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zellige: the perfectly imperfect tile

In a workshop in northern Morocco, artisans pack local clay into shallow rectangular molds, then lay the slabs in the sun to dry before stacking them like card houses into kilns stoked with olive pits to fire overnight. The techniques they use are ancient, passed down through generations from artisan to apprentice. The clay is found nowhere else in the world and, according to the locals, has been blessed by God. The resulting tiles are a pale, warm terracotta, with soft ripples that lend depth and nuance to colored glazes and send light dancing across their surfaces. This is the tile that shimmers on ceilings, walls, floors, and fountains all over Morocco, each piece painstakingly cut by hand. This is zellige.

 

Our love affair with zellige began 25 years ago when clé founder Deborah Osburn met a tile producer from Morocco. His handcrafted wares were astonishingly beautiful, with jewel-tone glazes that varied like so many leaves or flower petals, and organic surfaces randomly pocked by exploding olive pits. But the tile industry at the time favored volume and uniformity, product that was easy to get and easy to set, in colors consistent from one tile to the next, with bullnose trim to match, thank you very much.

 

 

Knowing it would be impossible to convince American distributors and dealers to take on this artisan-made, small-batch, perfectly imperfect tile, Deborah put the tile aside. Fast forward to six years ago with the launch of clé, Deborah decided to supply it directly to customers herself. In her home filled with crates and stacks of tile, she has spent untold hours placing orders with the workshop, consulting with architects and designers and talking installers through the setting process. But project by project, this ancient tile from Morocco has earned a devoted following.

 

 

Today, clé offers zellige in more shapes, sizes, colors, glazed and unglazed, than anyone else outside of Morocco. Our tiles have brought color and beauty to spaces as small as kitchen backsplashes and as large as hotel lobbies. “I saw something in those tiles the minute I saw them- they had a transformative quality - that I knew would transcend typical tile surfaces.” To make that happen, she says, “you needed someone a little bit crazy, passionate and in love with it.”

 


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