Peranakan? Azulejos? Majolica? A Brief History of Tiles

From geometric patterns to ornate figurative scenes, azulejos tiles are used to decorate building exteriors as well as used in the interiors of subway stations and private homes in Portugal. From where and when did this tradition arise?

The word azulejo stems from Arabic roots, meaning ‘small polished stone’. The tiles were originally a North African Moorish influence to the Iberian Peninsula dating as far back as the thirteenth century. The first tiles were simple geometric shapes in neutral tones. 

During the Age Of Exploration - fifteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries - the Portuguese were the first to reach East Asia and explorers brought back with them the Asian influence of blue and white decorative glazing.

Other East Asian influences such as birds, flowers, and figures were also imported. 

Facade of Viúva Lamego - one of the most important tile manufacturers in Portugal still in operation today founded in 1849. To service the growing demand for tiles in former Portuguese colonies - like Brazil - which had a hot and humid climate, manufacturers like Viúva Lamego sprung up to fill this market.

The cool tiles being the perfect material for a hot and humid climate also took a foothold in other places of similar weather - such as right here in Singapore - part of the Straits Settlements comprising of Penang, Malacca, and Singapore.

Tile façades of a heritage house in Singapore, commonly called 'Peranakan tiles'.

The tiles have a fascinating global history when tracing their origins all the way back to thirteenth century North Africa, and later, they went to Spain by Moorish influence.

From Spain through the island of Majorca, this type of tin-glazed earthenware ceramics reached Italy in the mid-fifteenth century (referred to as Maiolica), onto Holland and France in the sixteenth century (referred to as Delftware and Faience, respectively) and finally in the nineteenth century reaching Victorian England, referred to as Majolica (spelled with a J) by the English manufacturers who wanted to reference its origins.

In the nineteenth century, Victorian majolica tiles were exported to Japan and other parts of Asia.

The Japanese fell in love with the colorful Victorian tiles. They started to produce them domestically after figuring out a dry press forming method in around 1907.

An exhibition mounted by Geneto in 2019 showing Japanese majolica tiles. Photo via Design Boom 

The Japanese also called their tiles majolica tiles and the height of the export of these tiles were in 1931 and 1932 servicing many parts of the world. The Japanese tiles traveled as far as Southeast Asia, India, Central and South America, Australia and Africa.

In the Straits Settlements, the Peranakans took a liking to these beautiful tiles and they started to use them to decorate the façades and interiors of their homes, thus, around these parts, they are referred to as 'Peranakan tiles'.

The Old World charm of these tiles are making a comeback. Today, they can be found in a wide range of interior uses around the world.