Interview: Tile Letter
There are lots of ways to make tile. There is the commercial, precision, factory approach that minimizes imperfections and variations and provides a tile with predictable edges, minimal warpage, and glazes that can be easily and frequently replicated for volume production.
And then there is the approach taken by Josh Blanc, and Clay Squared to Infinity, the 26-year-old handmade tile studio in Minneapolis. Blanc frankly glories in the surprises and serendipity offered by the clay and glazes he and his six employees transform into original works of art – and the resulting installations that feel native to their clients’ space. The tiles are distinctive, original and offer an organic, living feel to them, whether they are installed in a Victorian Craftsman, Mid-Century, or contemporary home.
From attic to internet
Tiles from the Cosmic Cloud series illustrate the almost magical relationship between clay and glaze adorning this blue bathroom[/caption]
Blanc started Clay Squared to Infinity in his tiny 11′ x 11′ attic studio in November 1996. During the intervening years, Clay Squared was housed in an old bar, and then the Keg House in the Historic Grain Belt Brewery where it resided for 14 years. Five years ago, it purchased a 12,000 sq. ft. building on NE Howard Street in Minneapolis. Three years ago it began developing its showroom and studio in a 3,200 sq. ft. portion of the space, renting out other parts of the building.
The main equipment Clay Squared uses to make tile is a Northstar extruder and rolling pin, though it has added a CNC machine and Peter Pugger over the years.
Also, key to the company’s growth has been Blanc’s own investment in hiring quality people, promoting tiles through quality photography, and developing full-color brochures and planning guides. He also is well established on the internet with a feature-rich website and online shopping experience.
That internet presence was a sensation during the pandemic, resulting in a “massive influx of work,” he said. “We have doubled in size mainly due to our internet presence, with all the tools we created to help clients answer their questions and solve their tile challenges to create the tile installation they are looking for.”
Low-tech methods, inspired design
Blanc has an intuitive way of designing his tiles, informed by architecture, art, and historical designs. He decorates tiles with Medieval Floral carvings or antique stamps that he’s purchased or made on the CNC machine. Blanc uses low-tech, manual techniques and tools like pizza cutters, X-Acto blades, rolling pins, extruder and sheetrock boards.
“I like to work very fast and I like expressive ways clay and glazes work together,” he said. “I don’t seek to control the clay and glazes, as I am more interested in finding anomalies and one-of–a-kind glazing blends to see what they create. The Cosmic Cloud series shows this process best. When I have seen my tiles installed, it informs me that making tiles that show the materials, the kiln’s magic and the handmade nature of the tiles are a process to creating a mural for a specific space.”
Clay Squared creates tile for many clients with circa 1890s-1950s homes. The team explores the client’s goal for their space and offers tools like planning guides and free samples to take home or order from the website to determine what works in the home. It even offers a design service to help clients visualize the tile design in their space.
“They then can see their vision come to life and customize the design to personalize it for their home,” he said. “The goal is to help make our tiles feel like they were original to the home.” Turnaround time on orders currently is between six – 10 weeks.
Further explore the process of making tiles at https://youtu.be/-Rn34NF29pY.
Clay Squared got requests to match tiles for repair almost from the beginning. But clients were often unhappy – the color might be right, but not the sheen or vice versa, Blanc said. So he partnered with companies that were original makers or had mastered reproductions like Heritage Tile, B&W Tile, and Tile Restoration Center.
Blanc and Clay Squared have also forged a close relationship with the Tile Heritage Foundation over the last 20 years, chiefly with Blanc’s development of the Handmade Tile Association that he founded and ran from 1999-2016.
“We produced 17 annual directories, 16 Minnesota Tile Festivals, two national tile conferences and two tile maps in Minneapolis with Tile Heritage Foundation (THF) as the main sponsor,” he said. “The THF was a main collaborator on the annual Handmade Tile Association Directories with the use of a historic tile for the cover every year. Joe (Taylor) and Sheila (Menzies) would write articles on historic tiles to coincide with the contemporary tile makers to connect the two worlds. I have been a member of the Tile Heritage Board since 2015 as well.”
