Passionate for Tile
Eric and Rose Franco reproduce vivid handmade tiles inspired by early California art and Spanish Revival architecture
By Ann Jarmusch
Photos by Ann Jarmusch and ERF Tiles
Eric and Rose Franco, seriously smitten collectors of vintage Catalina pottery and tile, frequently visit the fabled island named for Santa Catalina. There, 26 miles off the Southern California coast, the village of Avalon is ablaze with decorative glazed tiles on walls, fountains, planters and more. Brilliantly colored pottery and richly patterned tile go hand-in-hand with the early 20th century history of this quaint resort and nature preserve, both personal projects of millionaire William Wrigley Jr. of chewing gum fame.
“Walking the streets (of Avalon) one can’t help but marvel at the vibrant colors of the ceramic surfaces set between the lush greens of surrounding hills and the sparkling blues of the vast sea beyond,” wrote Joseph A. Taylor of the Tile Heritage Foundation in the introduction to the beautiful book, “Catalina Tile of the Magic Isle,” by Lee Rosenthal (Windgate Press, 1992).
The Francos, who live in Spring Valley, are avid pottery and tile collectors — not trained artists or potters. Yet they are so passionate about the items made by Catalina Clay Products for a decade beginning in 1927 that they made a daring leap to uphold the brand’s honor and quality.
About eight years ago, the Francos attended the annual Catalina Island Museum Pottery and Tile Extravaganza, held every September. They were disappointed by the limited-edition commemorative tile the museum offered for sale that year. White with a small, baked-on decorative decal, it paled compared to the dazzling handmade, hand-painted Spanish, Moorish or pictorial tiles of old, which spoke volumes about exotic birds, cowboys and sultry senoritas.
The Francos had in their collection a vintage metal mold for a small sombrero and it was marked Catalina. In their day, the Catalina pottery and others like it throughout the West made dozens of these sombreros, which were glazed various solid colors and used as paperweights or ashtrays. The Francos proposed using the mold, which was in excellent condition, to make 100 to 150 sombreros for the museum to sell at their next pottery extravaganza.
Museum officials agreed to take a chance on the newbies and the 2005 commemorative sombreros were a big hit with the public.
As owners of hundreds of antique pottery pieces and members of a Catalina collectors’ group, the Francos were determined not to create a false impression with the replicas.
“We went to a lot of pains to identify the sombreros as modern reproductions, so there wouldn’t be any confusion,” said Eric, explaining that each one has the museum’s name and the year the piece was made impressed on the underside.
The next year, the couple made more sombreros, but in different colors, and those too were popular.
In 2007, the Francos switched to a new commemorative series for the extravaganza: decorative plates featuring Catalina sea-life motifs and a galleon, but at half the size of the originals. The plate for 2011 will depict “kissing birds,” Rose said, showing off two samples in different color schemes. These plates are exclusively available through the museum. You can see a few of the designs on the museum’s Website (catalinamuseum.org/giftshop.html).
Also in 2007, the Francos began reproducing colorful pictorial tiles — the more romantic the better — made by Catalina and other well-known California and Texas potteries, such as D & M Tile Co., San Jose Mission and Taylor Tilery. They now have a repertoire of dozens of designs, from dancing Spanish couples and ranch hands tending cattle to the California bear. Some are accented with vintage-style wrought-iron frames that echo the curls and sweeping lines of the tile pictures.
San Diego’s decorative tile and wrought iron, found throughout Balboa Park and Old Town, also inspire the Francos. “We are blessed to be living in San Diego, the birthplace of early California art and Spanish Revival architecture,” they state on their Website (erftiles.com).
When the couple eventually bought a kiln on Craigslist, they thought they’d never completely fill it. But they have, even though their output remains low, by choice. Eric works full-time as a field supervisor for a design center, but said he may devote more time to tiles after he retires.
“Rose and I specialize now in the cuerda seca, or dry line, technique, which goes back centuries in Spain and other countries,” Eric said. Black wax is used to outline a design that’s been drawn on a 6-by-6-inch bisque tile or group of tiles, then water-based glaze is applied to specific areas with a syringe. The wax stops the glaze from spreading into other sections of the design. Eric compared the raised black lines to leaded glass or the wires in cloisonné.
The Francos’ hobbylike business, or businesslike hobby, is a true partnership, Eric explained. “Rose does the initial layout of the sketch.”
“In the beginning, I sketched each design by hand,” Rose said, “but now I use a devise that projects the design onto the tile so I can trace the lines.”
“I do the wax line,” Eric continued. “Together we apply the glazes.” Rose pointed out a curved kitchen counter where they do the glazing.
“We load the kiln together,” Eric said, adding that the tiles are fired at 1,835 degrees, or Cone 6, in ceramics lingo. The colors fuse, making the tiles virtually impervious to weathering or fading.
True to European and old California tradition, the Francos frame many of their tiles in wrought iron, so they can be hung on a wall or used as a trivet or picturesque towel bar. They work with Cirilo Medina, a Tijuana-based artisan and ironworker who executes their ideas or contributes his own. One of Medina’s most striking creations in iron is a pair of medieval dragons perched atop a frame for a tile depicting a powerful Spanish galleon at sea.
“We discuss gauges and thicknesses” of iron, Eric said. “Flat iron, square iron, round iron…” Rose added.
She paints the finished frames black or adds a patina, after which Eric positions the tiles in the frames with thin-set concrete.
Commissions have started coming their way, including a large tile tabletop (a joint venture with The Bungalow Store) and a series of murals for customers in Riverside and Walnut. Save Our Heritage Organisation, San Diego’s leading preservation group, invited the Francos to take motifs from a historic tile mural at the Marston House & Gardens in Balboa Park and from Old Town, where SOHO operates the Whaley House Museum. These tiles will be made in small quantities.
“As of now, we’re feeling no pressure,” Eric said. “We’re making a few people happy.”
ERF Tiles are available in San Diego at The Bungalow Store, 2317 India St.; the Marston House Museum Shop, 3525 Seventh Ave.; and the Whaley House Museum Shop, 2476 San Diego Ave. More information and items for sale can also be found online erftiles.com.