Around 32 years ago I flew out to Australia to visit my brother, Chris, who has lived in Normanhurst, a northern suburb of Sydney since 1968. While there I heard that one of his neighbour’s sons was building a house using indigenous woods and reclaimed materials. Intrigued, I blagged a visit and was bowled over by the project. Not only was this guy a superb craftsman, with sublime joinery skills, but he also had a natural architectural eye.
What really captured my imagination were the reclaimed tin ceiling tiles in his kitchen. It was love at first sight. I was mesmerised by the intricate detailing of the 3D relief patterns but, above all, by the unique patina of the aged paint, rubbed off at the edges, yet lying deep and fissured in the centre of each tile.
This was years before shabby chic, but if I had had the courage (and the money) I would have bought up every reclaimed tin ceiling tile in Australia and started an interior revolution in the UK.
As it happens, I came back, stuck to tile journalism, got married, raised a family, etc … but I never forgot about tin ceilings. So when my eldest daughter, Grace, was looking for inspiration for her new London flat’s kitchen, I knew what to look for.
I was delighted to find that there were now several sources for these exquisite and sculptural surfaces. You could, at a price, still buy genuine reclaimed ceiling tiles from the USA and even Australia. Then there were authentic reproductions: modern tiles made using age-old techniques and materials. There are also reproductions made in thermoplastics and modern composite materials. And, if you want the look at a budget price, there are even some amazing faux tin ceiling tile wallpapers out there.
For those Tile Addicts new to tin ceiling tiles; here’s a potted history. Tin ceiling tiles are, essentially, raw or painted embossed tin plate panels. They are, almost uniquely, North American. And, although they were introduced into Australia and South Africa in the late nineteenth century, they are virtually unknown in the rest of the world. To make the tiles, tinplate and other sheet metals – such as copper or stainless steel – are stamped with complex and sophisticated patterns. These were generally copied and developed from carved and moulded plasterwork. So, essentially, tin ceilings were created to be practical and economical substitute for the beautiful fibrous plasterwork mouldings that are such a design feature of the finest European houses of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The use of tin ceilings really developed in the mid-nineteenth century, when mass produced sheets of thin rolled tinplate became readily available in America. They reached the zenith of their popularity in the 1890s. As a result, many old buildings, such as the colonial town houses of central Sydney, boast antique tin ceilings, cornices, wall panels and wainscots.
Today, as well as being used in restoration projects, tin ceilings are coming back in style. They can be installed in all types of public, commercial and residential properties; adding great character and individuality to any project. Panels can be painted to look like plasterwork, clear lacquered to preserve their natural metallic finish, plated, patinated or simply painted like any other ceiling. Particularly beautiful effects can be achieved by pattern painting: picking out the details in the panel’s pattern in different colours.
At the end of this article you will find links to some of today’s leading suppliers. They include Brian Greer’s Tin Ceilings which has over 40 years’ experience of producing tin ceiling tiles, mouldings, fillers and cornices. Brian Greer’s products are created using the original 19th century manufacturing techniques and are historically correct with incredible definition and clear quality. Other notable sources include Armstrong, Andy Thornton and Rockett St George. I really urge fellow Tile Addicts to visit the websites below and discover the wonderful world of tin ceiling tiles.
You may be wondering why Tile Addict is devoting so much space to tin ceiling tiles. Well, here’s the answer. As I work my way through all the pre-Cersaie press information, I know we will see timber-effects, faux marbles, geometrics, plank formats, and simulated concrete in Bologna this year: but what will be at the cutting edge of design? What will be 2017’s equivalent of 2016’s terrazzo and trencadis tiles? And every time I ask myself this question, I come up with the same answer: antique and distressed metallics. And what could be more on-trend in today’s interior marketplace than ceramic tiles that mimic the patina, care-worn metallic tones and sophisticated relief patterns of reclaimed antique tin ceiling tiles? Watch this space!
A new post by Joe Simpson, Diary of a Tile Addict, July 2017.