David Anson, the analog artisan behind Stonelight Tile, is fighting for the 
survival of his company—with the community’s help
David Anson has run the historic Stonelight Tile since 1989. Photo by Kevin N. Hume

The scenery changes as Market Street heads away from downtown San Jose’s breweries, art galleries, luxury apartments and hotels—right before the Interstate 280 underpass. At Reed Street, the new luxury living space, The Pierce, sits on the northeast corner. On the northwest, the former Enterprise Rent-A-Car lot has been razed, and heavy machines shape the foundation of a forthcoming development. Then, the march of gentrification halts. For now.

On the south side of West Reed Street, where Market merges with and becomes South First, an old, rundown two-story building is home to La Peóita Restaurant and the vestiges of a showroom for an artisan tile maker.

Stonelight Tile, located at 609 S. First St., has operated out of this space for two decades. Here, an octogenarian Australian transplant and his wife scramble to beat a recent eviction notice and move a trove of historical artifacts 12 miles north to Alviso.

Packed up in boxes are the original molds for tiles set in the Hearst Castle kitchen, San Francisco’s historic Steinhart Aquarium and Castro Theatre, the Oakland and Berkeley war memorials, and in numerous Silicon Valley landmarks—such as the California Theatre and the Sainte Claire Hotel.

Prior to rebranding in 1953, Stonelight was known as the Larkin Tile Co. Before that it was Solon & Larkin. The company’s original name was Solon & Schemmel. Founded in 1920, S&S was a major player among other recognized pre-war Bay Area craft tile producers, such as the California Art Tile Co. in Richmond; Handcraft Tile in Milpitas; and Kraftile Co. in Niles. In its heyday, S&S would produce some of the most sought-after squares of ceramic in the tile world. Today, collectors will pay $150 for a single plate.

Two years from now, S&S and its various iterations will mark 100 years in business. It’s the last local survivor of a once formidable industry. In 2014, longtime San Jose tile maker Fireclay Tile moved its kilns to Aromas and its showroom to San Francisco’s design district.

At 82, it’s clear that David Anson is feeling the weight of his years. Nevertheless, the Stonelight owner continues to fight for his business’ survival. “I want to see this business go forward,” he says—his gravelly Australian accent stretching the vowels like rubber. “I want to see it get to its 100 years, and hopefully back to its former glory.”

For her part, Sarah Adeel shares Anson’s hope. Adeel, who works for the Kiva.org online microlender, is Anson’s neighbor. She lives in The Pierce, the stylish new apartment complex across the street from Stonelight’s building. After moving into the just-completed building in 2017, Anson was one of the first people Adeel met. In an ironic paradox, the neighborhood’s gentrification brought Anson some of his most ardent champions.

“I was blown away by the intricacy of the tile,” she says, explaining her initial interest in Stonelight. Adeel, who studied design and architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, says she was immediately taken with Anson’s craftsmanship. “Anything beautiful and creative always catches my eye.”

Then she started to dig deeper into the company’s history and learned more about Anson’s plight. In December 2016, Anson had been served his first eviction notice. Oakland’s deadly Ghost Ship disaster weeks earlier had drawn attention to fire safety issues in aging buildings that could be used as live-work spaces, and the humble building was looking more like a potential development site with new apartments springing up on opposing corners. Anson was in New Zealand when he got word that a letter had arrived telling him he had 30 days to quit. He appealed for an extension, which was granted.

A year later, he’s almost out, though the physical act of moving and the mental stress of it all has taken its toll on him. Anson says he’s been rising at 4am lately to get a jump on the scant winter daylight. He straps on a back brace and carries the heavy boxes to a pickup truck or leaves the tiles stacked near La Peóita’s dumpster with a “FREE” sign. He’s fallen a few times as well. “These past 12 months have been horrendous,” he says, ticking off the hip and back problems that have resulted from his various spills and increased manual labor. When he moves about the almost-vacant showroom he frequently winces in pain.

On his most recent appeal to his landlord, Anson says he was given until the end of January pack up. However, the rent check for this month has been returned. “I expect to be booted out of here any moment,” he says.

When Adeel began to understand the gravity of Anson’s situation, she knew she needed to do something. “It just didn’t make sense to me,” she says of the idea that Stonelight should go under for good. “This is a part of the city’s history. It seemed like everything was going to go to waste, and I didn’t want that to happen.

She began by sending emails to some of her more connected friends, including people at San Jose’s Economic Development Department. That got the ball rolling, as these contacts spread the word. Eventually she pulled together a crew of young creatives to help her produce a short documentary film about Anson and Stonelight. She held a wine and cheese reception in The Pierce’s pool deck community room to spread the word. The eight-minute clip is part of a GoFundMe page, which has so far raised almost $4,000. The goal is $25,000, which is the estimated expense of what it will cost to get Anson set up in a new location, which has already been identified in Alviso.

Stonelight’s new home will occupy some currently shuttered buildings in the low-lying bayside neighborhood in North San Jose. They come as a “win-win-win” for Stonelight, Gardner Health Services and the community of Alviso.

