Molding Clé

SOMETIMES “MAKING” SOMETHING simply means shaping a business, and that’s exactly what Deborah Osburn, 56, founder of a Sausalito-based online tile showroom, did.

Actually, it was an accident. About 30 years ago, armed with a fine arts degree in sculpture from the Kansas City Art Institute, she walked into a tile showroom in Denver and got a sales job.

“I was never drawn to clay or to ceramics at art school,” Osburn admits. “But, I suddenly fell in love with artisanal tiles. While the rest of the country was selling 4-by-4-inch white tiles, this store had colorful tiles from the rest of the world!”

Monocottura and bicottura tiles from Japan and Italy with different surfaces and glazes were a new frontier for Osburn. “I discovered a business side to my interest in art.”

After she moved to San Francisco in 1986, she became a kind of gallerist, sourcing terra-cotta, stoneware, lithographed cement, stone and porcelain mosaics, decorated porcelain, and even steel, glass and ceramic tiles, some with beautiful Islamic patterns from Morocco that are centuries old.

Then she discovered a unique niche — the need for thin strips of colored accent tiles, of the kind used during the Victorian era, that Bay Area remodelers could not find anywhere.

“I got this birdbrain idea to do a tiny decorative tile and a friend with a kiln produced them,” Osburn says. The tiles became very popular, and she managed a 200-person factory churning out her slender Bisq’ettes tiles for Home Depot and Lowe’s. She ramped up production, imported Italian equipment and perhaps moved too swiftly from being an artisanal firm to a mass producer, then got engulfed by venture capitalists who absorbed her 15-yearold company and soon “ran it into the ground,” Osburn says, ruefully.

Lesson learned. She focused on raising her preschooler sons Sam and Luca, all the while selling her favorite handpicked tiles from her studio. Many of them were designed by her and produced around the globe, but business was slow, as the building industry continued to shun unique, artisanal products.

When both her sons reached high school five years ago, Osburn spotted another frontier: the internet.

“It was a dream come true. Until then the tile industry was set up so you had to sell through large wholesale distributors who made the rules. Now I could reach my customer directly,” she says.

It began with a blog called Tile Envy — a kind of lament (now contained in a book of the same name) where she could express both her love of beautiful tiles and her frustration that so few of them were freely available. “Within weeks I had a large audience asking about particular tiles I had shown. Artists approached me and I became this conduit of information about something I had promoted for so long. My new business was decided for me. I could sell online.”

Clé Tile was born and customers sought her classic tiles, as well as contemporary collaborations with artists such as Ruan Hoffmann from South Africa and Boris Aldridge and Timorous Beasties from the United Kingdom. Fashion designer Erica Tanov from Berkeley has recently joined the ranks as a tile designer.

“Everyone sources online now and I am like a kid in a sandbox,” Osburn exults. “Brick-and-mortar showrooms are no longer the first resource for interior designers.”

Three years ago, in another serendipitous twist, Osburn happened to be drawn to a piece of low-fired unglazed porcelain tile at a porcelain factory in the wine country; she took it home and dipped it into a glass full of indigo dye and forgot about it. Days later she noticed that the dye had eventually wicked up and made a fascinating watermark that resembled shibori textiles. She saved the sample and sealed it with polyurethane. A local designer spotted it and commissioned a huge batch for a fancy fireplace in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights. Watermark tiles are now among Osburn’s best sellers.

“In the past, a distributor would not have understood its potential. Now, thanks to the internet, it speaks directly to designers and sells itself,” Osburn says.

A legitimate “maker” these days, she has encouraged her son Luca, 20, to pick up brushes and dyes. “I can watch him and mentor him,” Osburn says. An avid surfer, he produces the Watermark line and has recently conjured up Tides, a new design with wavy lines of blue on a white surface. These durable 4-by-8-inch made-to-order tiles, which cost about $22 each, are meant for backsplashes, shower walls and fireplaces. They have been rigorously tested “in one of the harshest environments we could think of: a dishwasher,” Osburn says wryly.

Luca is a de facto artist-in-residence, and Osburn is keen on expanding the notion. “Tile-making is not taught in schools and my vendors’ children are often no longer willing to do what their families did for generations.” So, some Clé artists who are retiring are being recruited as mentors. For example, John Whitmarsh will mentor a young artist named Kayla Farrrell-Martin rather than just “taking his artisanal knowledge with him,” Osburn says. She will also encourage all protégés to experiment. “People have a fixed understanding of what tiles should be,” Osburn says. “We are trying to change that.”

Photos courtesy of Clé Tile