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.”
February 2021 Clay Squared Newsletter
In the photos above, you can see how our tiles have been used to add a striking pop of color to white bathroom field tile. Using a contrasting color to the wall tile, the niche will no longer be a disguised feature, but will now become it’s own small work of art. To see more niche pictures, you can visit our website, or our Instagram. Read the whole Newsletter.
February 2021 Layl Newsletter
January 2021 Clay Squared Newsletter
Black History Month
Martin Luther King Jr. day is Monday the 18th. Clay Squared is closed on all important American holidays. The recognition and appreciation of what MLK was able to accomplish in life and in his death by assassination resonates with us. As our society goes through another huge upheaval of what America is and what it aspires to be, Martin Luther King Jr’s words and deeds inspire, and influence all of us at Clay Squared. Read the whole story.
January 2021 Layl Newsletter
On December 17th we lost a member of our Clay Squared family. Chris Madsen had been battling cancer for the past 4 years and we are heartbroken that she passed away last month. If you had placed any orders or come in to visit us in the past nine years you most likely encountered Chris and was impressed by her helpfulness and positivity. Read the whole story.
December 2020 Clay Squared Newsletter
Park Laurel Apartments Project
For the past year Josh has been busy with the historic restoration of the Park Laurel Apartments in the Loring park neighborhood of Minneapolis. The project has 40 fireplaces and hearths as well as three geometric, one mosaic and encaustic tiled floors that need to be restored in four apartment buildings. The buildings were built in 1893 and have been named a historic site by the Minnesota Historical Society. Each fireplace is unique from one another and has different restoration needs. Read more about it!
December 2020 Layl Newsletter
Layl’s newest blog post discusses creativity and sculpture in everyday activities like cooking and landscaping. Layl talks about finding inspiration and art throughout her life, and even now during the pandemic. Read the entire post here.
Josh’s Hot Cocoa
1 cup of cocoa powder
2 cups of powdered sugar
2 cups of granulated sugar
2 cups of powdered milk
1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
*Optional 2 Tbls of corn starch for thicker cocoa
Pour one cup of whole milk into a heavy saucepan, and add 2 tsp of hot cocoa mixture.
Whisk mixture until hot and slightly thickened. If using cornstarch, cook on lowest heat as it starts to thicken.
Turn off the burner and pour hot cocoa into a cup – Be careful; it can burn if it is left on the stove too long.
Add marshmallows or whipped cream and enjoy!
October 2020 Clay Squared Newsletter
Like most Americans, Covid-19 has really upended our daily lives. Layl was not able to do any of her arts festivals since the beginning of 2020. She has, however, been able to do her classes via Zoom and has been working on her social media. TikTok has been very good to her. She has quite a following already! Josh and crew have been lucky that so many people have decided to work on their homes during the pandemic. We clearly recognize that this is a gift and we are very grateful for everyone supporting our creative world.
We use our extra time to donate our energy and money to organizations that are trying to make a difference. Josh is on the board of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District and Tile Heritage Foundation. Layl is on the board of Art to Change the World. We both see the value of the arts to help people in their quest to be the best they can be and document the history of artist endeavors. Even when times are challenging we feel we have to give back in the best ways possible. As the Give to the Max fundraising event is just around the corner, we hope if you are in a position to help others and we encourage you to give to your most valued non-profit. Stay safe and enjoy the time you have with your family and friends.
October 2020 Layl Newsletter
I know with all that is going on in the world you probably haven’t even begun to think about holiday gift buying but if you are looking for a distraction and wanting to get a headstart I’ve got a recommendation. Art to Change the World (nonprofit where I am board chair) has created a program called SWAP- Stand with Artists Project. You can shop for many different artists’ work in one place. The variety is spectacular- prints, sculptures, originals, and even books by local authors. All the proceeds go to the artist and you connect directly with the artist to either pick up or have the art shipped to you. I think you will enjoy exploring this site and hopefully find a very special gift for someone that will also support an artist.