Clay Squared is a friend to the trades, designers and dealers. It offers trade discounts to dealers, and provides all the finishing touches that make a designer’s job easy and imbue a complete look to a project: bullnoses, mudcaps, base coves, and end caps. “We minimize the need to cut tiles and have great options for transitions,” Blanc said. “The finishing pieces are what make tile installation look fabulous.”
Blanc credits “the amazing people” around him that helped him succeed. “I was lucky enough to have some of the best tile contractors like Jan Hohn and Kerber Tile (both NTCA Five-Star Members) along with others to install my work,” he said. “I work in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District with 1,200 artists and resources around me that have made our tile adventure so much more exciting. Tile making for me is not an individual business; it is a community-driven process. It has been all about relationships and learning how to continually make better tiles and enjoying the ride it takes me on.”
Tile Road Tripping
Over the holidays, Layl, Josh, and our daughter Elliot took a road trip. We drove from Minneapolis to Vancouver, BC, to see our oldest daughter. Along the way we stopped at several pottery, tile, and art places. One highlight was stopping at Medalta Pottery, where Elliot was an artist in residence in 2019. It was an amazing place with original beehive kilns — now used as a museum.
Traveling through rural Canada by car was a wonderful experience. We were able to pack our car with all of our necessities, so we had little contact with others. (OK, we did stop for Tim Horton donuts three times — it was a must!) When the border guard asked where we were going — knowing where we came from — he was shocked at our idea to drive 2000 miles across the Canadian tundra. The mountains, prairies, and badlands were all amazing to take in. There was an incredible amount of wildlife to enjoy: eagles, coyotes, hawks, big horn sheep, antelope, and deer. It always kept our interest.
This trip was a great refresher of ideas, and fuel for the soul.
25 Years Of Clay Squared
Some of Josh's earliest work included variations on our popular Medieval Floral Tiles. He started making them alongside other hand-carved tiles which he sold at home show at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
While we have done lot of amazing projects over the years we did not do it alone. We have been lucky to have great employees and interns that have helped make Clay Squared what it is today. Here are photos of the 20 employees we have had since 1998!
Practical Preservation podcast
On this week’s episode of the Practical Preservation Podcast, Danielle spoke with Josh Blanc of Clay Squared to Infinity in Minneapolis Minnesota. From their website, “Clay Squared crafts handmade tiles in many shapes and colors for kitchens, bathrooms, fireplaces, and as art tile. We feature tile by local and national artists and offer the largest selection of historic reproduction tile lines in the US.”
Danielle and Josh discussed matching historic materials and why it is better to preserve and restore than renovate and redesign historic properties and homes. They also discuss why buying from small businesses is better for your historic home.
You can find Clay Squared online at www.claysquared.com, on Instagram @claysquared, and contact them by phone 612-781-6409, or by email firstname.lastname@example.org
Diary of a Tile Addict
Clay Squared was featured by the Diary of a Tile Addict in September. Here is what they said about us.
“There is no end to the amount of incredible tiles out there. It seems as if each day we are finding something or someone new, and its almost always worth sharing. And today we’ve got our eye on another company… Based in Minneapolis, Clay Squared‘s artist hub creates a range of handmade tiles in all sorts of shapes and sizes, patterns and glazes, as well as made to match authentic reproductions of period pieces.”
October 2021 Layl
Layl is now running her intro classes through Airbnb Experience. Multiple dates available including:
Saturday, October 16th 1:00 to 3:00If you have an expired Groupon you can still use it at one of these classes. Just email email@example.com to let her know you plan to attend.
September 2021 Clay Squared Newsletter
Believe it or not, Clay Squared is turning 25 years old on November 5th! It is almost unfathomable that we have been able to play with clay for so long. It all started in our attic studio, an 11’x 11′ foot space. We blasted off (very slowly at first), occupying four studios over the course of 25 years. Now Josh’s and Layl’s studio is 3000 square feet, and we own an arts building! The adventure has had many stories of success and failure, experiments and big ideas, and it has been a wonderful time. None of it could have been done without all the great people who worked for us and helped us over the years, and all the people who purchased our work, helping us achieve our dreams of being full time artists.
