Your tiles reveal such a refined eye and sure hand. Did you always know you wanted to become a visual artist?
As a kid I was always doodling, always had a pencil in my hand. But I never made a connection between that and a profession or career path. Still, I grew up in a family of artists and designers. My grandfather was an interior decorator, my grandmother a painter. My mom was a graphic designer. And my dad was an art director at Y&R [Young & Rubicam].
So art and design were in your blood.
In my blood and all around me. We lived in Manhattan, and our apartment was a relaxed mix of styles—no rules. So my parents would have an Eames chair next to a Saarinen table across from a couch they picked up at an antique shop on Cape Cod. Their friends were artists and photographers whose work was up on our walls. And with The Metropolitan Museum of Art just a few blocks east, I’d spend hours exploring the labyrinth of rooms. Even then, I was drawn to repeating patterns used in different eras around the world: the hemline of a warrior’s tunic, an ancient fresco.
That’s a lot of inspiration for a young child. Were your doodles from your imagination or things you were looking at?
All of the above. My dad used to come home from work with these giant storyboard pads used by sketch artists at the agency to depict the action of a TV commercial. Every page had rows of empty frames the shape of a TV screen. For me, each was an invitation to fill in, to doodle. And I’d go from one to the next and the next.
When did you put your incessant doodling together with the idea of a career path?
Not until my 20s. I went to Emerson College in Boston, thinking I’d major in communications. But it wasn’t a fit and I dropped out after my second year. I travelled, lived briefly on a commune, and eventually settled in Northampton [MA] where the creative vibe was so strong you could feel it. I was working at a fabulous store that sold women’s clothes and accessories from around the world. The manager, Nancy, was a potter. When she left to open a ceramics studio, she asked me to become her apprentice.
Were you interested in pottery before that?
Not before and not really after. The whole process of throwing and shaping clay, and even the final product, didn’t speak to me. As a kid at The Met, I’d always go back to this tiny porcelain Qing dynasty vase in a glass case at the top of the grand stairway. It was so perfect with its simple lines and flawless celadon glaze. I thought, “If I can’t do that why do pottery at all?” Still, I was learning a lot—how to stain, how to hold the brush just so. Then one day I watched Nancy roll out a flat slab of clay. And a light went off in my head.
A flat slab: like the two-dimensional storyboard pads you used to draw on?
Exactly! Flat with a defined border. Ready for whatever color or design you wanted to apply to it. I fell in love right away. Nancy encouraged me to develop my own tile designs, which I started to sell through her shop. Three years later she was moving in a different direction, and I was able to take over the studio.
Within three years you were selling enough tiles to make it work?
Not exactly. My dad had been encouraging me to show my tiles to a couple of his old cohorts in the city. One was a photographer with connections at the New York Times. The other was Norman Karlson, the founder of Country Floors on 61st Street. One summer in my teens, I’d worked for his family as a mother’s helper on the Cape. It felt weird, though; I didn’t want him to feel obligated. But my dad said, “Norman is a professional. If he doesn’t like the work, he won’t buy it.”
So you took his advice?
Eventually, yes. I set up meetings and drove down to the City with a couple of canvas bags filled with tiles. At the Times building, where I was meeting Suzanne Slesin, the editor of the Home Section, a tiny elevator opened up to a floor buzzing with noise and activity: typing, phones ringing, people rushing around. Just the smell of ink and paper was overwhelming. As Suzanne approached, I thought she looked put out. But within minutes, the tiles were all over the floor, and the two of us were moving them around, trying new combinations, having a ball. So by the time I got to Country Floors, I was feeling a lot more confident. Norman called in his powerhouse team of women, and same story. We sat around a big table, the tiles all spread out, having this really exciting conversation.
That had to be an experience!
In more ways than one. Moving my work around on that floor and table, I was seeing the impact of pairings, which helped me look at my tiles in a whole new way. Up until then, I’d been in “individual 4 x 4-inch tile mode.” Now suddenly, I was seeing how juxtapositions and bringing different patterns together could create movement; that in these tiles, I had the kind of design flexibility I’d grown up with. Suddenly I wasn't only looking at tiles. I was also seeing space. That in itself was exciting. By the time I left, Norman had bought all the tiles I'd brought with me and put in an order for more.
So you were off and running?
