Established in 1920, Stonelight Tile is the foster child of S&S Tile (Solon & Schemmel). Albert Solon, descended from a family which had been in the Pottery and Ceramic industry in Europe for 300 years.
S&S Tile created ceramic tile masterpieces in their factory in San Jose, during the Arts & Crafts, Colonial, Mission Revival, and Art Deco periods. The tiles were used for floors, stairs, fountains, wall treatments, fireplaces, mantles and archways, which made treasures of the buildings they adorned. Solon’s tile work was used on many major San Francisco landmarks, including The Mark Hopkins Hotel and the Steinhart Aquarium. San Jose enjoyed his ceramic work at The California Fox Theater and the downtown Sainte Claire Hotel. Perhaps the most noted to utilize the S&S Tile is Hearst Castle at San Simeon.
Stonelight Tile still produces those classic tiles using the same plates, molds, and presses from that era. Stonelight welcomes all tile inquiries for restoration, remodel, and/or new construction.
The History of Stonelight Tile
From an article by Jeanne M. Lazzarini printed in Style 1900
Very few tile artists have made as lasting and as dramatic an impression on the California decorative ceramic arts scene since the beginning of the twentieth
century as Albert L. Solon (1887-1949). Albert Solon, together with his partner Frank Schemmell began a distinctive tile manufacturing career back in the early 1920’s in San Jose, California. Withstanding the test of time, and still manufactured under the name Stonelight Tile today using the same age-old techniques, exquisite examples of Solon’s magnificent tile work appear throughout the West; a testimony to the abundant popularity of his unique decorative tile artistry.
Intellectual ingenuity pioneered a new western frontier at the turn of the century; California was the place of majestic landscapes, pleasant climates, and stylized dreams. For ceramists feeling the urge to escape the prefabricated effects of industrialism, California offered perfect clay soils and a new place to create hand-finished work reflective of the then recently popular Mission Revival, Spanish Revival, and innovative American Arts and Crafts bungalow architecture. Tiles, coming from the soils of the earth either actually hand-sculpted or made to appear so by machine production, reflected this American Arts and Crafts aesthetic in design.
Up until the end of the 1880’s, many of the tiles being produced were colored in glossy translucent glazes that accentuated relief designs. During the Arts and Crafts period, matte glazes and rougher finishes in tiles suddenly became widely accepted for their unsmooth handmade appearances. Such tiles were pioneered in 1898 at Henry Mercer’s renowned Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Pennsylvania, by the Rockwood Pottery in Cincinnati with its faience tiles in 1902, and at Mary Chase Perry’s Pewabic Pottery in Detroit a year later.
California, with its legendary gold rushes, sweeping landscapes and milder climate, already supported the fantasy of the Craftsman, Spanish, Mexican, and Mediterranean lifestyles. Decades earlier, the Golden State had already established it’s clay-tile heritage under the direction of Spanish Franciscan priests in the making of sun-dried adobe bricks, with fired roof and floor tiles, for its chain of missions along El Camino Real (“The King’s Highway,” a north-to-south route along the state).
Traveling expositions and architects promoted design trends for homes, directly linking a California mystique with the popular Craftsman-style bungalow idea and the Mediterranean-Hispanic home. These associations subsequently influenced the type of ceramic tiles to appear throughout the state.
Beginning in 1910 as a backyard operation and mushrooming into a major industry throughout the state by the mid-1920’s, California tile manufacturing became a symbol of the new ideal in Arts and Crafts aesthetic design. With abundant valleys rich in clay soils, California attracted imaginative artists from all over the world, eager to explore different methods for making and using tiles. Albert Solon, one of the most imaginative tile makers of the time, certainly recognized decorative ceramic tiles as part of the traditional California building, reflecting the early mission days of the Franciscan and Jesuit priests.
“He carried the basic precepts of such Arts and Crafts tile potteries as Rookwood and Grueby Faience into a postwar era which saw new freedoms in the use of color and design, adds Riley Doty, noted historic tile authority. It was natural that Solon included in the popular Spanish Revival architecture in 1920’s California decorative tiles with European and Islamic overtones.
A direct descendent of the Arnoux family, well-established master ceramists in France dating back to Toulouse in the late seventeenth century, Albert L. Solon was born in 1887 at Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England, after his family had moved to England toward the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). His father, Louis Marc Solon, an expert on English china, won the highest honors at the Paris Exposition in 1878 for his perfected process of building up and modeling a design in white clay on a darker color ceramic body, known as “pAte-sur-pAte.” One of nine children, Albert studied at the Victoria Institute in Stoke and served as apprentice at the famed Minton China Works.
Tile and ceramic studies influenced most of Louis’ children. For instance, Leon Solon (1872-1957), Albert’s eldest sibling, later became an eminent authority on tile. He went on to work as an artistic director and designer at the American Encaustic Tiling Company in New York from 1912 to 1925. Having also studied and been a former director at Minton’s, he became widely admired for his coloring of ceramic ware, known as “architectural polychrome.”
