ABOVE: This original Batchelder fireplace is in Minneapolis. Photo by Susan Gilmore.
With impeccable Arts & Crafts credentials and a penchant for medieval ideas of handcraft, Ernest Batchelder made tiles that continue to influence California design. These beautiful designs have been revived.
Tile maker Ernest Batchelder would be gratified to know how popular his work is fifty-some years after his passing. When contemporary art-tile makers explain the renewed interest, they could be quoting from The Craftsman magazine of a hundred years ago. Stephani Stephenson of Revival Tileworks is one California tile maker whose work is inspired by Batchelder. “The Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction to the industrial age,” she says. It’s the same today—people are reacting to the highly technical and industrial world we live in. People appreciate things that are handmade.”
The vogue for bungalows, especially in California, also is responsible for the renewed interest in Batchelder. “People with technical and computer jobs [in] cold and mechanical offices want to come home to a nice warm environment,” offers Claudia Daigle, owner of Maverick Fountains in Santa Fe (which reproduces Batchelder’s fountain designs).
Historic Batchelder Tile In his lifetime, Ernest Batchelder was part of a revival, too: the Arts and Crafts Movement’s rediscovery of the methods and motifs of medieval tile making. Explains Joseph Taylor, head of the Tile Heritage Foundation: “Arts and Crafts tile makers were inspired by medieval tiles—or tiles as they were understood to be made by European craftsmen of old. Those who tiled the churches and cathedrals made the decorative tiles right there on site, by hand. Decoration, too, was hand applied using wooden blocks to incise the surface of tile that would be filled with a contrasting color.” The result was tile that showed the nature of the clay and the hand of the maker.
Like his contemporaries, Batchelder liked medieval imagery, but he also liked Native American and Japanese design, incorporating all of these into his work. “People who worked in the Arts and Crafts period were themselves reusing imagery,” says Steve Moon, owner of the Tile Restoration Center in Seattle. “Batchelder modernized medieval imagery by applying a Japanese sensibility to it.”
Batchelder’s best-known tiles, designed between 1910 and 1920, featured either medieval or natural motifs on a light brown body colored with a blue stain. One of his famous designs, reproduced today, is a pair of peacocks; the panel was used as a decorative accent in fireplaces and fountains. Other well-known designs include animals—rabbits were a favorite—and medieval scenes of castles in landscapes, or knights on horses. Batchelder used geometric designs as well, and he made a full line of field (plain) tiles in earthy browns, greens, and blues.
Batchelder had a special love for the hearth, so many of his tiles ended up in fireplace surrounds. He also made tiles for entryways, stairs, exteriors, and fountains. He even made a tile series for bathrooms. He marketed the tiles through specialized catalogs and through showrooms in Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis, and Chicago. His decorative and floor tiles ended up in many houses in California and as far away as Kansas City and Houston, as well as in New York City apartment buildings.
Revival Batchelder Tile Revival tile makers today produce two different kinds of “Batchelder tiles”: exact replicas, and also designs inspired by Batchelder’s images or glazes. While they’re glad to make reproductions, today’s artisans see enough interest in the Batchelder “look” to work in what Moon calls “more the Arts and Crafts style. Not everything is a historical reproduction.” In all of it, though, they intend to pay homage to Batchelder.
Most people are using Batchelder revival tiles in the fireplace—or in that contemporary version of the hearth, the kitchen backsplash. Many homeowners buy individual tiles to use as decorative accents in field tile, or on stands and in frames. Other tiles go into fountains, usually outdoor garden fountains. But now as in the past, fountains are put indoors, too, especially in dry climates. Batchelder’s designs are surprisingly contemporary, even with their historical allusions. They look good in period bungalows and in modern houses.