Community + Culture: Profile
Erin Adams, Tile Designer
Custom made with love from around the world
by Anne Bruno
Photographs by Kristen Kilpatrick
In the art and business of design, those who push boundaries the furthest rarely find that a straight line leads to the most interesting places. Instead, it’s the unexpected discoveries made on life’s side trips that provide fuel to move the creative journey forward. “Growing up surrounded by art, it’s the last thing I wanted anything to do with,” says celebrated tile designer Erin Adams with an ironic smile. “But once I figured out how to make my own kind of art — not something precious but something to live with — it felt right.”
A design professional for more than 30 years, Adams has been named Innovator of the Year for Product Design by the Chrysler Corporation, been nominated for the Cooper-Hewitt Designer of the Year award, and seen her work featured in Dwell, Interior Design, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Architectural Digest. After creating collections for prestigious brands like Ann Sacks and New Ravenna, which makes glass and stone mosaic tiles for high-end commercial and residential spaces, Adams has recently stepped out with her own, eponymous brand now based in Austin.
What’s the seed that led you to a career in design?
My mother, who was an artist, opened one of the first folk-art galleries in San Antonio before folk art was really respected for what it is. We traveled a lot to Oaxaca and all around Mexico. I love the humanity in something made by hand; that’s the kind of art I’ve always been most attracted to. Growing up, I was surrounded by artists and saw a lot of them who took their work so seriously that it had a precious aspect to it. I hate anything serious or pretentious. If you need a plaque to understand whatever you’re looking at, I just think that’s crazy. That kind of thing really made me want to run from art. I went to UT and started studying psychology, doing ceramics on the side. One day, a designer was in my mother’s gallery and saw some of my plates in a box on the floor and asked if there were more. At that point, my mother said she knew I was good and sent me off to the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Ketchum, Idaho. After graduating from UT, I went to the Pratt Institute in New York for three years for a master’s in ceramics. I ended up staying in the city a while and founding a gallery of my own.
Did you know from your work in ceramics that you wanted to design tile?
No. I was actually doing jewelry in New York and took my earrings around to stores like Henri Bendel. They said, “Come back after you have more to show us.” I got into housewares and started using glass in mosaics, which no one else was doing at the time. When I went back to Bendel, they liked it, and soon other high-end stores started carrying my housewares too. It was fine, but at some point I realized these pieces were just senseless objects.
How was the work in your gallery different from the work you were producing and selling to retailers?
In the gallery, what we were creating were singular environments, not objects, for specific shows. For instance, when we transformed the space for a Dia de los Muertos exhibit, no one in the city had ever seen anything like it. It was the most fun, and it got a lot of attention. Nightclubs and a few celebrities started asking me to design their spaces. Creating environments, architecture to live in, is what I discovered I really loved. Ultimately, that’s how I came to tile. I can mix the influence of folk art with sophisticated modern design. Tile has muscle to it, permanence, and a story. I love the possibilities.
Most creatives, regardless of their field, talk about getting into a zone. What’s that look like for you?
I’ve always been kind of a tomboy, and I like getting my hands in the dirt. I like what’s raw. I’m in my zone trying different things, especially when I’m traveling. The passion and soul in places that might be called third-world countries are so evident. I’ll go to a factory, say, in India, China, Turkey, or Poland, and pretty quickly, I find that I’ll need to get out of the business office and go where the workers are mixing the colors and materials. I’ve visited many places some might describe as risky, but the smile on my face is huge when I’m interacting with people who practice a traditional craft as it might’ve been done ages ago. And then, I try new things. In Indonesia, when I took some paint and started putting it on teak, the factory owners were appalled. But if you don’t do something different from what’s already been done, why do it at all?
Your designs and materials vary widely: free-form to geometric, smooth porcelain and marbles with inlaid metal to matte caustic cement, studded leather and painted teak. What’s the unifier behind such divergent styles?
While I’d call myself something of a pigpen, I crave order. I love structure and boundaries. I’m known for my mosaics, for strong horizontal and vertical lines. I like how these boundaries and patterns all fit inside the eight-by-eight format I design in. And I’m frequently surprised by what happens when the eight-by-eight squares are arranged together! The process of experimenting and coming up with the designs is very organic, but it’s definitely ordered. Mainly, I want people to live in the environment my tiles create. Whether that’s a Hollywood Regency-style marble or something with more of a folk-art feel. Hang a picture on it, do whatever, just don’t treat it like it’s high art. I don’t do precious!
You’ve worked for some big luxury brands in the design industry and on both coasts. Why your own brand now?
I realized I’d been giving away my art to others for years. I absolutely loved working with Ann Sacks, but there’s something about doing things yourself, under your own name. I like being able to go direct to the source and have my own private clients too. The relationships I have here, as well as the ones I get to build across the globe, are so important to me. In China, I spend time working with groups of women who are building something for themselves. I see things with my own eyes, because I can be there for longer than just a few days. Being able to collaborate with them helps me and can help change their lives at the same time. I think my work is bowing down to tradition and bringing it to more people so the aesthetic can keep going forever. The traditional craft isn’t stuck in the past but is being propelled forward.
I’m an eighth-generation Texan, but when my family moved to Austin several years ago, I hadn’t been here in 20 years. It’s changed since then, but coming from Southern California, Austin still feels very independent to me. That’s something I was looking for. It feels different from any other place in America. I love the people; I love the energy. After a trip, I’m always glad to come home. That feeling tells me I’m in the right place.