earthy, evocative… and elegant: the extraordinary brick

by clé tile | published: Jun 08, 2023

every material comes with its own legacy and its own associations. marble? grandeur. cashmere? luxury. silk? the boudoir. and brick? work, industry, authenticity, history, tradition.

and that’s often how brick is employed in interior design and architecture: that exposed brick wall (faux or not) to suggest working class, industrial roots; that brick hearth, evoking all things warm and cozy and homey; that red brick exterior suggesting history and gravitas.

but that’s really just a start. boundary-pushing architects and designers (many of them working outside of the united states) have thrown convention to the wind, taking brick’s earthy, textural, intensely evocative character in new, more design-forward directions, elevating this everyday material to the downright extraordinary.

Different brick sizes and colors are used to enliven a church wall.

St Bonifatius church, germany. Design: Heinz Bienefeld

Standard sized bricks are used in unusual patterns around a window and up a wall.

St Willibrord Church, germany. Design: Heinz Bienefeld

playing up brick’s ancient roots — but with a twist

brick may be a humble material, but it's strong enough to hold its own when paired with even more intensely earthy materials, layering pattern, historical allusions, and moods on top of each other. 

in the Kayambura Gorge Lodge in Uganda, for example, locally fired clay bricks (sourced from surrounding communities) in different sizes, shapes, textures, and colors building combine to tell a story for the ages, without falling into cliché. we also have a penchant for the panoply of ways in which brick can be laid out… why does the classic running bond get to have all the fun?

use different sizes (skinny, wide, square, diamond), play with angles, employ multiple types of patterns (as with St Bonifatius church.) brick, with its more laid back feel, can accommodate abundant expressive moods. we’re particular fans of the way in which classic rectilinear brick form makes for a perfect foil for curvilinear shapes and forms.

Grey and orange cement square floor.

Creek House, sweden. architect: Tham & Videgård Arkitekter / photo: Åke E:son Lindman

architect: malu de miguel / photo: imagen subliminal

the perfect couple: grout and brick

you know by now that we take our grout very seriously, both as a design element and as a key structural element.

while thick grout lines are not for everyone (yes, upkeep is a concern) we do love to see grout used more artistically and even as the “hero,” fully embracing imperfection and the inevitable patina of time and use.

breaking brick free of “brick”

say the word “brick” and what likely comes to mind is, well, the color brick: a browny orange, sometimes a bit more brown, sometimes a bit more orange.

but it doesn’t have to be.

given that brick is a combination of earth and water and sand or grog, what gives unglazed brick its coloring is the earth itself: ranging from sandy and light to deep and brown, with some greys for good measure. but what if you want a more unexpected look? while glaze is an option, it’s possible to imbue brick with other natural hues with the addition of other minerals or through unconventional firing techniques. the result? a far more expressive, richer material.

making brick modern

how do you make a space or a building feel both modern and like it’s been there since time immemorial?

architects and designers are using brick in modern settings to highlight the expressive opportunities of the material. the result? structures that are moving, timeless, powerful, and humbling.

A single color of brick is placed in patterns on the exterior or the YSL museum.

YSL museum, morocco. Design: studio KO

A curving wall is covered in a pattern of brick resembling a woven fabric.

one of our favorite brick edifices is the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech (mYSLm) designed by French architecture firm Studio K, and which opened in autumn 2017. what's particularly moving: the way bricks create a pattern resembling threads of fabric: a perfect way to use this hard material to evoke something as soft and textural as cloth.

A geometric pattern on a monolithic wall.

‘The Intense City’, Netherlands. Design: Architectenbureau Marlies Rohmer / photo: Marcel van der Burg

Looking down at Chloé slide sandals on a geometric cement tile floor by Clé.
Looking down at Chloé slide sandals on a geometric cement tile floor by Clé.

we’re also more than intrigued by this aptly-named “Intense City” project, with this textural treatment of brick in a mixed use building creating a feel that’s both ancient and modern, with an almost otherworldly allure.

Vertical bricks cover the lower quarter of a wall in a cafe.

Ounce house cafe, korea. Design/photo: design5

A long store with brick shelving and large landings in brick.

Aesop Ginza, japan. Architect: schemata architects / photo: alessio guarino

putting the brick back into brick-and-mortar

another sign of brick’s ascendance is the way it’s being used in elevated retail spaces, creating a warm, comforting, and accessible mood, while offering the inherent durability of this material. used as an accent — or as the main event — brick sets the tone.

Brick stairs with beveled edges.

St Willibrord Church, germany. Design: Heinz Bienefeld

Brick is installed vertically, end-on-end, to create stairs.

Triplex Stairway in Sant Antoni, spain. design: Valenti Albareda / photo by José Hevia.

stairways to heaven

while we appreciate the grand gesture, we also appreciate the way in which brick can be used in those quieter, more intimate spaces, where detail matters.

brick installed end-on-end (as opposed to flat) creates a timeless but distinctively modern look, while the beveled edges (and thick mortar) of the stairs are an unexpected refinement in a utilitarian context.

Breezeblock is installed on an interior wall and mortared to show the circular pattern.

Mintchi Croissant cafe, São Paulo, brazil. Architect: Dezembro Arquitetos / photo: Carolina Lacaz

A geometric dark terracotta and black floor with a green wall, blue velvet curtain and lone gold and black vanity chair.

holey brick!

brick breezeblock is a staple of outdoor use, imparting a sculptural look to building exteriors and courtyards, while giving the spaces a lighter look — and yes, offering a chance for cooler breezes to flow through. but what of breezeblock for interior use? while we’ve seen it used as room dividers, we’re particularly keen on this much more decorative look, where grout is employed to fill in the holes, emphasizing shape and pattern, rather than transparency.