Clé – the artist tiles

All tiles by Clé, fabric by Hermès

We are madly in love with the tiles by Clé, a Sausalito, California-based company, that is, as they like to say, pushing the boundaries of tile. They have a lovely collection that features beautiful classic as well as highly unusual designs and textures, including tiles that resemble wood grain ends and tiles made from recycled steel. It’s all about an approach that heightens humble tiles to an everyday encounter with art. In fact, Clé Tile specializes in unique, artistic tiles, and their Artist Series comprises small-batch tiles from a curated selection of artisans, designers and sculptors.

The mastermind behind Clé Tile, who is so passionate about making these beautiful tiles, is Deborah Osburn, Cle Tile, the founder and creative director of Clé, who trained as a sculptor and has spent her entire career producing tiles. One of many artists that contribute to Clé is Ruan Hoffmann, an artist from Johannesburg, who, as a painter, also happens to paint on ceramics. IRMA talked to the two about their passion for tiles, how they create them and what inspires them.


IRMA: When you start to design a tile, is it similar to doing a drawing?
Deborah Osburn: In a way, yes. When drawing, you start with a concept and then you try to make that concept recognizable on the page. For me, designing tiles is a process of visualizing the tiles and then trying to bring that visualization to life in an object or surface. So much of this is a process of experimentation—it can take on a life of its own. My training as a sculptor was perfect, because it required that I have a great deal of experience with a breadth of materials and procedures.
Ruan Hoffmann: It is the same, in my case they start off as gauche paintings, and very few adjustments are made to the image once I finish, with tile designs one has to keep the repeat in mind though.

Deborah Osburn, founder and creative director of Clé Tile

IRMA: When designing a tile, do you have a space/room in mind or do you see the tile bit by bit by itself?
Deborah Osburn: This depends on the tile. Some tiles, like my watermark collection, were very much about the tile as an object. I was really taken by the process of manipulating this hand-hewn tile in an unexpected way.  I became completely obsessed with the tile, itself, and spent nearly a year perfecting it as an object. I had no plans or ideas of how they would look as an overall surface.

In contrast, a tile such as my 17th-century collection (which is a modernist twist on classic Delft tiles) was all about taking the preciousness of Delft tile surfaces and modernizing them by exaggerating the pattern size. This tile was definitely all about seeing the tiles forming large patterned spaces and not the tiles as individual objects.
Ruan Hoffmann: I never think of the final application; I’m always surprised to see how people have used something quite personal to me in their private spaces.

IRMA: Does fashion inspire you? If so, how?
Deborah Osburn: I love fashion! Anyone that knows me, knows that fashion is what I consider my first form of art. It’s what I “paint” with every day as I prepare myself to greet the world. I’m a fan of new trends and classics, equally. And though I tend to lean to a more jagged take on the classics (for example the great Belgian designers), I also love an outrageous trend that pushes everyone’s concept of fashion and ourselves. I’m inspired that fashion is always in motion. It never stops. In my role as a tile designer I find that I’m always looking forward to the next tile, the next unimagined surface.
Ruan Hoffmann: Some fashion designers are inspiring to me. The late Alexander McQueen I think of as a great artist of our time.

Ruan Hoffmann, Clé Tile
Artist Ruan Hoffmann (Foto: Jeroen Niezen)

IRMA: Where do you look for new ideas?
Deborah Osburn: Any- and everywhere! Fashion is certainly a huge inspiration for me. I think it informs so many other forms of design. But more than that, I’m addicted to beauty—not “beauty” that is a kind of glossy perfection, but beauty that lives somewhere between heart-breaking and stunning, destruction and creation. And therefore, I find that my eye is always rummaging around in search of this rare seam of beauty. It’s really an occupational hazard, because it means my eyes are never at rest—endlessly searching. Because I’m constantly in search for this ethereal substance, I’m always imagining new surfaces. I walk around our studio telling my design team that there are too many tiles and not enough time!
Ruan Hoffmann: It helps to keep your eyes open and I work, this generates new images and ideas that lead to other ideas. 

IRMA: Who do you ask for advice?
Deborah Osburn: I don’t often ask for advice. I know this sounds foolish and self-centred, and maybe it is. I’ve found that as I’ve grown older, the biggest issues of my youth were relying on those that were supposedly “older and wiser”, instead of paying attention to my own instincts. Trusting ones instinct is a very difficult task—because you have to be very open to taking a step that could be very frightening, only relying on yourself. But I’ve found that relying on instinct has always served me far better than advice from others, no matter how well-meaning or experienced. Now, if you want to ask me about people I look up to—and how they’ve influenced me—that’s a whole other story! I’ve got loads of heroes.
Ruan Hoffmann: My partner … and champagne also gives good advice.

IRMA: What irritates you most about other people? And what does it tell about yourself?
Deborah Osburn: I have trouble with people who are disingenuous. Some of it is very overt, but most often, it’s simply that many people spend very little time in self-reflection and perhaps aren’t aware that they aren’t living truthful lives. For me, it reminds me of how frail and how tricky the human psyche is, and that it takes a lot of work to be in a place where you can hear and speak the truth. It always reminds me how much work it is to be a good human, and that my own journey has still so many lessons ahead.
Ruan Hoffmann: In other people I am irritated by qualities I find irritating in myself. What does this tell me about myself? I should spend less time with other people!

All tiles by Clé, fabric by Hermès