Saturday, December 18, 2010
A.E.T. - A Tale of Tempting Tiles
For many years I have been fascinated by decorated tiles as a ceramic art form. My temptation to collect them has been tempered by the high prices achieved by the most attractive and desirable art tiles. A notable exception are the products of the American Encaustic Tiling (A.E.T.) Company of Zanesville, Ohio. They are unusually attractive but remain for the most part modestly priced and, for me, tempting.
Because of its proximity to supplies of high quality clay, Zanesville for three centuries has been a hub for ceramic production. The A.E.T. factory was founded in 1875 by E.H. Hall, who named it and shortly after disappeared from the scene. Subsequently the pottery was purchased by New York investors who hired competent management and talented artisans. Originally committed to floor and other utilitarian tiles, about 1880 A.E.T. began making art tiles through its encaustic process. It involved complicated procedures in which powdered clays of different colors were pressed together to form a pattern or design.
Herman Mueller, a noted innovator in art tile techniques, was hired in 1887. He had the ability to produce large relief tiles, panels of female figures, and portraits. Next to climb on board A.E.T. was Karl Langenbeck who some believe was the greatest ceramic chemist America has ever produced. Sales soared. Outgrowing its facilities, A.E.T. in 1892 built a brand new plant, shown here, and bragged that it was the largest tile factory in the world. More than 20,000 people attended the opening, led by then Ohio Governor William McKinley, later to be a U.S. President. The company issued a special ceramic for the occasion.
Through the years this factory produced art tiles by the tens of thousands. Early on the themes tended to be classical ones, like the mural shown here, attributed to Herman Mueller. Another traditional example was the Diana Huntress figure. A.E.T. designers also showed a sense of humor in tile depicting frogs and other animals. As the art deco age dawned, A.E.T. adjusted to more modern styles. Despite being made for the masses, A.E.T. products are held by leading art institutions. The Brooklyn Museum, for example, has a major A.E.T. collection and displays it online.
A.E.T. had a remarkable 60 year life span during which it continued to produce both household and artistic tiles. The pottery’s ability to change with the times is evident in two windmill tiles shown here, one traditional from the 1880s, another modern from the early 1930s. With sales falling rapidly during the Great Depression, however, the Zanesville plant was forced to close in 1935. Today the A.E.T legacy can be counted in the many highly desirable artifacts still within the price range of most collectors.