Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Tiles of Salernes

Glazed tiles on show at Musee Terra Rossa.
Decorative tiles steal my heart.

I could spend hours in a tile showroom – or museum. I love the decorated ones, the plain ones, the ones that are put together in interesting ways in both subtle and bold colour or tonal combinations, and just the bare, beautiful, pared-back terracottas.

Even the roof tiles in the Midi are fascinating, particularly the older, curved tiles patterned with lichens.

So it was with great delight that I paid another visit (my third) to a special place, Salernes, just north-west of Les Arcs-sur-Argens.

Salernes is one of the 19 towns that makes up the Dracenie region in central Var, and is most famous for its deep red hexagonal tiles, known as ‘tomettes’.  

These tiles – made from the high quality clay found in the vicinity – decorate the floors in most of the older houses throughout the south of France. I’ve even seen them on staircases in Paris.

Ancient tomettes, many of them cracked and stained over time.
Once known as ‘la capitale de la tomette’, Salernes was well placed for tile-making with its vast deposits of clay, which had been used by potters since Neolithic times; an abundance of water from two rivers that meet just outside the town; and the tree-covered hills surrounding the valley, providing wood – mostly pine and some green oak - for the kilns.

Factories were already fashioning the curved roof tile and a form of terracotta brick when the hexagonal tiles were first introduced during the 18th century. They were both cool underfoot and easy to clean.

Stamps underneath the tiles show the maker.
Being porous and unglazed, the tiles have a significant advantage in that they can absorb moisture, which is then released when the weather is hot, helping to keep rooms cool.

It is believed the tomette was so named because it looked like a flat cheese, known as ‘toma’.

But its design also helped to solve production problems. The drying process is critical in the production of the earthenware tiles, with the corners of square tiles often drying faster than the centre, which makes the tile warp. Cutting off the corners to create the hexagonal shape helped eliminate that problem.

Tiles ready for the kiln.
Salernes became the epicentre of the tile-making industry, and in 1870, there were 45 factories operating in the town – with more throughout the region. I can’t imagine how polluted the air must have been. The kiln had to maintain steady temperatures for four days – burning pine (!).

But by 1950, the labour-intensive tomette factories were facing a crisis. They’d had a real advantage for more than a century, but new building methods, cheaper floor materials and changing tastes were making inroads, and the number of factories in Salernes dwindled drastically.

Decorated by Salvadore Dali.
However the downturn in the market for tomettes led directly to some creative thinking.

A ceramicist was brought in from Vallauris (think Picasso’s ceramics) – and he changed the face of tiles produced in the town.

Some of the glazed tile designs in the museum.
He added glazes to the original earthenware tiles and gradually a new industry emerged. The glazed tiles were hand coloured – beautiful deep greens, reds, yellow, blues and every tone and tint in between. Tiles of different sizes and shapes were also created.
Homewares such as plant pots, basins, baths – even the kitchen sink – were created by potters at their wheels, in moulds or by hand and were glazed.

Just to walk into one of the stunning showrooms located along the road into Salernes (when approaching from Les Arcs) will take your breath away. The way the display tiles are put together in subtle variations of colour, to totally new and sometimes ‘in-your-face’ colour combinations is worth a visit just for inspiration.

I have even bought some individual tiles – not to add to walls or floors, but for drink coasters (I couldn’t put them down). Never mind that they are very thick, much thicker than the tiles you generally see.

And if you’re still not satisfied after visiting the showrooms, take some time to browse through the Musée Terra Rossa ( which opened in its present form in 2012. Designed with rusted panels to tie in with the earth colours, it is built around a former tile factory and tells the story of tile making in the region from ancient times through its 19th century heyday to the present.

Birds on a wire - a quirky design in the ceramics exhibition.
There are regular exhibitions by ceramic artists, so it is well worth setting aside an hour or two to browse.

Of course there are many ceramic ateliers in the town open to the public, and in the surrounding villages of Villecroze and Tourtour, not to mention the annual Tile Festival held each year in late-May when all the factories, the museum and individual studios are open to the public.

So it’s quite likely you’ll end up overdosing on tiles – but believe me, it’s worth it!







1 comment:

  1. Be still my beating heart! I'm a sucker for decorative tiles too. Hate to think what I could do to my excess baggage fees if I visited Salernes!