On the Hunt for Tile, a Visit to Edo Japan: Japanese Geometries

We get excited by tile.  Probably to an abnormal degree.  Tile is capable of infinite variation in pattern and color.  It can deliver a look of striking complexity or clean simplicity.  If you're looking for a signature design element for your space, whether in your home or in a ramen restaurant, tile can provide it.  Two years ago, after months of searching and planning, we installed a custom-colored cement tile floor with a traditional Mediterranean-style pattern in our sunroom.  That fantastic experience made it a near-certainty that tile would be an integral element of Shiba Ramen's inaugural design scheme.

Cement Tile.   Toro sunbathes in the sunroom, on our "Bayahibe" tiles that we bought from Avente Tile.  

Cement Tile.  Toro sunbathes in the sunroom, on our "Bayahibe" tiles that we bought from Avente Tile.  

Now the other thing we love:  geometric design.  I spent years being fascinated by the endless hexagons and pentagons, the lines, the symmetries, and the repetition found in chemistry.  I loved the way molecules looked, and I took great pleasure in drawing them, designing them, and building them.  It's no surprise, then, that geometric patterns have featured in our home renovations, especially through the repeating quatrefoils on our sunroom floor.  If there's any material capable of delivering an awesome geometric look, it's tile.

Tile + Geometry + Japan

It didn't take long for our search for geometric tile lead us to early modern Japan.  Japan in the Edo period (ca. 1600-1868) is a renowned epoch of artistic achievement, especially in the graphic arts.  Ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world") prints remain captivating today, as evidenced by a fabulous exhibit at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum earlier this year (one that I attempted to enjoy until I had to throw down with a combative and excitable toddler halfway through the first gallery--it was Mother's Day, so Hiroko got to roll through relatively unmolested).  

Traditional Japanse Patterns.  You've probably seen some of these before, especially the seigaiha pattern at lower left.  Images taken from Patterns and Layering: Japanese Spatial Culture, Nature and Architecture.  You can download a pdf of the first chapters here.  I'm waiting for Amazon to get the whole book in stock so I can get a hard copy.

You don't have to look at much ukiyo-e to appreciate the sumptuous fashion on display in Edo Japan.  Images of courtesans and samurai abound, the subjects often clad in layered garments, replete with varied colors and--to our point--geometric patterns.   It turns out that this use of geometry has been deeply integrated in Japanese design for hundreds of years.  And some of the very same traditional patterns used in the art, imagery, and fashion of feudal Japan are still in regular use today.

Traditional Look, Modern Look

But don't let the word "traditional" give you the wrong impression.  The amazing thing about these Japanese patterns is just how modern they look, and how easily they fit into contemporary design.  The reality is that once you become aware of these patterns, you start seeing them everywhere, not only in Japan, but even here in the U.S.  OK, maybe not so much in my native Akron, Ohio (the home of LeBron James!), but certainly here in the Bay Area.  Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised when, just last week, we saw the Japanese pattern we're using at Shiba Ramen--asanoha--used in curtains in a CB2 catalogue, and in a piece of wall art in a West Elm catalogue.  

Let's Buy Some Tile

Given the design constraints in our small space, we knew we had limited opportunity to deploy tile, so we had to make it count.  But there was little question that we intended to find that opportunity in the first instance.  After Misa put the Soli hoshi  tile on our Pinterest board, we didn't have a hard time making up our minds to use it at Shiba Ramen.  It conveys the modern Japanese look we're going for; it references a Japanese design tradition without seeming traditional.  It can work in a modern food hall in Emeryville, CA.  And, to come back to where we started, it is an incredibly cool geometric pattern.  

Asanoha Tile.  This is what we're using above the counter at Shiba Ramen.  A mosaic of "hoshi" tile from L.A.-based tile vendor Soli.  This image from the web is what caught our attention.  We're doing a fade from sky blue to white, with gray intermediating the transition.

The tile also has the capacity to deliver a bit of much needed color to our space.  As you'll see next time, our color palette is pretty neutral, and there is little opportunity to deviate.  The metal "Shiba Ramen" sign above our kiosk will be the crimson of our logo and we'll use red-orange hanging pendants over the counter.  But we wanted to offset the red with a cool blue, and that's something that the hoshi tile (in sky blue) will do for us.

As of today, the hoshi tile has been in our basement for over two months, awaiting the big day of installation early this fall.  We were worried that Soli would run out of stock and we'd be unable to get the colors we wanted.  This stuff is not cheap (around $28/sf), and that's fine because we're using such a small amount, but if we'd wanted to custom order the tile, the minimum order was 300 sf.  Obviously, custom ordering the tile was a non-starter, so we acted fast and made a final final decision months in advance of building.  This tile is not returnable.