September 2021 Layl Newsletter
Fall seemed to arrive exactly on September 1st this year! I have been canning lots of tomatoes and we are starting to think about cooler days. For now we’ll enjoy one of the best months in Minnesota. With all the challenges in the world we hope you and your family are safe and also enjoying some perfect fall weather.
August 2021 Clay Squared Newsletter
The Cosmic Rain Bathroom
August 2021 Layl Newsletter
Art to Change the World presents
A Pop Up Palette Party hosted by
August 8th, 12-8pm
July 2021 Clay Squared
Most summers, and throughout the year, Josh looks for interns to join us and learn the Clay Squared tile making process. This summer we are taking on two interns at the same time — Emily and Oliver!
Emily is a student at Minnesota State University of Moorhead. She is majoring in Studio Arts Drawing & Illustration, and minoring in art therapy. Emily has been learning how to be a kiln master by unloading and loading the kilns and learning how to glaze tiles. You can see her work on Instagram at.@skhellatonart
July 2021 Layl Newsletter
Owatonna Arts CenterHealing Arts Gallery Show
July 1st to October 31st
Pictured: “There were even Windows in the Clouds- Chapters of Childhood”
June 2021 Clay Squared Newsletter
We have created downloadable and printable drawing versions of our most popular projects. This is a great way to see all the aspects that make up a kitchen or fireplace. We have many customers write in there own measurements and scan them back to us so we have figure out the amount of tile you need. Click here to read more
June 2021 Layl Newsletter
Old Courthouse Arts Center
May 2021 Clay Squared Newsletter
Randy is our latest crew member to join Clay Squared to Infinity. He has an extensive art and clay background; graduating from MCAD, a photographer, painter and a docent at the MIA. Randy also has worked at many pottery and tile places in Minneapolis, notably 212 Pottery, Dock 6 Pottery, and North Prairie Tileworks. His extensive background in art and clay have been very helpful for him in jumping right into projects and working in the studio. We look forward to seeing how good he is at foosball!
May 2021 Layl Newsletter
Friday May 14, 5pm to 10pm
Saturday May 15th, 12pm to 8pm
Sunday May 16th, 12pm to 5pm
We will be participating in the scaled down 2020 Art A Whirl this year. We’d love to see your masked faces if you are up for an outing! If you aren’t, Layl is also participating in the online version along with many other artists.
April 2021 Clay Squared
We would be remiss if we did not mention the tension in our city at this moment. With the trial of George Floyd starting closing arguments this coming week and the murder of Daunte Wright by another police officer last week, the feeling of Deja Vu is prevalent. National guard troops are stationed around the city, which creates even more unease.
For us, we stand in solidarity with our community, those looking and fighting for a future where Black people do not continue to die at the hands of those meant to protect and serve. These violent events aren’t singular, they are systemic. In the end, the only person you can change is yourself. We continue to make changes in our thinking and actions to do what we can to try to have a positive impact on all these overwhelming issues.
Hopefully our newsletter only can allow us a little escape from the heavy issues facing our city and society. If you want to donate to Daunte Wright’s family click here, https://gofund.me/3f93f01d
We wish you good health and safety.
April 2021 Layl Newsletter
I have spent the past month creating my largest piece to date. There was an empty wall outside my studio so I decided it might as well be filled with one large piece. The piece is titled “Infinite Story Generator- the Hero’s Journey”. It is all about the timeless narrative of a character leaving home to venture through the woods, over the seas and mountains to eventually end up at a sparkling castle. I got some of my ideas for this piece while talking to my daughter Daycia, who is a children’s librarian in Vancouver, BC. Daycia had some great ideas about what elements are always in these types of epic narratives, like an object that you pick up on your way to be used as the thing that saves you, or riddles that you must answer to get past a barricade. If you can’t stop by our studio you can check out the piece in the video below. Click here to read the whole newsletter