Yes. And very soon, custom orders started coming in—a trip because Norman, who was brilliant, had a number of celebrity clients. My first big order was a pear kitchen backsplash for Jon Bon Jovi.
With your major client in New York City, what made you leave Northampton and move even farther away—to Maine?
Gentrification. In 1999 I was married with a young son. Northampton had changed; it was no longer the same place. We’d set our sights on three New England towns that offered a downtown, culture and good schools along with natural beauty and room to breathe. We had plans to visit all three. But Brunswick was first, and that was it.
None. For one thing, look at this space. Making tiles requires so many steps—from mixing and pressing to drying, staining, painting, glazing and firing each piece not once but twice. Besides space, I’ve got great light, always a place to park and wonderful, creative neighbors: woodworkers, blacksmiths, and more. Brunswick is wonderful. Then, drive five, 10 miles out—it’s spectacular.
How has your work evolved over the years, since that first pear kitchen backsplash?
It turns out that my very first designs—the pears, flowers, birds—are timeless. People still want them today, although I do come back and make adjustments in size and color. My collection also features more abstract geometric designs, as well as tiles in compatible color fields of subtle hues and tones.
How much of your work is custom?
I do get orders for a particular tile or grouping of tiles. But most of my projects are custom, and I love the collaboration. I’m now working with a client who’s building a country home in Pennsylvania. She wanted kitchen tiles to reflect the foxes and winter witch hazel she sees out her windows in winter. I’m translating her vision into a backsplash.
How do you normally work with clients?
Of course, each client is different. But the process begins with conversation—listening and asking a lot of questions before I move into design and rendering. Color and lighting are big considerations. Because my tile is handmade, the natural variations give subtly different looks in different lights at different times of day. Next, I create sample tiles with ground colors and designs we’ve looked at and agreed on. Once everything is approved, I go into production.
Can you talk about general trends in tile design?
Since I’ve never intentionally looked at a tile magazine, I can speak only from my own experience. But people today want more warmth, more color. It’s similar to what happened when Norman Karlson first opened Country Floors, when he was bringing European tiles to the American market. Suddenly, people realized there were alternatives to subway tiles, which had taken hold after people saw them in clinics during the 1918 pandemic. Subway tiles can be great. But people are generally looking for less stark and more warmth.
Each of your tiles is like a miniature work of art. Are there other uses for them besides backsplashes and walls?
For sure. A single tile can look spectacular in a shadow-box wooden frame. Some of my clients want them as permanent mementos, commemoration of life events. I do a lot of wedding tiles with names, dates and a design that holds meaning for the couple. Sometimes they’re a gift from parents or a family member. Some couples give tiles as gifts to each of their wedding guests—usually in several designs, so they’re not all the same, with backings for use as coasters. I’ve done new baby tiles, with names and birthdates and tiles celebrating children, pets, boats, vintage cars, you name it. Recently I’ve been working on new Maine-themed tiles: lighthouses, state bird, flower, schooner and more.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
COVID-19 is a terrible tragedy. Like everyone, I can’t wait until it’s over. Ironically, my sales have stayed strong.
Why do you think that is?
For one thing, people are cocooning, and home is comfort. I picture people staring at their walls day after day after day. And at some point, they think, “We’ve got to do something about that backsplash.” They have time to research. And they’re finding me.
Where can people find your tiles? Are you still with Country Floors?
Absolutely. The main showroom moved down to 16th Street, near Union Square. Country Floors also has showrooms in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Their clients are international, and my tiles have been installed around the world. You can find my work here in Maine, too: in Portland at Old Port Specialty Tile, which lives up to its name, and at employee-owned Morningstar Stone and Tile in Topsham. I love their energy and hands-on involvement. I also work with a number of design groups, who enjoy bringing clients into the showroom.
Deborah Todd's mother, the late Buddy Todd, at work
in the studio.
It sounds like you've defied the odds—building a healthy business in a niche creative market. Why do you think that is?
I’d say it all goes back to my family, my parents. My mom, Buddy, who passed away in July, worked with me here for years—contributing her amazing skill as a freehand designer. It was pure joy working with her every day. But well before that, from an early age, neither parent ever pushed me in any direction. They gave me freedom to explore, to dream, to make my own decisions. There was always the sense that I would find my way.
. . .
Number one resolution for 2021?
One day at a time.