clé tile pioneered zellige tile over a decade ago, introducing designers and homeowners to this handcrafted tile from Morocco whose imperfections—variegation in surface texture and color—are its charms, bringing an authentic, handcrafted sophistication to any space. here’s what you need to know about authentic Moroccan zellige tile: its origins, how to design with it, and tips on installation.
sections:what is zellige tile?what shapes and sizes does zellige tile come in?clé and zellige tile: a love storywhat is so remarkable about clé zellige tilewhat to expect when designing with zellige tile where to install zellige tilezellige collections and artist collaborationstips for zellige tile installation and maintenancetips for choosing, buying, and installing zellige tile
what is zellige tile?
zellige tile (sometimes spelled zellij or zelij but pronounced zuh-leej) is a glazed terracotta tile handmade according to centuries-old tradition in Morocco.
clé’s zellige collection is as authentic as it comes: a product that embraces its heritage and place. a combination of tradition, artistry, and expert craftsmanship, clé zellige is from the exact location in Morocco where, during the 10th century, zellige tile-making began.
to honor this ancient traditional tile, we use the original source for zellige clay located in Fez, Morocco. once this clay is dug up, it is molded into blocks, cured in the sun, then hand cut into tiles before it is hand glazed and kiln fired in ancient bee-hive kilns, fueled by olive pits and branches.
the result? beautiful imperfection, steeped in centuries-old traditions.
what shapes and sizes does zellige tile come in?
clé zellige tiles are available in three shapes and four sizes: 4x4 square, 2x6 bejmat (subway), 2x2 square, and 3.5x4 hexagon.
with the exception of bejmat, zellige tiles have a thickness of about 3/8ths of an inch. however, their handcrafted nature means that you should expect variation in the exact thickness and size of each tile: no two tiles will be exactly identical.
our zellige tile is unmounted, meaning you will need to hire a professional tile installer, and we thoroughly recommend someone with experience installing authentic zellige.
spotlight on bejmat zellige tile
bejmat zellige tiles are a particular style of zellige tile that come in an elongated rectangle, reminiscent of the beloved subway shape. the most important thing to know about clé bejmat zellige tiles is that they are a bit thicker than zellige squares and hexes.
clé zellige bejmat tiles are 2 inches wide and 6 inches long, with a thickness of about 3/4ths of an inch. like the rest of our handcrafted zellige collection, you should expect variation in the exact thickness and size of each tile.
our zellige bejmat tiles are about 3/8ths thicker than zellige squares and hexes. this difference in thickness is a result of how the clay expands during the firing process: a smaller, narrower surface area means the clay is forced to expand outwards, creating a slightly thicker tile.
when it comes to designing with zellige bejmat tiles, their extra thickness means they can provide a perfect hybrid between a traditional wall tile and a sculptural tile. when paired with other zellige tiles, they can be used to create unique 3D patterns on a wall. if you are looking to imbue a little more character and intrigue into your installation and shine a spotlight on the handcrafted, one-of-a-kind nature of each zellige tile, experimenting with texture and surface is a great way to do so.
clé and zellige tile: a love story
zellige tile has been part of clé since its inception. clé founder Deborah Osburn fell in love with zellige and all its beautiful imperfections, undulating edges and shimmering ripples of glazed terracotta, and was inspired by the deep history of Moroccan tile.
the tile industry at the time favored volume and uniformity and zellige was very much an outlier. tiles that were easy to get and easy to install, in colors consistent from one tile to the next, were what designers were favoring. American designers and contractors were also largely untrained in materials other than those produced in the US, making it nearly impossible to find contractors that could install Moroccan zellige tiles correctly in the states.
zellige 4x4 square tiles in natural. design: brasstacks / photo: jessica cain
zio & sons zellige tile in sea salt and natural. design / photo: zio & sons
clé has played a large role in converting designers to the beauty of zellige, and the tile that shimmers on ceilings, walls, floors, and fountains all over Morocco has made its way to the instagram pages and pinterest boards of American consumers.
today, clé offers zellige in more shapes, sizes, and 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.
what is so remarkable about clé zellige tile?
our zellige is the real deal.
we sell authentic zellige, made the traditional way. our goal is to honor the imperfections that clé believes are at the heart of zellige’s beauty and character, not remove them. clé zellige is fired in kilns fueled by olive branches and pits that pop and explode, causing minerals in the unfiltered terracotta clay to expand and burst through the surface of the glaze in the extreme heat of the kiln.
this unique firing process means that each tile will exhibit pits, chips, and crazing (small hairline cracks in the glaze, typical in handcrafted tile) rendering each tile totally unique. to the untrained eye or novice tile installer these imperfections may seem like defects, but nothing could be further from the truth.
part of the charm and character of traditional zellige tile comes from its welcome irregularity. each zellige tile is chiseled by hand to create an angled, chamfered edge, part of a tradition of tile-making handed down through generations.
zellige 4x4 square in weathered white. design: studio robert mckinley / photo: hotel joaquin
zellige bejmat tiles in fired opal. design/photo: joanna gaines
with zellige tile, you are bringing something truly special into your home: handcrafted, distinctive tiles that bear the mark, and story, of centuries of tile tradition and artistry.
