How 400-year-old Delft tiles became an interior design sensation

What is the item all the young, new-wave interior designers are trying to get their hands on at the moment? Not a limited-edition chair from Milan or a sculptural chandelier, but 400-year-old, hand-painted tiles hailing from the small Dutch city of Delft.

Delft tiles were first produced in the Dutch Golden Age as a response to Chinese blue-and-white glazed porcelain, and have since become instantly recognisable throughout the world for their cobalt blue and white-grey colour. They’ve been exported, replicated and collected by keen-eyed connoisseurs ever since production largely ceased in the 18th century, when cheaper British reproductions put Dutch potters out of business.

Recently, a new generation of makers have been turning their hand to the antiquated craft, with Instagram-savvy crafts people and young interior designers drawn to the pictorial designs.

Authentic antique tiles are identifiable by their greyish-white tin-lead glaze (which was found to be toxic for potters around 1900 and is no longer used) and fine, hand-painted illustrations in cobalt blue, which range from ornate depictions of Dutch life — canal barges or village fetes — to drawings of animals, fruits and, in rare instances, mythical creatures.

Delft tile with wild boar, c1650, from specialist Durk Regts
Delft tile with wild boar, c1650, from specialist Durk Regts
Delft tile with bird of prey, c1640, from specialist Durk Regts
Delft tile with bird of prey, c1640, from specialist Durk Regts

“The ones I love are those painted with little angels or sea monsters,” says Tony Niblock, co-founder of bespoke cupboard maker Plain English. He began collecting the tiles 30 years ago after viewing a Georgian house that had a Delft-clad fireplace and becoming obsessed. He also likes “the really simple drawings of children, and those with a couple of golfers, or missionaries holding crosses up and marching”.

A tracing technique allowed painters to reproduce the same image repeatedly with only very slight variations, creating a system of early mass production, says Niblock. “You can imagine some poor person sitting down and having to paint the same design over and over again.”

But it’s the slight variations that have drawn young designers to the tiles. “They have so much character to them,” says interior designer Emma Grant, who bought a bundle of 18th-century tiles at auction and has been experimenting with using them as splashbacks behind sinks.

Delft tiles in a room by interior designer Emma Grant
Delft tiles in a room by interior designer Emma Grant © Angus Grant

“They all look different, because the makers had to work quite quickly on the tin glaze, so although the designs are in motifs, they’re all in this quick impressionistic style.” Designs vary from classic to bizarre. “I’ve seen one design of some guy vomiting because he’s had too much to drink, another of a mermaid wearing a top hat.”

Why are these quaint, comical little ceramic artworks seeing a resurgence of popularity now? It’s all part of our current desire to be surrounded by handmade objects, says Tyler Hays, an artist and founder of the New York design brand BDDW. His

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