The career of tile maker Bronwyn Williams-Ellis began with 3D design, working in ceramics. She completed a BA and an MA at the Cardiff College of Art and had her first workshop in North Wales where she created huge one-off sculptures and garden ware.
“In order to create these pieces I needed an enormous kiln and spent hours lugging huge pieces of work around. This was not only back-breaking work, but after a while I realised that this wasn’t really what I wanted. The field I was working in was almost completely occupied by men and there seemed to be this macho thing going on – the kilns and the work were getting bigger and bigger, and I was feeling less and less at home.”
Bronwyn eventually had a kind of eureka moment when she realised that her forte lay in two-dimensional design. Even her sculptures, she realised, were being created from a collection of two-dimensional images in her mind. This naturally led her to tiles and enabled her to continue her exploration into decoration and decorative techniques. Bronwyn is something of an expert in the history of decoration and has found tangible links between the design cultures of different parts of the world. From this knowledge she has defined her own preferences.
“For me the quality of line is very important in decoration, with pattern and colour playing their part.” This is well illustrated in a 2008 commission, which took pattern elements of 17th Century blackwork embroidery and applied it to tile. On tile the colours are soft, muted almost. The design itself is a simple pattern of leaves and flowers with texture and intensity of colour provided by further simple pattern, which in embroidery would be the stitches themselves. The overall effect is detailed and complex.
Bronwyn also specialises in the Spanish ceramic technique of dry lining, or cuerda seca. This is the ceramic version of batik and involves the use of a wax resist dyed black with manganese dioxide. This is used for outlining and separating glaze colours and leaves a black outline on the tile, which can be used to simple effect.
For these tile designs, and nearly all of Bronwyn’s commissions, she buys in standard 150mm square biscuit tiles and applies her own glazes and decoration. She has spent 20 years perfecting her alkaline and tin glazes which are, by their nature, very difficult to work with being rather unpredictable in the kiln.
The colours she can create however, are soft, almost like watercolours. Most of Bronwyn’s work is commissioned and is, she admits, rather time consuming and sometimes frustrating.
“When I am asked to complete a panel for a particular place I view it as the last piece in a jigsaw. My designs are created to complete a space. I am greatly influenced by Moorish buildings where design and pattern in tiles are used to fill specific space and therefore they look right. This can be difficult when you come into a project before it is anywhere near completion and the space you are given to work with may change by the end. Ideally bespoke work should be just that, designed for a specific place, but in reality there is often a compromise. I think architects understand how tiles can be used architecturally to fill a space, which is why I like working with them.”
Bronwyn has worked with many architects and interior designers creating murals for shopping centres and other public spaces at home and abroad as well as for the famous Portmeirion in Gwynedd and privately owned hotels and restaurants and houses.
Bronwyn’s roots in sculptural design are best illustrated by the clay tiles she makes herself. She has also investigated scraffito techniques (scratching simple pattern through the coloured slips), hand-building pattern onto the tile with further clay, and agateware; combining different coloured clays then slicing through them to create pattern.
Her understanding of pattern is profound. She clearly relishes her commission work, but her own designs will excite any architect or interior designer looking for something special for a smaller project. While she can fire about 200 of her decorated biscuit tiles at a time – and she fires up her kiln up to three times a week, her own clay tiles take more space and time (she can fire about 70 at a time), but this is what makes these tiles unique.