buyer beware: not all zellige tile is created equal (or even really zellige at all)
so-called “zellige tile” is available from other companies, but in many cases it is machine-cut and mass produced and will not have the full character, richness, and beauty of the handcrafted original. if authenticity and integrity matter to you and your design, make sure to choose authentic zellige.
what to expect when designing with zellige tile
zellige 4x4 square tiles in tea ceremony. design: oh joy! / photo: bethany nauert
zellige 2x2 square tiles in vintage rose. design: prairie interiors / photo: chad mellon
due to the handcrafted nature of zellige tile, it is unlike most other tile you may have come across.
the distinctive charm of zellige tile lies in its defiance of uniformity. for consumers who expect perfect consistency from each tile to the next, zellige tile may not be for everyone.
when it comes to zellige tile, knowing exactly what to expect can go a long way, and prevent risks and regrets later on in the installation process.
1. expect color variation, iron spots, and lime pits
zellige 2x2 squares in battled armor
zellige 2x2 squares in pending storm
zellige 2x2 squares in weathered white
zellige 2x2 squares in tea ceremony
with the exception of our natural unglazed zellige, each zellige tile is hand dipped in a glaze before being fired, which means there will be variation in color between tiles.
in some cases the glaze may be thick and opaque, and in other cases the texture of the terracotta clay may be visible under a thin layer of glaze. iron spots (small dots of oxidized minerals that turn a dark color in the kiln) or lime pits (tiny craters created when particles of lime come into contact with moisture within the kiln) may also appear on the surface of glazed terracotta tile. we don't see these characteristics as defects, but rather as as a welcome testament to the unique, handcrafted nature of each tile.
variation may also occur depending on how the artisan glazed the tile. the process of firing in a wood-fired kiln means that depending on where the tiles are placed in the kiln, the zellige glaze colors will develop differently from tile to tile, with some tiles having slightly deeper hues than others.
these variations in color result from our commitment to the use of ancient glaze production methods and the use of raw materials.
each product on our website is given a grade for color and size variation, iron spotting, and texture variation. scroll down on each product’s page to find product specifications: grading ranges from level 1 (light variation) to level 3 (heavy variation).
make sure to read and understand these grades and consider your tolerance for variation and its effect on your design.
if you are looking for a more uniform look, we recommend using a different tile. should you still want to use zellige but want to decrease the amount of variation, one option is to increase the amount of tile you purchase (our standard recommended overage is 15% but you could increase this to 25%) so you can “cherry pick” your zellige tile to create a more uniform look.
note that some less experienced installers will shy away from zellige or suggest that the tile is of inferior quality and therefore unusable based on the amount of variation. this is why we strongly recommend working with an installer who is experienced in working with zellige and handcrafted tile and understands and knows how to work with its nuances.
2. expect crazing
crazing, common in handcrafted tile, refers to the hairline cracks which may occur in the glaze surface of zellige tile after the firing process. to minimize the possibility of the tile becoming stained when grout is applied, clé recommends using a penetrating sealer or grout release.
we highly recommend working with a professional tile installer with experience in installing zellige tile to ensure the best possible outcome for your project.
3. expect size variation and uneven edges
because each zellige tile is cut by hand, you should expect variations in size and thickness from tile to tile. you should anticipate size variation in both our standard zellige tile and bejmat tile, due to shrinkage in the clay during the firing process.
variation in size and thickness means that, when installed, zellige will offer a perfectly imperfect surface with exceptional character, authenticity, and a delightful texture.
an experienced installer will understand how to evaluate and work with this characteristic of authentic zellige tile.
where to install zellige tile
ideally, our answer as to where to install zellige would be to use it like they do in the rest of the world–everywhere. however, climate variations, installation experience and industry codes means that we have had to come up with our own guidelines for zellige use in the United States.
zellige bejmat tile in weathered white. design: erin hiemstra / photo: spotted sf
zellige 4x4 square tiles in tempered steel. design: haus love / photo: ash & co. creative
zellige 2x2 square tiles in golden henna. design: mike moser studio / photo: michael clifford photography
to that end, here is a quick snapshot of where we recommend installing zellige tiles:
• interior wall
• shower floor, shower wall, steam shower
• residential low + high traffic
• commercial low traffic kitchen
• sink backsplash
• stove backsplash
• interior floor
(non-freeze thaw locations only)
• exterior floor bejmat only (2x6)
• exterior wall
• pool & fountain waterlines (glazed zellige tiles only)
a few key points to note for specific areas:
since each zellige tile is hand chiseled, there may be a few sharp edges. a good installer should be able to get the tiles flush with minimal lippage. if you find some tiles that stick up slightly or are a bit rough on the edges after grouting, a tile rubbing stone can be used to soften the edges.
zellige 4x4 square tiles in natural. design: sarah sherman samuel / photo: michael williams for domino
we typically don’t recommend any glazed zellige tiles, nor natural unglazed tiles, for countertop usage due to the porous nature of the clay. (stone is our countertop material of choice) however, zellige is a good option for bathroom countertops.
