be a primary consideration, the client is not just thrilled, they are enlightened. We have had clients come back to us after a time asking to extend the tiles beyond where it was originally applied! I am convinced that with the right nurturing, people around the world would use tile similarly to our favorite travel spots like Morocco, Portugal and Barcelona! My dream is to begin to do that with clé- to turn us all on to the emotional beauty of tiles.

image Photo: Studio H. tile from the Personal Poetry series offers an intimate and unique personalization of stone tiles – a hard surface canvas (composed of multiple tiles) to voice your most cherished expressions. You provide the meaningful words, verses, lyrics, or inspirational mots, and cle will deliver those significant thoughts on hand painted 12”X12” stone tiles.

TDD: At times, tile as a decorative art form is overlooked in design. The selection of tile is seemingly an afterthought – a mundane decision in selecting a suitable and functional surface for walls and floors without much consideration given to the inherent beauty of the material. What would you say to a homeowner to encourage them to discover the sheer delight of using custom designed tiles in their home design project?   

Deborah:  I’ve always been a fashion snob. I used to say that I can size up anybody by the shoes they wear. I do the same with the tiled surfaces of a restaurant, hotel or other public space. I can tell if the designer had a tile passion or not. I can’t tell you how upsetting it is to see so many missed opportunities. However, I’m much easier on homeowners and their tiles selections. Until we have managed to create passion for tiles, we will continue to see this ambivalence that plagues our industry. My clé response to any homeowner considering custom tiles is to find a tile purveyor who can make the process as remarkable as it can be. It won’t happen without that hand-holding. But when you have found that tile BFF- your ability to add a surface that can be reflective or warmly honed, faceted, textured, patterned, shimmering and capable of some of the most intense colors- well, you just can’t get any of that without tile!

TDD: You’ve been blogging your tile passion on Tile Envy for three years, so there is an abundance of beautiful examples of tile artistry on the site. Could you share with our readers three tiles out of the many you have highlighted that have strongly resonated with you?

cle¦ü-tile_ruan_hoffman_lbwg-1-300Photo:  Ruan Hoffmann: entrapercevoir series, looking back and waving goodbye.

Deborah:  Ruan Hoffmann– I’ve never glanced at an artwork or art tile of Ruan’s that hasn’t stopped me in my tracks. This tile was the first work I had ever seen of Ruan’s. His expertise for turning the simplest of strokes into a provocative gesture is genius.

tilevera_tile_handpainted_ elizabeth_p4Photo: Tilevera “Elizabeth” hand painted tile.

Deborah: Tilevera– the master painters that create the hand painted tiles for Tilevera still blow me away. Their work and craftsmanship is impeccable and I believe unrivaled in the world. There isn’t anything they can’t paint. In fact, I think that they have probably been asked to paint nearly everything, and they do it with incredible heart.

gioPontiPhoto: Hotel Parco dei Principi – Sorrento, 1962 by Giò Ponti. Credit: © Marco Zuppetta.

Deborah: Gio Ponti– besides being an iconic architect and designer, I am so amazed with Ponti’s ambitious use of tiles for a multitude of surfaces. His projects utilize tiles and hard surfaces in magical ways that keep the eye lingering surface upon surface.

image Photo: Tile Envy blog header.

TDD: I noticed the black crow on various elements on your site. Could you share the significance of that symbol with us?

Deborah:  I have always been drawn to crows. I consider them my connection to the spirit of nature. I love all birds- the idea of flight- and well, who can resist their fabulous attire!! I’m not sure if it comes from my Cherokee heritage, but the crow is for me strikingly beautiful, yet scrappy. They seem like great survivors. I was afraid to put the crow as my banner for Tile Envy because I’d heard some negative connotations to birds and crows. But in the end, there was this need to stay true to my vision. You can’t believe what came from that -so many people telling me of their own fondness for this bird of strength. I was sent books, photos, myths etc from others touched by this magnificent creature “connecting heaven to earth”.

Connect with Deborah: