By Nick Powell
We’ve always based our work as tile artists on refusing to allow existing rules and conventions to get in the way: We push at all boundaries and always seek something more exciting to create.
That undaunted spirit of breaking new ground started with my parents, who established Craig Bragdy Design Ltd. in Wales just after World War II. Jean and Rhys “Taffy” Powell met in art school, had four rowdy boys and started the business by producing decorative ceramic products – coffee and tea cups, dishes, salt and pepper sets and a host of other smallish daily items.
Even then, they were swimming against the tide: In the postwar United Kingdom, most people were interested in purely practical products and certainly weren’t in the habit of thinking of saltshakers as having artistic merit. Despite the fact that the early years were tough, my parents believed enough in what they were doing that they opened a shop and filled it with their small works of art.
Success came gradually, and as the business grew we found ourselves living in a sequence of warehouse spaces of increasing size where my parents would establish production facilities as well as our living quarters. That life was hard at times, so much so that it drew all of us into the workforce and grounded us all in skills that have served us well ever since.
To be sure, it was an unusual upbringing, but our family struggles engendered in us an undying pioneer spirit when it comes to artistic expression and left us all with great memories as well. Our parents were always trying to expand what their art could become, the upshot being that they eventually moved entirely away from production work and into fine art.
Before long, they were making decorative tiles large enough that people were hanging them on walls like paintings. These tile pieces became larger and more elaborate and eventually evolved into entire mosaics installed on walls and other architectural features. As we all grew older and operational control passed to my brothers and me, that spirit of innovation and exploration always served us well.
Part of what has made all this creative expansiveness possible is the amazing flexibility of ceramic tile as a medium. It’s an incredible material, wonderfully durable, and there are no practical limits to what you can do with it with respect to colors, textures or applications.
|Our capacity to create beach entries that capture the illusion of a shoreline swathed in gently lapping waves is greatly enhanced both by subtle gradations in color and by the ripple-generating textures we work into the surface of the tiles.|
Our exploration of applications led us about 20 years ago to work on our first watershapes – small fountains at first, but then, relatively quickly, high-end swimming pools as well. Almost immediately, we recognized the power and vitality that occurred when our work combined with water – a real-world example of how the whole really can be more than just the sum of the parts.
As we discovered, ceramic tile is a perfect fit with aqueous systems. Water doesn’t corrode it, the material can bridge wet/dry boundaries, and it withstands the wear and tear of human traffic, use and abuse. As important is the fact that we can create any type of image, pattern, underwater scene or illustration and place it in an environment that by its very nature attracts a glorious amount of attention.
It didn’t take us long to appreciate the fact that all of this fit perfectly with our belief in always pushing creative boundaries, but it also led us to greater recognition of the fact that we couldn’t rely solely on our own artistic instincts to carry us forward: Indeed, when any artist works on a high-end architectural or watershaping project, virtually all of the ideas spark originally in the mind of the client.
As we’ve moved into more elaborate designs, we had to work hard at mastering the art of picking up and transforming our clients’ inklings into original works of art. We learned the nature of the give and take, offered suggestions, expanded on clients’ concepts and applied our own artistic backgrounds in collective efforts to generate designs that would amplify and celebrate client-driven visual schemes.
Combining the deep wellsprings of client ideas with the boundless potential of what starts out as large lumps of clay, we’ve never come anywhere close to running out of fresh ideas and new challenges. Swimming pools in particular are incredibly exciting to us because, for so many years, they were really untouched canvasses.
Of course there were early examples of decorated pools, such as the Roman and Turkish baths of ancient times and, more recently, the elaborate pools at Hearst Castle. These and other instances hint at vast potential, but it’s no secret that for generations, pools were mostly quite ordinary in appearance.
Recent times, however, have seen the advent of beautiful stone surfaces, tile mosaics of all kinds and a rainbow of finishes and textures for swimming pools that have truly opened them up as the focus of artistic expression and, perhaps more important, as an element in comprehensive exterior designs.
|The careful way in which we plot out our images and use the contours of the vessels we’re working on gives us an ability to conjure remarkable impressions of depth (and, in some cases, even motion) through our compositions.|
It’s our observation, in fact, that exterior architecture and design is a much different field than it was even a decade ago, probably because so many clients who once focused their attention almost exclusively on interior decoration are now applying the same sensibility to their outdoor spaces.
All of this has blown open the mindset of a great many designers and clients, and the great fun we’re having in our work feeds off this trend as well as our own restless appetite for pushing at creative boundaries with as much force as we can muster.
From the start, our work with swimming pools revolved around a sense that, if we played our cards right, we could find opportunities to create art in pools that simply hadn’t been seen before.
Of course, our march to that goal was more gradual than we hoped it might be, both because the specialized work we do is quite expensive and also because it takes the right sort of client to join in the process of creating these massive original works of art. Happily, our work is international in scope, so we’ve always been able to find enough clients to fuel our business.
STEP BY STEP
Today, our sales process (if you can really call it that) is based entirely on collaboration that engages both the project designer and the client. It begins with simply sitting down and listening. There are times when things coalesce quickly into design ideas; there are others when, with less expressive clients, it becomes a sort of detective work. However they come, we gather these concepts and subsequently flesh them out into detailed and highly personalized expressions.
To be sure, firms such as ours that constantly redefine and push at limits face something of an uphill climb in winning projects, mostly because we often spend a good bit of time and energy in describing the fundamentals of what we’re all about to designers, contractors and clients. Again happily, we’ve found that the momentum is there now and that acceptance has increased dramatically as more and more people are seeing things they like but haven’t experienced before.