zellige works well as a stove backsplash, except in the case with a stove that has an oven vent that expels heat directly onto the tiled backsplash. in such a case, we recommend the standard 4″ metal splash that comes with most ranges.
for installation inspiration, check out our post on five different ways to install zellige.
zellige collections and artist collaborations
at clé, we are proud to be part of the rise of genuine Moroccan zellige tile in the United States, and strive to pay homage to the imperfections and authenticity of this ancient craft while making space for more modern, artistic interpretations.
zio and sons zellige tile in vintage rose and moroccan sea salt. design/photo: zio & sons
zio and sons zellige tile in weathered white and moroccan sea salt. design: logan killen interiors / photo: little collins
the clé zellige collection features a wide variety of glazes available in four shapes: 4x4 square, 2x2 square, hexagon, and 2x6 bejmat. choose your favorite glaze color and mix and match shapes, or create a custom pattern by selecting multiple colors.
with our zio & sons + clé collection, choose from 27 unique color combinations incorporating 4-inch octagons with 1-inch bouchon in neutral shades. learn more about Anthony D’Argenzio, the designer behind zio and sons, in the clé notes blog.
tips for zellige tile installation and maintenance
we always say that any tile project is only as good as its installer. hiring a professional installer with experience in zellige tile installation will be key to a successful installation.
before deciding if zellige tile is right for you, please consult the material guidelines located at the bottom of each zellige product page.
our product guidelines for zellige tile contains information on technical specifications, grout, material guidelines, and dimensions, as well as frequently asked questions about zellige tile installation and maintenance.
in the meantime, here are some key points to note:
zellige tile and lighting
with glazed zellige tile, it is important to consider the lighting and surrounding environment that your zellige tile will call home.
zellige tile, especially lighter colors, will look different when exposed to different lighting. we strongly recommend sampling several pieces of your desired zellige tile under different lighting circumstances: both outdoors in natural lighting and indoors in artificial light.
blending zellige tile
zellige bejmat tile in tea ceremony. design: omgivning / photo: bethany nauert
blend, blend, and don’t forget to blend. due to the inherent variation in color and size amongst zellige tiles, blending is a necessary aspect of zellige installation.
ask your installer to lay out the different sections of each part of the installation. they should do this by mapping out a spot on a nearby floor, and after blending all the tiles from all the boxes, they should begin laying out the blended tiles exactly as you would like them. this is, afterall, your installation "art piece". you should never leave unopened boxes with an installer and expect anything less than a disaster!
and keep in mind that installing tiles should never be left to the inexperienced or apprentices. if your installer has never set artisan tiles before, they shouldn't be installing zellige.
zellige color, texture, and size variation differs from tile to tile, but also from batch to batch. this means that it will be important to order enough overage, as add-on orders from a different batch will rarely match an order of zellige that has already been placed, and will make blending more difficult.
zellige tile care and maintenance
over time, a natural patina will occur on floors as they are maintained and naturally wear. this inherent component is a highlight of using zellige and should be both anticipated and favored.
mild, ph neutral soaps should be sufficient for most cleaning–test before general use. for all other maintenance, clé recommends laticrete cleaning products. additional guidelines on zellige maintenance and cleaning can be found in the product specifications on each product’s web page.
as a company that embraces authenticity and is committed to keeping handcrafted traditions alive, we want customers to cherish zellige as much as we do–and that means knowing exactly what to expect and how to prepare for all the exquisite characteristics of authentic zellige.
with careful choice, experienced installation, and inspired design, we know you will love your zellige as much as we do.
tips for choosing, buying, and installing zellige tile
1. consider: is zellige tile right for you and your project?
while we maintain our perspective that handcrafted zellige is among the best tile in the world, we recognize that it may not be for everyone, or every project.
a huge part of understanding if zellige tile is right for you comes from understanding the variations inherent in handcrafted tile. when we say that no two zellige tiles are exactly the same, we really mean it.
be aware that size variation, crazing and iron spots, as well as variation in color and tone is expected, even celebrated, when choosing zellige. read more about what to expect when designing with zellige here
2. find a professional, experienced tile installer and have them measure your space
while traditional zellige tile is some of the best in the world, all tile (but especially zellige) is only as good as its installer. you’ll need to hire a professional tile installer with experience working with handcrafted, authentic zellige.
before placing your order, you should have your contractor and tile installer work together to measure your space, and help you figure out how much tile you’ll need to order for your project.
3. read the material guidelines and make sure your installer does too
before committing to a shape, size, and color of zellige tile, read the material guidelines located on the product’s page and make sure your installer does too. mistakes are difficult (if not impossible) to correct after an installation is complete, so be sure to read all the fine print.
4. learn how to maintain your zellige tile
every good thing requires some maintenance: whether it’s a relationship, a home, or your tile. your zellige tile should be sealed (read all about sealing in the material guidelines).
after installation, zellige tile should be cleaned with a damp cloth–avoid harsh brushes or chemical cleaners not intended for use on tile. the use of a gentle cleaner specifically formulated for stone, tile, and grout maintenance is the best way to ensure you are cleaning your tile without causing harm.