July 24, 2017

Photo Essay: Arto Tile, Made In California

I'd never heard of the company Arto Brick before, but I'd seen its work.

Whether it was the tile restoration at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel or the Spring Street-facing courtyard of Los Angeles City Hall...

... the Ace Hotel or the above-ground pavilion entrance to the Mariachi Plaza subway station in Boyle Heights...

... or the fancy wine bar on Melrose (zinqué) and the fancy taco place that replaced St. Nick's on Third Street (Toca Madera)...

...I'd been surrounded by the company's tile and brickwork since I'd first started coming to LA 17 years ago. I just didn't know it.

Maybe it's because there are so many other tilemakers from Southern California whose names have big marquee value, like Malibu Tile, Catalina Tile, Gladding McBean, and, of course, Batchelder.

Arto, on the other hand, has been both designing and handcrafting bricks, cladding, wall tile, and pavers at its factory in the South Bay city of Gardena for over 50 years now—without the celebrity status.

Its owners and operators, brothers Vod and Armen Alajian, have kept the business feeling like family—even after the 2014 passing of their dad, Arto, the namesake and founder of the company.

Though Arto the man, born and raised in Egypt as a child refugee from the Armenian Genocide, began his career in craftsmanship in Cairo by making leather shoes with his father (Vod and Armen's grandfather), he eventually found his way to the U.S. in 1962.

At one point, Arto did work for the Adamson family (of Malibu Tile fame), but it was delivering milk and not making tiles. It wasn't until later that he started his work in ceramics with his mentor, clay artist, ceramicist, and sculptor Irene Berchtenbreiter.

That's when he turned his new craft into a business—Arto the company—with the help of his brothers, nephews, and whoever else he could wrangle.

And now Vod and Armen (pictured above) have taken the reins and kept the same spirit, employing childhood friends and making their other employees part of the family.

On the factory tour, you can literally see newly-fired floor tiles (like those found at the Roosevelt) drying in the sun, in both the "Mission Red" and "Cotto Gold" colors.

They may look like terra cotta, but the energy crisis in the 1970s forced the company to switch over from clay to concrete.

The art is really in how to make concrete (and now, cement as well) have an "old world" look...

...but also carry the cost savings of a less energy-dependent material (and maintain quality while increasing recycled content).

The artistry is even more evident in the "deco" tiles that the company's design division, Arto Tile Studio, has been producing...

...reviving that classic "California" look of vintage, decorative tile...

...with literally every piece painted by hand.

And that means they can be fully customized with whichever colors and glazes you want—either within their predesigned line drawings or as a completely new design.

Color variation, of course, is inherent in any product that's as handcrafted as these are. But that's what makes any Mission Revival home, Arabesque patio, or Roman-style pool look authentically antique (a.k.a. Antik) and yet very Californian.

Just like real clay, travertine, or limestone, the concrete and cement bricks and tiles are designed to evolve over time—developing a patina that will supposedly "enhance the character of the material" and serve as "a record of the life around it."

Because no matter what you're made of or where you're from, you can't help but have some California rub off on you if you spend enough time here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Before Malibu Was Malibu
Photo Essay: Taking Pause at Serra Retreat
Photo Essay: Tile House, Hollywood Hills
Photo Essay: Midwick View Estates, Unfinished & Foreclosed
Photo Essay: Aimee's Castle on the Lake
Photo Essay: Searching for Gold Under Scotty's Castle

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