Another famous sibling of Albert’s, Camille A. Solon (1877-1960), had the distinguished career of working for the famous architect Julia Morgan. His beautiful painted surfaces and tile work can be found in the private libraries, glass mosaic waffs and indoor pools of the palatial estate of William Randolph Hearst on the California coast at San Simeon.
Gilbert Solon (1879-1929) was a designer at Minton’s and worked at the Royal Worchester Porcelain Co., Ltd., in Worchester, England. Another brother, Paul (1883-?), lived in Ohio and New Jersey, and later worked at the American Encaustic Tiling Company like his brother Leon.
In 1908, Albert emigrated to the United States and settled in northern California, in Fairfax, to manage a pottery factory at the established Arequipa Tuberculosis Sanatorium for women. After winning praise in the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, for his magnificent turquoise “Persian Blue’ glazes and new clay pottery made under his direction by the Sanatorium, Solon to move south in 1916 to teach ceramics and physics at the San Jose Normal School (eventually known as San Jose University).
At the age of 33, Solon, in 1920, made an arrangement with Frank Schemmel to begin manufacturing wall and floor tiles under the name “Solon and Schemmel.”
Setting up their first location in San Jose, they began producing tiles with beautiful luminescent glazes in a variety of magnificent colors. “Each tile installation became a ceramic masterpiece and soon stairs, floors, fountains, fireplaces, mantels, archways and various wall treatments all over California were adorned with his ornament,” notes Jack Douglas, San Jose State University archivist and author of Historical Footnotes of Santa Clara Valley (published by the San Jose Historical Museum Association, 1993).
Solon made all of his tiles out of wet clay, resulting in a slight irregularity that resulted in a handmade look. He created all his own glazes, each rich in color and varied in texture. He had an expert eye for harmony of color and beauty of design, blending well with his strong sense of earthiness of the day in each finished tile. His elements were mostly highly stylized floral designs, plant scrolls, and various geometric forms.
Solon designed tiles for both large- and small-scale architectural uses, most apparent in large friezes and decorated facades on many schools and commercial buildings. “One thing about California that differed from other areas in the United States at the time, 11 says Sheila Menzies, cofounder of the Tile Heritage Foundation, “is that there was also an outside life. Tiles appeared in exterior decoration in patios, fountains, and on stair risers, much the same way they are used in similar climate areas like Spain, Mexico and Portugal.” “Another notable difference from the East Coast, ” continues Joseph Taylor, also of the Tile Heritage Foundation, “was that California was creating its own new traditions; brightly colored tiles in California, for example, never would have appeared in Philadelphia or Massachusetts, where established rules prevailed.”
By 1925 Solon and Schemmel had outgrown their facility and decided to move to South First Street in San Jose. Within a short time their firm had achieved an impressive list of installations. The 1929 publication The Clay-Worker exclaimed, “among the buildings which attest the high art of this product are … a number of the newest school buildings of San Francisco, the Oakland and Berkeley war memorials, the palatial country home of William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon, Loews’ State and Orpheum and Junior Orpheum theaters in Los Angeles, the Y.M.C.A. buildings in San Diego and Honolulu, and the Dollar Steamship Line building at Portland, Oregon.”
Most tiles were made from a press using molds hand-cut from linoleum (a rather unique process for that time). Plaster molds were
also used for some designs. Tiles before 1928 all relied on the use of relief, having been pressed from a mold; the raised ridges of clay served as dams, or cloisons, to separate different glaze colors. Glaze was normally applied by a rubber squeeze bulb. Tiles used in California bungalows tended to be handcrafted from wet clay, with earthy matte finishes and pictorial scenes for design. Homes in the Mediterranean style, as of the Spanish-Colonial type, tended to have tiles in brighter colors, originally pressed from dry clays, and often designed in bold geometric or exotic patterns. Floors, stair wells, and fireplaces were tiled with decorative inserts in both bungalow and Spanish-Colonial styles.
In 1928 Solon introduced two new lines to his tile selections, both using a smooth tile face for decoration. “One method,” explains Doty who is currently writing a book about Albert Solon, “was the ‘cuerda seca’ or dry-line type which used a dark grease line or wax resist, in place of the clay ridge, to separate the areas of different colors. Another was a special style of underglaze painting in which the colors were applied by brush and then fired to the point where they began to liquefy and spread out slightly. The final result was a soft blurring of detail that is quite distinctive.
Most of the tiles Solon made, however, were made in the “cuenca” style where color was applied to valleys made by the clay ridges.” Later in the 1930’s Solon also used brass molds to create deep curving relief’s for his “moderne” designs. Always interested in the adaptation of clay, in 1932 Solon hired George Poxon From southern California and together they made a line of china called “Sainte Claire Ware.” Said to be virtually unbreakable, Poxon and Solon used a Death Valley mineral to create this dinnerware (later another tile firm, Gladding, McBean, produced a similar china product, calling it “Franciscan Ware”).
After Schemmel retired from the business in 1936, Paul G. Larkin Abecame Solon’s new partner; the new firm became known as “Solon and Larkin.” Larkin was in charge of the plant, which included one small test kiln and two large production kilns. Both Solon and Larkin were well-established gifted ceramists who continued working closely with prestigious architectural firms such as Birge M. Clark of Palo Alto, Charles E Dean of Sacramento, Lewis P Hobart, and the San Francisco firms of Julia Morgan, Weeks and Day, and John Reid, Jr.
