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Tile takes a shine to the outdoors

Published Sep. 26, 2005

(ran HP edition)

No one questions tile's place in the bathroom or the kitchen but in the garden?

Once found outdoors primarily on big Spanish-style estates or used sparingly around the waterline in swimming pools, colorful ceramic tiles are now brightening gardens in ordinary neighborhoods, sometimes used in extraordinary ways.

Garden makers have discovered all sorts of places to use ceramic tiles outdoors _ around entries, on door frames and window sills, on planter boxes, covering outdoor fireplaces and kitchens, on the risers of steps, inserted into paving, on fountains and even covering garden benches.

"Tiles can put an individual stamp on a garden," said landscape architect Andrea Gardner of West Los Angeles. "They say that this is not just another bird-of-paradise and ficus garden. It's fun to bring the color of tile out into the landscape."

Sheri Hirschfeld, a designer at Ann Sacks Tile in Los Angeles, says, "Tile can really express a client's personality. It says they're taking aesthetic possession of the space."

The tiles used outdoors run the gamut from traditional Spanish-inspired tiles to contemporary glass mosaics to antiques from the 1920s through the 1940s. Even broken tiles have found a home in the garden.

While broken tiles cost almost nothing, antique tiles can cost as much as $200 each. Installation can run from $5 to $20 a square foot or do it yourself.

"There's a huge range of cost," Hirschfeld said, "depending of what has to be done."

Mark and Jan Hilbert's landscape at their contemporary Spanish-style home in Newport Beach, south of Los Angeles in Orange County, was literally designed around their valuable collection of concrete Hillside plaques, urns, and one old bench, all of which have embedded antique Malibu or Clay Craft tiles.

Hillside is a general term given to the concrete and tile work of several companies in the Los Angeles area in the 1930s and 1940s. According to Hilbert, Hillside pieces were made by the hundreds and were sold at nurseries and even along the roadside. They are hard to find today; expect to pay $750 for a simple urn or $1,000 for a wall plaque.

In designing their landscape, Mark Hilbert made sure that there were enough niches, nooks and crannies to display all the important pieces in their collection.

"We made sure each had its own little venue," he said.

On one wall, behind handsome old steel chairs, hangs a bright tile plaque decorated with Clay Craft tile inserts surrounded by broken red tiles. Iron arms on the plaque hold a pair of antique Bauer "Swirls" pots.

Broken tiles are more often used outdoors than indoors because they are less formal and fun to work with. One of Gardner's clients covered a number of objects in her garden with broken bits of tile, including a table and a rural mailbox.

"After the Northridge earthquake (in 1994), she had a field day, running around to tile stores, filling trash cans with broken bits of tile," Gardner said.

In the back yard of their 1950 Modernist home in Los Angeles, landscape architect Mark Beall and architect Mark Welz built an amazing barbecue-outdoor kitchen counter using broken tiles and broken plates. They even embedded teacups in the back splash that now have plants growing in them as if they were little projecting balconies.

The broken tiles came from bargain bins at tile stores, but they had to buy whole plates and then break them up. "Actually, it was quite a cathartic experience," Beall said.

They built the tile counter on sheets of special cement board made for mounting tiles that was fastened to a sturdy frame of steel studs. They did all the work and point out that tile work is not hard to do yourself.

This outdoor kitchen is just outside the real kitchen, and, according to designer Hirschfeld, outdoor kitchens and entertaining areas are the hot new place for tiles.

"Tiles help the indoors spill outdoors and tie the two together," she said.

Ceramic tiles are such an established fact indoors, in kitchen and bathrooms, that outdoor uses still account for only a fraction of tile sales.

"Only 2 (percent) to 5 percent of our sales are for outdoor applications," said Hirschfeld, "but that's where all the innovation is taking place.

"Landscapes can really handle a lot of color," she said. "You really can't overwhelm an outdoor space with tile like you can a room."

Gardner put tiles right out front in the West Los Angeles garden of Joan and Howard Ballon. She used glass mosaics on a pair of "mommy benches," where Mom can watch her twin 6-year-olds, David and Jason, in-line skating or drawing with chalk on the sidewalk.

Gardner used mosaics of glass tiles, which came as sheets of little squares, to make the garden benches. They were bonded directly to the benches, which are made of concrete block. The L-shaped benches cost about $750 each.

Tiles can play simpler roles in the garden too.

"While there are those who might not be happy with a wild mosaic of tile, you can also use tile very subtly," Gardner said. For instance, she has used simple little black ceramic squares between natural, matte terra cotta pavers to great effect.

Hirschfeld said that these little decorative inserts set into the clipped corners of otherwise plain paving "are like little pieces of jewelry" lying on the garden plain.