As a journalist writing about the global tile industry I have visited many unusual locations and introduced me to many inspiring individuals, but few trips have made such an indelible impression as my visit to Salernes, southern France in 2007.
The trip to this renowned ceramic town started normally enough: a flight to Nice and a transfer by minibus to an impressively located hill top hotel. On the first night, Sylvie Fery from the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in the Var region had organised a dinner, offering a chance to meet representatives from some of the producers lined up for a visit next day.
At about 11.30pm , at the end of a splendid four-course dinner, Jean-Louis Guiol from Terres Cuites des Launes announced that his factory would be firing up the kiln that night.
Would I like to see it?
Now, I’ve seen a lot of tile kilns in my time but, given the impressive hospitality of our hosts, it seemed only polite to accept.
Vincent Vagh from Alain Vagh Ceramique offered me a lift to the factory.
And what a lift!
Vincent’s car, it turned out, was a race-tuned 6 litre Chevrolet, completely covered in ultra-thin brown mosaic tiles. This car had recently been raced around the Le Mans track, which probably suited its ultra-hard suspension rather better than the bumpy track leading to Terres Cuites des Launes.
Still, we arrived safely and set off for the kiln.
Suddenly we were transported back 100 years. This was no ordinary gas-fired roller kiln. Instead it was a seven metre high, three metre wide wood-fired over.
Over a single firing cycle, up to 35 tonnes of wood is required to maintain the firing temperature of over 1,000oC. Every hour, a fresh bundle of wood, trimmings from nearby sawmills, is fed into the base of the kiln. The resulting plume of smoke that issued from the chimney would have caused consternation to every health & safety officer in the UK, but there is something magnificent in the way in which Salernes-based manufacturers like Terres Cuites des Launes and Terres Cuites Sismondini are preserving traditional terracotta manufacture.
The mosaic-covered car was not the only surprise of the trip. Alain Vagh’s showrooms also feature a mosaic-covered fridge, a mosaic-covered cement mixer, a mosaic-covered Vespa and even a mosaic-covered dentist’s chair!
Atelier Wiart showed just what could be produced with glazed lava, with stunning matt grey worktops and gloss red shower backs. There were also impressive displays and hand-painting at Jacques Brest Ceramiques and Carrelages Pierre Boutal; while the flat above Alain Vagh’s St Tropez showroom was a tour de force in tiling eccentricity and creativity.
While none of the Salernes companies are really manufacturing on an industrial scale – the largest factory only produces 70,000 sq. metres per annum – the degree of product development and design originality is impressive. These businesses, fuelled by passion, provide a timeless reminder of the artisanal origins of today’s commercial tile market.
November 2007: Salernes, France