What are encaustic and cement tiles and why are they suddenly everywhere?

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — First, the sunny yellow Moroccan tiles with white stars and a matte finish on the backsplash of Judy Joss’ kitchen in the West Plaza caught my eye.

Then, while sipping coffee a week or two later in Rio de Janeiro, I noticed a colorful tile covering the floor and walls of a cafe. It also had a matte finish and colorful design.

Now, I’m seeing similar Bohemian-style tiles popping up on backsplashes, floors and fireplaces in every shelter magazine I open, from Country Living to Elle Decor. And they are almost always described as encaustic or cement tiles.

Encaustic tiles date back to the 13th century, when they were made by using a beeswax paint to create designs that were set with heat. Today, they’re made with multiple colors of clay inlaid together to create the pattern and then fired.

Cement tiles, which date to the late 19th century, are made by pouring mineral pigments into a mold to create the design, removing the mold and filling the rest of the tile with gray cement. The tile is then hydraulically pressed and cured for several weeks.

The tiles can be used indoors and out, though they often need to be weather-proofed with a sealer.

Annie Ireland of Prairie Village recently had the floors of her kitchen covered in antique encaustic tile from a northern part of Belgium once known as Flanders. She got the tiles from L’Antiquario Antique Encaustic Tiles in Miami with a certificate stating their provenance and that they’re from 1870 to 1900.

"I didn’t want hardwood floors because the whole house would be hardwood and that’s boring," Ireland says. "I’m always looking for something cute with an English cottage feel."

Ireland stumbled onto pictures of shabby chic founder Rachel Ashwell’s home, which had encaustic tiles.

"I called L’Antiquario and (saleswoman) Kelly Martin said, ‘I know Lily Ashwell (Rachel’s daughter). We did Lily’s store and home in Venice,’ " Ireland recalls. "Because it’s a small kitchen, I could afford it. It’s really, really cute."

L’Antiquario carries about 2,500 patterns of antique encaustic and cement tiles reclaimed from churches, monasteries, chateaus and palaces in Europe, dating from 1850 to 1930.

Martin first noticed an uptick in its popularity about eight years ago, and it hasn’t slowed. Prices for the antique tiles start at just under $30 a foot.

"Some are so rare they’re in the hundreds of dollars per square foot," Martin says.

Unlike some retailers, L’Antiquario doesn’t require customers to buy a minimum number of tiles.

"You can buy four tiles if you want," Martin says. "The older tiles have a patina, so they look slightly different than new ones. It’s a softness in color and wear and there’s a depth to the tile that the new ones don’t have. We have some patterns that are very geometrical and are very turn of the century — from the later 1800s — but they’re sort of modern and can be set in a sophisticated way. The patterns were very complex back then, and they can be very flowery, soft and intricate or geometric and modern."

Nina Schmidt, a designer at Schloegel Design Remodel, is having cement tile with a blue, yellow and cream design installed over the range in a client’s home. The rest of the kitchen backsplash will be subway tile to balance out the cement tile’s busy design and to cut cost. New cement tile starts at about $18 a square foot.

"It’s something different and clients are looking toward more pattern," Schmidt says. "Subway tile is still really popular, so I don’t think that’s necessarily going away. But they use them (encaustic-style tiles) in small spaces. It’s good in a guest bathroom or powder room."

International Materials of Design, in Overland Park, has samples of encaustic tiles and is getting ready to start carrying them.

"We have tons of people asking for them," says saleswoman Tara Bench.

Interior designer Kathy Weiss, of Decor by Design in Kansas City, is one of those people.

"We’re doing a bedroom addition, and the client wants to incorporate a courtyard, and he and his husband are kind of artsy," Weiss says. "Cement tiles will be perfect for that. They are kind of pricey, but if you use it in a small area, you won’t blow your budget. You pick those patterns for your wow factor."

A lot of young people are drawn to the colorful tiles, says Schmidt, and are able to get the look with porcelain tiles that mimic the designs of cement and encaustic tiles. Tile stores, big box hardware stores and even Overstock.com carry them for as little as $1.49 for an 8-by-8-inch tile.