That’s particularly true in California and a couple of other U.S. markets where the push is on to more and more exciting lifestyles. At this point in our company history, we’re pleased to note that fully 70 percent of our projects have to do with swimming pools.
|Although we focus a great deal of attention on the overall imagery, we also expend tremendous energy in making certain all of our details are right on the mark, whether we’re working with literal figures or total abstractions.|
In some cases, the designs are expansions of elements already found in pools – beach entries, for example, for which we’ve created realistic ceramic designs that look and feel like a beach, complete with seashells underfoot and the rippling sand patterns one would expect to find on an actual beach.
Underwater scenes are also popular in pools, for obvious reasons – and we’ve tackled the idea by presenting seascapes with extraordinarily vivid and detailed artwork. This might include representing fish and sea creatures in profile view on vertical surfaces and as top views on the flat surfaces to provide a realistic sense of perspective and depth.
We’re able to infuse these traditional motifs with all sorts of character and personality – perhaps something as simple as inscribing a child’s name in the “sand” of a beach entry or as elaborate as imbedding semi-precious stones to glitter on the “shore.”
In one case, we took a picture of great white shark that our client had photographed on a diving expedition. This reflected his fascination with these animals and his travels around the world to see them with his own eyes, and in this case that meant capturing the shark with all its scars and scratches rather than portraying it in idealized, pristine form. The result is a highly detailed illustration that depicts this fantastic looking carnivorous fish swimming in a coral reef.
As I’ve mentioned above, one of the best things about ceramic tile is its flexibility, which means we’ve never been limited to the more predictable sorts of images and patterns easily associated with pools and aquatic environments. Through the years, in fact, we’ve created completely abstract patterns, representations of galaxies, various geological features, textiles and reproductions of photographs.
A big part of our challenge in working with designers and clients is nudging them beyond convention toward a greater potential for expressiveness. When we encounter these freer-thinking collaborators, the results can be amazing – something that literally has never been seen before.
This level of flexibility extends largely from our family background and the fact that we’ve never created “mosaic art” in the traditional sense. Most such artworks result from placement of individual pieces in patterns that together represent a form – a time-honored approach that can result in stunning work.
|This is a particularly unusual effect: The client wanted it to seem as though a large sheet of chiffon had draped itself across the deck and found its way into the pool. Translating a sense of three-dimensionality to a two-dimensionalsurface was, in this case, quite a challenge.|
By contrast, our images are created as single large pieces (like our parents’ artistic tile panels) that are subsequently sliced into large irregularly shapes. Each resulting piece is completely different from the rest and contains part of a larger image.
As a result, our process in the studio is relatively straightforward, albeit on a large scale. We roll out large sheets of clay and begin by outlining the illustration’s basic forms. To get full views, we work with scaffolding over the work so we can see it from different heights and guide the entire process with both the big picture and detailed views in mind.
Our artists will spend days sketching, sculpting, coloring and texturing the clay surface to generate the overall illustration. The details vary from project to project, and the various schedules for glazes and other materials are basically reinvented for every job.
Our company employs a variety of artists from a range of backgrounds, but they all share our desire to vest each project with forms and nuances we believe our customers won’t find anywhere else. Make no mistake: This process can be extraordinarily involved, time-consuming and expensive, but we know it all must be just right from the client’s perspective, so discussions, sketches, test pieces and sometimes total reworking of ideas is part of what we do.
For all our determination to tackle as much work as we can, we’re unabashed in presenting our work as just about the most exclusive option available in aquatic design.
Instead of working away from the issue of expense and the painstaking nature of the process, we’ve found success in offering art in water at its most expansive and on its most detailed level. We don’t compromise: The bottom line is, when you aspire to work at this level of artistry there’s no room for shortchanging the process.
|Our clients lead us to approach our tile art from a number of different directions, asking us to create wall panels for interior spaces, for example, or reproduce favorite photographs or create cosmic pool tapestries meant to be seen at their best from high above deck level.|
None of that is to say that we won’t tackle designs that are relatively small in size or comparatively simple in design. In fact, some of those more “ordinary” projects are quite beautiful and satisfying. And despite our tendency to pursue the wildly expressive, much of what we do is quite subtle in appearance. What everything has in common is a design and manufacturing process that seeks to explore the ultimate expression of the client’s ideas, whatever they may be.
In some cases, our clients have told us that our tile work for their pools is the single element in their yards that visitors remember and that they themselves enjoy the most. That’s terrific feedback: For my part, I take it as encouragement that tearing down boundaries is a true path to unveiling this ultimate form of satisfaction and excitement. As my parents taught us, there’s no greater reward than seeing original and unrestrained art work its magic.
Nick Powell is the director of Craig Bragdy Design Ltd., a manufacturer of custom tile mosaics founded, owned and operated by his family since the early 1950s and currently based in Denbigh, Wales. The second son of four, Powell spent his childhood in North Wales in a succession of flour mills his parents converted to ceramic production. In 1973, he entered art school with a specialization in photography. In 1979, he began working at a small publishing office in Hong Kong as a photographer for travel magazines and then moved on to establish and run a small magazine-publishing business in the Middle East. He rejoined the family business in 1983 and now manages it with his younger brother Shon. He now spends most of his time travelling worldwide to promote his company’s products to prospective clients in the United States, Europe, Saudi Arabia and various Mediterranean countries.