From a design perspective, there are few things more quintessentially Portuguese than azulejos tiles. Found on the walls of churches, restaurants and houses across the country, they’re part and parcel of Portugal’s visual landscape. But what exactly are azulejos tiles? What’s their history? And why are they so important to Portuguese culture? Keep reading to find out.
What Are Azulejos Tiles?
On the surface, azulejos tiles may look like any other glazed ceramic tile. Yet dig just a little deeper into their history and you’ll soon see how azulejos tiles are an essential part of Portugal’s cultural identity.
Dating as far back as the 13th century, azulejos tiles have a long history in Iberian culture. Arabic in origin, azulejos tiles were brought over with the Moorish invasion of Spain. The word azulejos itself in fact comes from the Arabic ‘az-zulayj’, which means ‘polished stone. At first, the term exclusively referred to North African mosaics. However, as they rose in popularity, azulejos gradually became the accepted word for any decorative glazed tile measuring five to six inches square.
It wasn’t until Portugal’s King Manuel I visited Seville in the 15th century that azulejos tiles gained a foothold in Portuguese culture. He fell in love with the ornate decorative tile details, and whether on the facade of cathedrals or as murals inside Gothic palaces, they soon became a staple of the era’s architecture. Though primarily used for decorative purposes, the cooling effect of azulejos tiles meant they would later take on the functional capacity of temperature control.
Initially imported from Islamic Seville, Portugal’s earliest azulejos tiles featured simple geometric and chessboard prints. In line with Islamic law, the tiles were prohibited from depicting human figures. However, as Portugal began producing their own tiles in the 16th and 17th centuries, these simple shapes evolved into elaborate artwork which captured various historic, religious and cultural themes. In this way, azulejos tiles become an important means of preserving Portugal’s identity.
Contrary to popular belief, azulejos tiles go far beyond the classic blue and white colorway. The blue and white only became prominent later on in Portugal’s history, strongly influenced by the Age of Discovery and the fashionable Ming Dynasty Chinese porcelain. Before this, azulejos tiles came in an array of vibrant hues; from sunshine yellows to fiery reds and verdant greens.
Are Azulejos Tiles Still Popular Today?
As with most design trends, azulejos tiles suffered a fall from grace in the early 20th century. They were considered to be outdated and common by the cultural elite. Yet as the century wore on, an azulejos revival commenced. In the 1950s, the designers of Lisbon’s first metro station turned to azulejos tiles as an easy low-maintenance means of connecting the underground with the outdoors.
Today they are a celebrated component of Portuguese design, with many local artists, including Julio Pomar (pictured above) and Paula Rego, using the form to celebrate and reconnect with their culture.
How Can I Incorporate Azulejos Tiles into My Home?
You don’t have to live in Portugal to incorporate azulejos tiles into your daily life. As with any other decorative tile, azulejos make for a beautiful addition to the home. Whether as a statement kitchen backsplash or a bathroom alternative to marble, they’re a great way to introduce pattern. See below for some of our favorite examples!
In lieu of a formal art piece, an azulejos tile mural takes pride of place in this elegant bistro.
For a cozier take on azulejos tiles, change up the colors! Opt for muted dusky hues with a rustic twist.
While the safety of stair runners may be up for debate, one thing that’s for certain is the ability of azulejos tiles to step up as an ornamental alternative.