That’s according to Reymundo Espinoza, CEO of Gardner Health. He was the one who, with Anson, came up with the idea of allowing Stonelight to move into some former Gardner administrative offices on the Alviso Health Center campus.

One of the few tile molds still remaining at Stonelight Tile’s almost-vacant San Jose showroom. Photo by Kevin N. Hume

Tile is nothing new, of course. Historians have documented the use of fired clay blocks back to ancient Egypt, 6,000 years ago. Tourists are drawn to the fantastic tile mosaics that adorn Moscow’s subway stations. But of late, tile has been having a moment.

The Apartment Therapy and Houzz websites have run predictive tile trend listicles for the past couple of years, while Sunset Magazine has advised its readers to “let the tile do the talking” when considering contemporary kitchen decor. The trend can be seen in the herringbone arrangement at the newly opened Mendocino Farms at the PruneYard Shopping Center in Campbell, or in the hexagonal ceramic bits lining the bathroom floor at Olla Cocina at San Pedro Square in San Jose. A similar pattern is hard to miss in the uniform constellation of circles set underfoot at Academic Coffee at the edge of San Jose’s SoFA District.

Oakland-based tile-setter and historian Riley Dota says the interest in ceramic surfaces—particularly handcrafted ones—is part of a general current in contemporary interior design that seeks to reverse post-World War II trends in standardization and industrialization.

At the height of World War II, the Bay Area contributed to the war effort by producing thousands of ships in its many shipyards. To meet the demands of the Navy, the shipbuilders had to be extremely efficient.

That philosophy, Dota says, led to new ideas about standardization after the war—giving rise to the tract home and products like vinyl flooring, which were easy to reproduce at acceptable quality for first-time homebuyers.

“It was a new era after the war,” Dota says. “It was very much influenced by highly streamlined industrial production.”

By the time the counterculture began blooming in the Bay Area during the ’60s, the time was ripe for a rebellion against this kind of standardization. And by the time the children of baby boomers came of age, it was time for a full-on revolt. The late-’90s and early-’00s saw a spike in the production of and interest in handcrafted tile—the kind that S&S once produced, according to Dota. It’s a trend that continues today, and which can be seen in contemporary architectural features, such as exposed brick, upcycling of old industrial materials and in the use of reclaimed wood in posh new pubs and housing developments.

It makes sense to Dota that there would be a return to interest in craftsmanship—especially when it comes to tile. “The material itself—the ceramic—it’s almost eternal, just like gemstones,” he says. “The tile locks in unfading color. It’s the same color that came out of the kiln 125 years ago.”

For Adeel, her love of more natural materials arises from a desire to disconnect from the constant buzz of modern tech and to reconnect with a more balanced mental state.

“We’re so wrapped up in this virtual world that the physical world has taken a backseat,” she says, expounding on the value of making things by hand. As for living in an environment constructed of more natural materials, that also has a key benefit, to her mind. “I think it’s all about energy, right? It’s about the purity that’s naturally grown. I think it’s the energy that emits through clay.”

David Anson never intended to be a purveyor of handcrafted tiles or the heir to a 100-year-old historical legacy. He wasn’t even a tile guy to begin with.

Born in Australia in 1935, Anson went into the plumbing trade as a young man. His passions for camping and rugby led him to seek a career where he could use his hands and stay out of office buildings. After gaining his license as a plumber, he went on to become a general contractor. “I didn’t want to work in an office,” he says. “I’m an outside person, not an inside person.” His rugby playing sometimes took precedence over his contracting business. He first came to the States in the ’70s while coaching a touring club.

Anson ultimately landed at the helm of Stonelight Tile after a friend convinced him to take a 50 percent stake in the company. Back then, Anson says he had no idea of Stonelight’s history. When he first got involved, all he knew about it was that it had most recently been a holding of Australian Consolidated Industries—one of his home country’s largest firms. The company, which dealt mostly in glass, had invested in a number of tile and ceramic manufacturing companies when it expanded into the United States. When ACI sought to divest itself of many of these small tile companies, Anson’s friend got together a group of investors and persuaded Anson to get on board.

The trouble started almost immediately after Anson took over at Stonelight, which was located on Pomona Avenue at the time. The facility, while old, was capable of cranking out massive orders of tile, which is what Anson and his partners started to do in earnest. The kilns ran 24 hours a day to meet the demand of customers like hospitals and shopping malls and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Then, a new neighbor moved in and opened what Anson contends was an illegal recycling business. The operation, San Jose Recycling II Co., spit out clouds of fine debris—ground up roofing, trees and other organic material, which drifted over into Stonelight’s yard and threw a wrench into the works, Anson says.

The glaze-spraying machines gummed up, which in turn disrupted the assembly line. “What was coming out the end of it was rubbish,” Anson says. “Our sales went right down.”

