Ten years ago art teacher Mark Aldridge decided to change careers, taking his art to the nation in the form of hand painted tiles. Then based in Stamford, Lincolnshire, the Fine Art graduate took on a small industrial unit and started from scratch; making the tiles by hand, decorating them with his own glazes, then completing them with fine drawings of flora and fauna before firing.
Mark’s style is still delicate, the colouring light almost to a fade and the glazes soft and natural; a classic British style that blends in well with the country kitchen style whilst making a quiet statement about integrity and style.
Not surprisingly Mark’s tiles have found an eager market. Even moving, eight years ago, to a rambling former grain warehouse near the Suffolk coast, has not lessened a steady stream of followers. But design-wise Mark has moved with the times over the last eight years. The warehouse, which he bought – “I couldn’t believe how little it cost!” – has given him scope to add other products to the Smoke & Fire portfolio. The company now also retails stone and wood flooring, other industrial-made tiles such as mosaics, paints and even reconditioned cast iron baths. Part of the showroom is also dedicated to local hand-built kitchen specialist Henry Gordon Jones, providing a perfect setting for Mark’s tiles and reinforcing the classy, handmade image.
You could forgive Mark for feeling quite happy with his lot – the warehouse and its wonderful showroom alone would be the envy of many artisan tile makers, but not only is Mark coming up with some great new ideas, he is also looking to expand his exposure in the marketplace. To this end he is exhibiting in the Artisan Pavilion at the 2008 Tile & Stone Show at ExCel and will be seeking more retailers throughout the UK as well as interior designers who can commission bespoke pieces and make further use of Mark’s skill and knowledge as an artist and technician.
The new range of tiles to be exhibited at the show is still being finalised, but it will be quite different to any other range currently on the market. Tile & Stone Journal will reveal more nearer the show, but suffice it to say that the tiles will be quite a departure from his existing body of work. Glazes will play an increasingly important part in the new range, but it is Mark’s new tile format that will undoubtedly win many admirers.
In the meantime, Smoke & Fire is producing around 1,000 handmade tiles a week, largely to order, using three large electric kilns. Tiles are extruded from Stoke clay, hand-cut then left to dry before glazes are sprayed on by hand, creating subtle differences in colour and texture depending on how much glaze is used. Mark does all the hand-painting himself, so creating one-off specials for customers is not an issue. Finally, the tiles are single fired at very high temperatures.
While the flora and fauna, plus seaside and boating images and Mark’s own take on the Delft style, provide the bulk of what is currently produced by Smoke & Fire, Mark also produces four tile horse racing friezes and large tile centrepieces, made up of smaller tiles, of images such as horses and fish. He also buys in a small amount of biscuit which he finishes with his own special glazes and decorative patterns.
Smoke and Fire will have little problem finding retailers keen to offer the company’s quality tiles to their customers. The Smoke & Fire branding is classic yet modern, backed up with simple literature, display boards of tiles and a new website designed by Mark’s son Boris, who also looks after much of the marketing and day to day running of the showroom. The new ranges will, however, lift the company into another league, revealing the true artist in the artisan.