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Creatively hand-carved

Exploring the ancient techniques of encaustic tiles, and how this traditional artform is built to last.

Words by Rebecca Hawkey

When I first came across Alchemy Tiles, it was an artistic venture quite unlike anything I had seen before – the intricate scripture weaving its way between drawings that are one of a kind. When speaking with Mel Chambers, artist and owner of Alchemy Tiles, it was insightful to learn how such creations came to be.

Mel explains in detail: “The technique itself is very, very old. It goes back to the 13th century. The woman who taught me everything I know was actually the last person to be practising this technique.” Not wanting this craft to die out, this teacher taught Mel in order to keep it alive. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that Mel Chambers is the last person in the UK to be making tiles and working with clay in this manner.

Setting eyes on these tiles, I initially assumed they were hand painted, but that is not the case at all. ‘Encaustic’, in fact, derives from an ancient Greek term, meaning ‘burning in’. This method, says Mel, has “helped to create millions of hand-crafted tiles that you can still see to this day, mostly on the floors in several cathedrals and monasteries around the world”, and it’s incredible to think that such designs have somehow withstood generation after generation of footsteps seeking solace. In fact, Mel only recently read about an 800-year-old floor uncovered at Exeter Cathedral, still looking as beautiful as the day it was laid. Which is why it’s so special to find someone still making tiles like this in the 21st century.

More commonly known today as hand-carving and inlay, Mel goes through this rigorous process with every tile. She hand-rolls her moulds of clay to the correct size and shape required for bespoke pieces, then meticulously hand-carves every letter and every drawing into the body of the clay itself. These words appear as hidden messages, in fact it’s not until you look closely that you realise they are, in fact, words! Once this first step has been completed, she will then inlay each carved section with coloured clay. In other words, the colour that we see when admiring Mel’s work isn’t simply hand-painted at all, but layers of colour and texture made to last a lifetime. Which is just as well, given that each tile takes a minimum of two weeks to complete. The colour and structure of these tiles are built to withstand sunlight, footsteps, and a life well-lived. A rarity in a time so dominated by products that are inexpensive and immediate, rather than made from the practise of patience and respect for an item made to last.

Interestingly, when discussing the history of encaustic techniques with Mel, she mentions that tiles like the ones used in historic architecture were mostly created in times of peace. Usually, she says, when kings or leaders of old weren’t fighting one another, they were glorifying themselves and their kingdom, giving us the elaborate stories we see today, depicted through hand-carved inlay tiles and on display in museums, if not still on the walls themselves.

One element of Mel’s business that really benefits from such a durable design process is her exploration into interior design. Whilst Mel does do individual tiles for her clients, her foray into larger, bespoke designs for splashbacks, kitchens and bathrooms has become her focus. With each piece being hand-cut and hand-carved, every nook and cranny of a home can be worked with, covering it in something truly unique and made from the heart. Mel works alongside her clients from start to finish, discussing exactly what it is they are after in their home in order to get it just right. She also offers a timelapse video of their tiles being made so her clients can see the process they have gone through to get to the finished product. Mel explains that working so closely with her clients can be an emotional journey. It is not unusual for tiles that Mel has made to feature heartfelt messages, drawings or quotes from loved ones, past and present. So, when a design has reached its completion, be it an individual tile or a larger interior piece, it can evoke a response that Mel is deeply grateful for, and doesn’t take for granted.

Mel Chambers has found herself with a string of awards to her name. These include the SME Southern Enterprise Award for ‘Best Hand-Crafted Tile Company’ for a third year in a row in 2022, as well as becoming the ‘Made in Cornwall’ Member of the Year last year. She has been a hands-on part of the Made in Cornwall scheme for the last six years, and after rigorous testing by Trading Standards, received top marks for her work, being awarded the gold standard of an authentically Cornish product.

Mel is using this platform as a force for good. In 2020 she launched three collections for local Cornish conservation projects and has no desire to slow down any time soon, with another three completed in 2022. Now that another year is upon us, keep an eye out for what Mel, and Alchemy Tiles, have in store this year.

You can explore the vast collection of bespoke tiles that Mel has created so far by visiting her website. She welcomes those who are interested to get in touch. She is eager to share this bespoke craft, and would love to create something for you and your home, filled with love and dedication, and she continues to take Alchemy Tiles to new heights. Expanding her design portfolio and challenging herself and her clients to come up with ingenious ways of keeping this ancient craft alive.

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