When it comes to artisan crafts, we (rather unfortunately) live in an age where modern technology dangles a tantalisingly cheaper, but yet inferior alternative – an alternative which carries a ’no-hands’ system that lacks the traditional methods and processes that make artisan crafts so special.
For Surrey based Froyle Tiles, the team are quite literally hands on, and the only machines in sight are the kilns, essential to the firing process of this ancient craft. When we say ancient, we really do mean it – tile making goes back as far as the ancient Egyptians in 4700BC, and, surprisingly, the process has changed very little in all that time.
I first found out about the company whilst visiting a local Christmas Fair in Haslemere, about 4 years ago. As we perused the various stalls, one in particular really stood out. Unmistakably hand-crafted pottery seemed to pull me in; tiles, vases, jugs and cups were on offer, and I secretly purchased one of the said jugs for my wife as a Christmas present – which was very gratefully received. I started speaking with the owner, Richard Miller, who introduced me to his business and informed me about their shop and workshop in Hambledon; Surrey.
Earlier this month, after many subsequent visits to the workshop, I met up with Richard to show me around their workspace and to tell our readers a bit more about the business.
The workshop itself is a place of wonder – it feels like you’re walking onto the set of a movie. Everything is in its place; piles of clay ready to be worked, pots of glaze waiting to be applied to the wares and the warmth of the kilns all make it rather atmospheric. A quick peek outside again and you realise you are very much in the heart of the Surrey countryside.
Richard, who took over ownership of Froyle Tiles back in 2005, explains the importance of Surrey to the foundation of the business:
“Surrey has a real creative hub, particularly in Farnham with the University Of Creative Arts, which has been beneficial to the business, especially in the early days, due to the network of support. In Surrey people are interested in handmade items, and there’s a real awareness for the origin of products.”
Froyle Tiles have a respectable list of growing clients, from the BBC EastEnders tube station, to the high end world of London’s Saville Row. Their work has even travelled as far a field as Kuwait, but, as Richard explains, the business isn’t too big to ignore the local trade:
“The beauty of having the business the way it is now is that we’re flexible enough that we can sell a tile to a member of the public who comes through the door and just wants something decorative, all the way up to big 900 square metre facades. That kind of flexibility is the main attraction of the scale we’re at now, and also allows us not to compromise on quality.”
I asked Richard what the strangest commission was that Froyle Tiles have had to date, and, unsurprisingly it was the previously mentioned Eastenders commission:
“We were in an environment we would never consider ourselves to be in – on a BBC TV set, it was strangely recognisable, yet completely false. There were really bizarre constraints; making sure there wasn’t a glaze that didn’t glare, we had to age the tiles to look like they had been there for years. We did restoration on the interior with various tiles which we matched, and the exterior was creating an old facade in a new process. A lot of the glazes used in the original process were unavailable, so we had to recreate that to the best we could.”
Richard and his team have the enviable position of never really needing to advertise; pretty much all their work has been through word of mouth and backed up by the incredibly high reputation they’ve built over the years, and the impressive list of clients they are continually adding. Aside from this, Richard is also kept busy with a number of side projects his work has bred – namely as chief technician on BBC Two’s ‘The Great Pottery Throwdown’, which does for pottery what ‘The Great British Bake Off’ does for baking!
Speaking of the team, it is relatively small; Richard Miller, Ziad Kadri and Erik Swenson – all of whom have their own backgrounds, skills and success in ceramics. Ziad, for example, manages to bring a touch of technology to the tiles. He explains the process of casting 1D and 3D tiles from a computer to the finished, physical article:
“For a 1-Dimensional process, you’d have the image for the tile and trace it in illustrator or Photoshop and lay it out so the colours are correct and any shadows removed. For a 3-Dimensional process it’s fairly similar but you trace the shapes and then extrude them using a 3D modelling programme, and from that you print out the model, cast the model and then you’re ready to press the tile.”
Richard and Ziad showed me some examples of some recent tiles they’ve produced, Today, as it happens, they are producing a rather unique triangular tile for a popular Portuguese chicken restaurant chain – and yes – we do mean Nandos! I was literally blown away by the process and skill involved in making the tile. A pre-made triangular mould (made on site earlier), is filled with the worked terracotta clay, then, once levelled with a wire, is teased out using a small lump of clay. Any of us who have kids that stuff play-doh in moulds (and other crevices around the house) will know just how frustrating it can be to remove it in one piece! 🙂
What remains is the finished tile, ready to be glazed and fired. It also had me craving a slice of Chocolate tart – the similarity was uncanny!
We then made our way over to the shop, where some of their singular tiles with painted designs and prints are available for purchase. It is these tiles in particular that I have returned time and time again to purchase from Froyle Tiles. There’s something so simple, yet charming about the designs – anything from bees, pheasants and squirrels to greek statues, vehicles and buildings. Our daughter, Amelia, loves the animals and insects. There’s something quite ‘Beatrix Potter‘ in their design, and set against the simplicity of the clear glaze tile, they really stand out and work well displayed singularly or as a collection.
Also on show in the shop were some truly beautiful examples of tiles that were produced for clients. There was a stunning crystal glaze tile, where real crystals are grown during the firing process. There were also some lush green tiles which would have been very much at home in the Slytherin bathroom from Harry Potter!
Despite their extensive work with tiles, Froyle also produce some beautiful decorative pieces for use in the home. There was a box of cups, ready to be sold at one of the upcoming shows the team were exhibiting at. The sheer attention to detail on each cup was immense – and that’s before the painstaking, time-consuming prints were applied to the exterior windows!
Despite the busy workload, Richard insists anyone can drop by the shop to purchase products:
“Anyone can come by! We get interior designers, architects, big commercial specifiers, we have members of the public coming in for kitchens, bathrooms and things like that – it’s really varied. We never say no and there’s always someone here.”
As we make our way back to the workshop, the sunshine is fading behind the nearby fields, and aptly draws a close to my visit. I’ve been here before, I’ll most certainly come here again, and really suggest you do, too.
What Richard and his team do is truly fantastic; they’re keeping a skill alive in perhaps the most raw, honest and mind-blowing way. It’s businesses like Froyle Tiles that we need to support, and we hope they and other similar businesses continue to strive and thrive in this technological world.