The other investors pulled out, but Anson stuck with the company, convinced it would be an easy fix. He sued and eventually prevailed in court against the recycling operation. He intended to use the settlement money to open a new plant up in Greenville, in Plumas County. That plan went south after insurance companies failed to pay up and another antagonistic neighbor tied Anson up in court yet again—this time for almost 12 years.

In the midst of all this, with his old factory impossibly disrupted by environmental pollution and what he intended to be his new factory tied up in court, Anson made a savvy decision. He didn’t know it at the time, though.

David Anson sifts through old tiles in Stonelight Tile’s outdoor storage yard in downtown San Jose. Photo by Kevin N. Hume

Without industrial-grade kilns or glazing equipment, fulfilling orders for malls and hospitals was no longer a viable option. Anson had to come up with a new business model and fast.

Anson is a determined man, and isn’t one to give up when the going gets tough. “I refuse to back down when right is not being done,” he says. “I stand up for myself. If somebody whacks me, mate, I whack ’em back.”

While he knew he wouldn’t be able to produce for large-scale construction projects, Anson did have a secret weapon—the S&S molds. And he was starting to catch on that people would be willing to pay good money for tiles with a human touch and vintage look.

Before the recycling business debacle, Anson had taken special notice of one peculiar customer. “We had a guy who would come in and he’d buy one tile; they were $15 each,” he recalls. The man would come in regularly, and every time, without fail, he would only want one tile made. “I would say, ‘Why don’t you order them all at once, mate?'”

The answer was that the man was not interested in flooring a bathroom or kitchen. He merely appreciated the aesthetic beauty of a single tile and thought that his friends would as well. The tiles, he told Anson, were birthday presents.

This vital clue came to Anson in the mid-’90s—at the same time as a national resurgence of interest in handcrafted tiles from the so called Golden Era. Historians prize tiles made during this era, from about 1910-1940. It spans a number or major architectural currents—from the arts and crafts movement through the pueblo revival and on to the art deco movement. Solon & Schemmel were in business together from 1920-1936, before Schemmel left and was replaced by Larkin.

Though Anson says it was “more of a happy coincidence” than an accurate reading of tea leaves, Stonelight Tile’s reinvention could hardly have come at a better time.

“I reactivated all the old molds and we started to concentrate on decorative tiles,” Anson says.

It paid off. As word spread that Anson not only had the ability to reissue the iconic S&S tiles, but that he also had the original glaze recipes, commercial and private clients began seeking him out.

He was contracted by the California Theatre and the Sainte Claire to replace tiles that had been damaged in construction projects.

“We had a guy who had intended to restore his bathroom for 20 years,” Anson recalls. Stonelight made it possible when they were able to give the man the original S&S pattern he was looking for.

Anson’s 82-year-old frame is slightly bent. “The doctor told me, ‘Just take it easy and don’t have any more falls,'” Anson says. Still, he says he has little choice but to keep moving. Money is tight and on one recent trip to the new site in Alviso, he helps his hired hand, Tito, with numerous heavy and unwieldy items.

All the same, when he stoops to pick up boxes filled with heavy ceramic tiles, it’s not difficult to see the young rugby player of yesteryear. His handshake also betrays the strength he once used to hammer nails and fit pipe. Anson has built a life using his physicality, and possesses a strong mind and will, to boot.

It’s Jan. 12 and Anson is moving as fast as his old bones will carry him. He is preparing for yet another trip to Stonelight Tile’s new home, at Hoppe and Liberty streets in Alviso.

It’s worth noting that the efforts of Adeel and Espinoza came together independently of each other. In the end, if Stonelight makes it to its centennial, it will be due to a community effort—a collective refusal to allow history to be extinguished.

Espinoza first encountered Anson’s work after eating lunch at the neighboring La Peóita sometime around 2003. At the time, the community health care organization was planning to do some work on its Gilroy center, and Espinoza believed Anson’s handiwork would fit in nicely with the building’s aesthetic.

“To me, it’s art,” Espinoza says of the tiles he ended up picking out for the back courtyard of the Gardner South County Health Center. “It’s really beautiful stuff.”

The two men kept in contact over the years, and Stonelight also helped Espinoza out with a personal project—his home patio. So, when Espinoza learned that Anson was struggling to find a new home, he came up with what he describes as a mutually beneficial solution. Anson can move in on the cheap, so long as he helps retrofit the buildings; this is good for Gardner, which had been faced the prospect of making the retrofits or knocking down the buildings; and it’s good for locals, many of whom had complained that the buildings were an eyesore.

But it’s more than that, Espinoza says. Gardner Health Services is also marking its own bit of history this year. The organization was founded 50 years ago, in 1967, with the aim of helping migrant farmworkers access health care. From its humble beginnings in Alviso, Gardner has grown and now has facilities all over the South Bay.

“I think it’s something that we can relate to,” Espinoza says of Stonelight’s existential crisis. “It would be a tragedy to lose an artist and that kind of company that’s been around for so long. There is a value in keeping that body of knowledge and technique alive.”

Source: Metroactive | January 17, 2018