At San-Francisco's Fireclay Tile, Time-Honored Techniques are Rekindled by Technology
A kaleidoscopic wall of poised little tiles greets visitors at Fireclay’s San Francisco showroom. A lounge and worktables invite lingering and creating, and the resident dog may sidle up for a hello. It’s an environment that embodies the company’s ethos: Combining personal connection to the community with craft, history and innovation.
Founded by ceramicist Paul Burns in 1986, Fireclay has always been known for its beautiful custom tiles, but more recently, it has been establishing a reputation as a forward-looking company producing innovative designs from unique materials. A Bay Area native, Burns began making tile at age 10 at his uncle’s San Jose-based company, Stonelight Tile. By 15, it was clear he was a natural at kiln-firing and creating glazes. At 28, he founded his own company, Fireclay, with three partners. They started the business as the sole employees, making and marketing the tile themselves. The partners eventually drifted away, but the company continued on with Burns at the helm.
In 2008, when the bottom fell out of the economy and many home interiors businesses were on the brink of collapse—including Fireclay—Burns met Eric Edelson, a former investor for Lehman Brothers who’d recently earned an MBA from Stanford. At the time, Edelson was VP of finance for a small sports beverage company and knew nothing about tile, but much about branding. “Paul was so focused on materials and product that he never really had the opportunity to pay attention to marketing,” he explains. They partnered and began building a next-generation brand. “We’re inspired by Bay Area startups, more customer-direct businesses,” says Edelson.
Fast-forward seven years, and Fireclay’s factory in Aromas (a small town about an hour and 30 minutes south of San Francisco) is buzzing. This is where the collections are crafted, and where research and design for new products and processes takes place. One of Fireclay’s recent initiatives has been the reuse of CRT glass: A veritable treasure trove of old monitors has been reincarnated as tile, and the slate gray of CRT’s natural phosphorous color is stunning in matte or gloss. Explains Fireclay creative director Jamie Chappall, “We work with much more difficult materials in an effort to genuinely impact reduction of the waste stream.” Fireclay’s line now features 70-percent recycled ceramic tile; granite dust, curbside glass and reclaimed earth have all been incorporated into its collections.
With 105 employees, Fireclay Tile remains lean, able to adapt and innovate. Recognizing that purchasing tile is challenging for many, the company focused on creating a showroom that is user-friendly and welcoming, an experience extended to its online shop. Edelson says, “We’ve invested a lot in our online experience to simplify tile: Pick your pattern, pick your color, and let us make it for you.” Samples are free, and design consultants actually man the phones to check in and ask how they can help. “We want to create that very easy experience of an e-commerce site such as Amazon or Zappos,” continues Edelson, “with old-school customer service.”
While the company deeply values innovation, it still honors tradition by making each piece by hand and to order. Building on its legacy collections, Fireclay Tile continues to add contemporary designs to its offerings. Its newest releases are the Sakura Collection—a handpainted line inspired by Japanese landscapes—and the Edge Collection featuring precise, modern lines. “Oftentimes, people finish their home projects and say, ‘My favorite thing is the fireplace tile,’” says Burns. “It’s the color and the shape, but also that it was made specifically for them.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 2015 issue of San Francisco Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Catching Fire .