After World War 11, Albert Solon decided to retire. In 1947 Solon and Larkin became the Larkin Tile Company, and Larkin relocated the tile operation to Pomona Avenue; its present location in San Jose today. A couple of years later Albert Solon died of heart failure. The Larkin Tile Company continued operating into the fifties, with financial problems indicative of the low demand for decorative tiles during those times. In 1954 three University of California, Berkeley, students approached Larkin. They had heard of his financial difficulties and offered to lease the Larkin plant for a year, agreeing to pay off Larkins debts. In exchange, Larkin would teach the men-Ross Chichester, Paul Chamberlain and David Kasavan the tile trade.
Larkin lived up to his bargain, then retired from the company in 1955. Although this meant the end of the Larkin Tile Company, a new company called “Stonelight Tile” took its Place, at first making replicas of early Roman oil lamps (hence the name), then continuing on with tile production in the spirit of Solon and Schemmel.
The 1960’s saw an era of stars and kings purchasing Stonelight Tiles, as public interest in handmade California tiles suddenly rekindled. Kim Novak,
Barbra Streisand, Clint Eastwood, and the king of Saudi Arabia were known to frequent the San Jose factory, enthusiastically snatching up the beautiful handcrafted Stonelight tiles. These tiles suddenly appeared again in murals, swimming pools, Macy’s stores and even in hospitals across the nation.
Here we see the upper view of the tiled arched doorway of the Natural Science Building at San Jose State University…
After the eighties, David Anson became the new owner of Stonelight Tile and today continually sees increasing interest in Solon’s tiles. “Even though Albert Solon had built up a body of work that steadily became more varied as the years went by,” explains Anson, “he never stopped producing the earlier designs which had proved so successful.”
After the Arts and Crafts movement and into modern times, interest in decorative tiles waned while mass production of utilitarian tiles (primarily for bathrooms, kitchens, and floors) flourished. Only three major California tile manufacturers from the 1920’s have survived into the present: Kraftile, Handcraft, and Stonelight Tile.
Making a refreshing comeback in today’s Arts and Crafts revival scene, Stonelight Tile carries on the traditions of tile ceramist extraordinaire Albert L. Solon. Experiencing early twentieth-century California, deeply conscious of architectural trends with a strong background in ceramic techniques, Albert Solon and his firms managed to produce exquisitely unique tiles that reflect the soul of California’s Arts and Crafts era and survive the test of time.
The Tradition Continues
The worth of an idea can only be measured once it becomes a reality. At Stonelight Tile, we have made an art of developing ideas into reality.
Whether it’s an existing tile design, or a design you developed in association with our artist, the unique relationship between you and Stonelight Tile will allow you to follow your tile from initial development through it’s final finishing stages.
From large commercial installations to custom households, your design ideas deserve to be brought to their full potential.
Stonelight Tile is a glazed clay tile with an unusually hard body, of the type made in Europe for centuries and traditionally known as faience tile. It is made chiefly of natural clays baked to maturity at more than 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. This produces a body of extreme density and little absorption.
All glazes, whether as dull as sand or bright as a mirror are basically glass melted onto the surface of the tile body.
Stonelight’s stoneware matte glazes are especially suited for floors that take at lot of abuse, and where the look of a handcrafted material is desired.
The tiles with this type of glaze have been used for years in many commercial installations, such as restaurants and department stores, which endure more foot traffic in a year than the average home does in a lifetime. Despite their matte surface, they do not require waxing.
The Surface of Creativity
Stonelight Tile is a functional service with unlimited variations of color, shape and texture. In addition to the hundreds of patterns, shapes, sizes and designs available, is the option of custom designing a tile. Based on your design needs and ideas, our artists can hand-cut tile shape samples. Once your design is approved, that shape can then be rendered into a permanent production mold.
Most “commercial” ceramic tiles use highly refined materials to achieve standardized colors. Stonelight Tile utilizes a natural “raw” glaze to create its own ridge variations in shades. Raw, materials such as cobalt, copper, manganese, iron and tin provide the subtle yet luxuriant colors that could only be derived from nature.
The Art of Stonelight
As early as 4,000 BC, glazed bricks or tiles adorned surfaces of homes and dwellings. Valued for their color, shape and texture, these early tools of design established the foundation of what is today the art is stonelight Tile. The skill involved, and the art it produces has inspired tile makers for over 5,000 years. At stonelight Tile it inspires us still. Through tile we enjoy a rich and growing heritage of which we invite you to become a part.
Whether they are tiles from the early civilizations of Asia for those of 18th-century Europe, all act as the structure for the techniques used by stonelight Tile today. In an ancient Egyptian temple, an ageless beauty is evident in tiles that have decorated a small passageway for over 3,000 years. It’s a craftsmanship that began then and flourishes now.
The key to a creative effort is a lack of limitations. Stonelight Tile welcomes inquiries from architects, designers or anyone interested in exploring the unlimited potential of a tile surface. We are looking forward to turning your ideas into reality.