Find more info at the Art to Change the World website.
September 2020 Clay Squared Newsletter
Chris Madsen Retiring
Chris is retiring for reasons related to cancer. Her cancer has returned for the 3rd time. With all the transfusions and chemotherapy, she wants to spend more time relaxing and focusing on her recovery. She says she is getting caught up on her reading and time with her family. Chris does come to visit and catch up with everyone every couple of weeks to check up on us. We still miss her laugh and asking everyone if they want tea. We will miss her around the studio and all the great conversations we had over the years.
If you would like to send Chris a card, you can mail it to our store at 2505 Howard St NE Minneapolis, MN 55418. We still get to see her regularly, and we will gladly pass on any greetings. Click here to read the rest of the newsletter.
August 2020 Clay Squared Newsletter
A New Addition
August 2020 Layl Newsletter
Earlier this summer Josh and I were on a bike ride when we saw an impromptu art car parade. Some of the cars were ones I’d seen before but some were obviously newly created with a “pandemic theme” – like a mask over the car!
Then one of the drivers hollered to me – “great helmet” and I realized I still had my pipe cleaners in my helmet from last summer’s NE parade. That’s when I decided I needed to take it a little further and I added some flowers to my pipe cleaners. Now as I bike around every day I get all kinds of smiles and waves, shouts, and honks about my helmet. It’s a small thing but I hope for a second I’m bringing people just a little fun distraction.
As these different and challenging times continue my own art is my fun distraction. I am learning to find assignments for myself to create new work. I recently finished a piece to submit to the Minnesota State Fair. It’s a super tough competition but I used the deadline for a push to make a new piece. Stay tuned to my Facebook and Instagram to see if I get in.
July 2020 Clay Squared Newsletter
Resilience during this surreal moment is a priority for us at Clay Squared. Stresses like the pandemic, social unrest, and uncertainty in daily life have affected all of us. On top of these stresses, we must figure out how to adjust our daily lives. Layl has had to basically start a new way of doing business after all her art festivals were canceled this year. All the classes she used to teach in her studio are no longer possible, although she has taken up the challenge to learn how to teach over Zoom. She sends packets of clay and tools to students all over the country. She also has been doing a semi-regular “Layl Cam” on Facebook Live and YouTube of her making her polymer canes and sculptures. Both have done well and are growing.
Josh and the staff have continued to get projects to keep them busy making tiles. We feel incredibly lucky every day that we get sample requests and orders from homeowners for kitchens, bathrooms, and fireplace projects.
Keeping ourselves busy and focused has been key for us to stay mentally healthy. We also exercise daily to get a little break from all the challenges and to keep our minds fresh. We hope you are finding small things that make you happy and enjoy life in these challenging times too. Thank you for all your support. Click here to read the entire newsletter.
July 2020 Layl Newsletter
I really miss having people in my studio playing with my scrap pile in classes and open studios. At least I have been able to send a lot of my scraps off in kits and for classes- I actually have seen a dent in the pile! If you have ever seen my 16 foot long scrap pile under my plexiglass table top you know how amazing it is that I have a corner where I can see the bottom!
I was thrilled to get a chance to send a bunch of scraps to Nora Nosek so she could use them to make bead kits for kids. She lives in Madison WI and started her project with a simple call out to friends on Facebook. Now it has morphed into kits made for NAMI and Boys and Girls Club. Nora is bringing a lot of fun to a lot of kids in need during this tough time and I’m happy to help her out and know my scraps are getting out there in the world! Click here to reade the newsletter.
June 2020 Clay Squared Newsletter
The Making of Hexagon Tile from Clay to Installation.
If you are stuck at home and have some time, check out our planning videos.
April 2020 Clay Squared Newsletter
A lot has changed in a month has changed in a month. Click here to read more.
April 2020 Layl Newsletter
Amidst this COVID-19 health crisis, we have a few resources for artists, and some ways you can still support and be supported by the arts community. Click here to read more.