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Lessons from the ancients

Words by Rebecca Hawkey

When you step into the wild world of Mel Chambers and Alchemy Tiles, you come to realise that beauty still exists in the oldest of traditions, traditions that Mel blends seamlessly with the modern lives we now lead. Mel, who hand carves her signature tiles, began her journey learning from another creative individual. “The technique itself is very, very old,” she explains. “It goes back to the 13th century. I was very lucky to be taught the basic technique, which I have developed further with my own knowledge and skill set acquired over many years. This technique will evolve over time from generation to generation hoping to keep it alive.”

The technique itself is an ancient carving method known as Encaustic, derived from the ancient Greek term meaning ‘burning in’, which is exactly how these tiles are made. By carving script, shapes and styles out of the moulded clay itself, inlaying it with clay of all shades, and then setting it in a kiln, Mel creates distinctly unique and completely original tiles that will last for generations to come. Mel says that this method has “helped to create millions of hand-crafted tiles that you can still see to this day, mostly on the floors in most cathedrals and monasteries around the world.”

When discussing this process with Mel, she mentions that tiles like the ones used in historic architecture were usually created in times of peace. When kings, queens and leaders of their realms weren’t at war, they were glorifying themselves and their accomplishments through the permanence of storytelling. Depicted through hand-carved inlay tiles, still to be found on display today in museums, if not in their place of origin, these elaborate stories of bygone times are not far from what Mel is doing to this very day; that is, carving messages and intricate drawings of what we hold dear, made to last for another millennia in our homes.

This rigorous process is something Mel goes through with every single tile she makes. It is something that cannot be duplicated easily, and it’s why her work is so sought after. Each piece is bespoke, and can be made into whatever size you need it to be, depending on its use. Mel then meticulously hand-carves every letter and every drawing from scratch, slowly revealing the final design. Mel’s particular style incorporates elaborate pictures with hidden messages that weave beautifully through the finished product, and it’s not until you look closely that you realise they are there in the first place.

Once these messages have been carved out of the base clay, Mel will then inlay coloured clay over the top, which is how these designs last for so long. And in case there was any doubt, it was not so long ago that an 800-year-old encaustic tiled floor was uncovered via excavation at Exeter Cathedral, in almost pristine condition. This is the very reason that Mel works so hard to keep this technique alive, so that your home can be graced with a product that is precious, stunning and strong. In an age where we want to own everything instantaneously, and we want it cheap, it’s rare to come across a designer who goes against the grain.

Thanks to such techniques, Mel now designs large scale interior collections that buyers can enjoy from the comfort of their own home. From kitchen splashbacks and intricate bathroom additions, to exterior garden wall features, these tiles can be tailored to you. Mel prides herself on creating pieces of art that are one of a kind, and this is what makes them so special. Not only is the process itself historical and quite remarkable, she works closely with each and every client to discuss in detail how they would like their tiles to look. This one-to-one service is exactly why customers are looking to Mel Chambers to design such personal features in their home.

I always love hearing about any new and exciting projects that Mel is working on, and this time is no different. Mel is currently working on her cascading table centrepieces. Intricately handmade by Mel, these stunning additions to your dining table come in three different sizes. Small (65cm), medium (84cm), and large (116cm) and are perfect for holding hot plates, pans and even some candles to set the mood, perfectly designed to be moved around in different formations, and used as you see fit. The collection consists of one central hot plate, four place mats and four coasters, all of which are multifunctional, ready to be taken apart and put back together again after use. This is a perfect mix of beauty and function, a product that looks marvellous in-situ, but still has a purpose. They can be completely customisable, depending on the colour, image and style that you prefer for your home, and Mel is currently working on these cascades in different shapes, that being hexagonal, diamond and square.

This exploration into a larger range of interior pieces works well alongside her already growing collection of work, designing beautiful commissions for kitchens and bathrooms, be it small splashbacks, or large-scale back boards for kitchen agas like the one she is currently working on. It should come as no surprise then that Mel Chambers has rightly been awarded for her craftsmanship, which include the SME Southern Enterprise Award for ‘Best Hand-Crafted Tile Company’ for the third year in a row in 2022. This, as well as becoming the ‘Made in Cornwall’ Member of the Year in 2021. Mel has been a hands-on part of the Made in Cornwall scheme for some time now, and after rigorous testing by Trading Standards, Alchemy Tiles received top marks, receiving the gold standard of an authentically Cornish product, a title she is extremely proud of.

Mel has and always will use her platform as a force for good, as she is grateful for the chance to work with charities and conservation projects across the Duchy by creating truly unique and unequivocally beautiful collections, with no intention of slowing down any time soon. You can explore these collections, and an array of her most recent work, by visiting her website. She welcomes those who are interested to get in touch, as she enjoys sharing this craft with those that seek something bespoke and beautiful to fill their home, as this is also a chance to keep this ancient craft alive.


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