How to Choose Tiles

Insight and advice from Sarah Watson of Balineum

Sarah Watson is the founder and creative director of Balineum. Balineum aims to bring impeccable style to every bathroom, with a particular focus on preserving and celebrating classic designs.  Sarah is as passionate about the authenticity of manufacturing as she is about design. She has a particular love of hand made tiles - so much so that she recently rescued a tile factory.

Where did you grow up and where are you now?

I grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. Most people I went to school with wanted to be one of four things when they grew up: a school teacher, a hairdresser, an electrician or a builder, so it is a little surprising that I have ended up in London.

Since leaving Melbourne at age 23, I have lived in San Francisco (1 year), New York (5 years) and London (18 years and counting). In the past year I’ve started splitting my time in between Stoke on Trent and London. ‘Stoke’ is a manufacturing town about 1.5 hours north of London on the train from Euston Station. It’s roughly half way between Birmingham and Manchester.

What does an average day at Balineum look like for you?

A London day starts with a walk before breakfast. I usually walk between 7:30 - 8:30 am through Hampstead Heath. It’s a good time to listen to podcast or call a friend or speak to my mother in Australia. I’m at my desk by 9am and my work is usually pretty full-on and non-stop until 6pm. It is constant emails, meetings, planning, and switching between problems and tasks. It will be a mix of things across products, shipping issues, manufacturing challenges, client emails, internal documentation and staff meetings.

A Stoke on Trent day usually starts at 7am when I arrive at the factory. I typically wake early in Stoke and like to get in before everyone else. On factory days, I’ll do a mix of cleaning, loading and unloading kiln, packing and QC’ing tiles, sending quotes, dealing with customers, problem solving various manufacturing challenges, scheduling and rescheduling work. I am slowly learning and documenting all the different parts of our tile production so we have a record for training the next generation of tile makers (this will take me years to complete). At about 6pm - myself, Paul and Geoff (who I run the factory with), all squeeze into the van and they drop me back at my bed-sit. I stay in a basic bed-sit when in Stoke with a shared kitchen, so there is usually some sort of fellow Stoke traveler to talk to whilst I cook my dinner. If I’m lucky it might be one of the actors performing at the New Vic Theatre which is just up the road from where I stay.

How would you describe your design style? 

Constantly changing and evolving. I like so many different styles of interiors - from minimalism, to art deco, to rustic cabins to traditional British interiors. At the moment I am really loving the work coming out of the new generation of Paris based interior designers like Fabrizio Casiraghi, Festen Architecture and Studio Classico. I think they are doing some of the best work in interiors right now.

What are the most important things clients should consider when choosing tiles?

Whether you love them! You are going to live with them for a very long time. Tiles will last many, many decades, so you want to make sure you love them.

In terms of style: I’d suggest you first decide if you want handmade or machine pressed tile bases. Machined pressed tiles will give you a very crisp installation. Each tile will be identical in size and form. You’ll have crisp, grid like grout lines. Machine pressed tiles work really well in more contemporary settings, but also if you were replicating a 1920s or 1950s style space these would be ideal. 

Handmade tiles will have more variation and imperfection in the tile surface, size and grout lines. It will be slightly more rustic. For a more traditional interior - we’d normally recommend handmade base.

Neither style is better or worse - it is ultimately a personal design preference. 

So: 1) choose your base. 2) choose your colour or decoration. 3) choose tile size.

What type of tile works best for what kind of installation?

Some tiles can only be used on walls. Floor tiles need to be sturdier - both in terms of the tile body and the glaze applied. For example the tiles made in Stoke on Trent factory can’t be used on the floor - the handmade bases would crack and the glazes are too soft and would scratch. But our Italian terracotta tiles can be used on the floor.

In terms of which are best tiles for say a backsplash, a kitchen or a fireplace : there aren’t any rules for this. The only rule is if you like them.

What are the most common mistakes clients make when designing a tiled space?

Rushing to order and not ordering enough. It is always better to slow down, count properly and add extra for wastage (10%). Measure twice, cut once as they say. 

What is your favourite tile installation and why do you love it? Or top 3…?

Definitely top 3, I couldn’t choose just one..

We did a project in Italy where the client tiled three vaulted ceilings. I’m not sure if this project will ever be public - but that project was, and is, really brilliant.

There is a tile museum in Palermo - it’s the personal collection of one man and it is in his personal home. He has amassed over 5000 tiles across a range of Mediterranean designs. I was so overwhelmed by the collection that I cried! The museum guide thought I was very strange. My husband thought it was very funny.

I also love the Horta Museum in Brussels. This is a perfectly formed and preserved Art Nouveau house in Brussels and it has a tiled dining room that makes my heart sing.

What are your key fragrance memories?

Jasmine and gardenia in the summertime in Australia. This is also probably combined with the smell of a BBQ cooking somewhere in the distance.

Rain and wet leaves in Hampstead Heath.

Lavender warmed by the sun in Tuscany. We had a holiday one summer a few years ago and the fragrance was so all encompassing that I can still recall it years later.

Less bucolic: but I really love the smell of petrol, glue, turpentine, wood chips and metal scrapings. The smells of factories make me very happy! 

What’s your favourite VERDEN fragrance?

D’Orangerie.  When not sniffing chemicals in factories (!) - Citrus and wood notes are my favourite smells.

So D’Orangerie, is the perfect one for me.