Silk-Screeners Fit to Be Tiled

February 08, 1992|PATRICK MOTT

If you don't think you have a novel in you, you'd do well to ponder the idea that one of the primary American literary forms of the past quarter century has been the T-shirt. Think of it as the short-short-short story of the age. One person's philosophy expressed in cotton casual wear.

Initially, the shirts lacked content. You had to take what you found in the stores, and true self-expression was minimal. "I'm With Stupid" enjoyed a vogue, as did "My Mom and Dad Went to (Heritage USA/Trees of Mystery/the tractor pulls) and All I Got Was This Stupid Shirt."

But then rogue silk-screeners began to set up shop and started producing works of true Yankee literary merit. Or at least rugged individuality. Anything that could be drawn or written was silk-screened onto a T-shirt.

(The absolute apex--or, rather, nadir--of this mania occurred several years ago when Uganda's answer to Vlad the Impaler, Idi Amin, had a bunch of shirts silk-screened with a photo of him being carried through the streets of Kampala in a sedan chair beneath the bogus title "King of Africa." When Amin was overthrown and fled, a handful of correspondents poking through his home found the shirts and gleefully liberated them.)

Today, thanks to silk-screening, a plain white T-shirt is about as common as tie-dyed bell-bottoms. And now, because of the same artistic process, the plain white kitchen or bathroom also may be headed for extinction.

At least that's what Duane and Deborah Rapp hope will happen. They are the owners of the Arius Laguna Beach Gallery, where silk-screening doesn't mean cotton; it means tile.

Yes. Hand-glazed terra-cotta tile, the kind of stuff that might be lining your shower or kitchen counters in its plain vanilla incarnation--monochromatic, unadorned, nearly invisible. Functional, but not exactly inspiring. Now imagine the tile not as a white background, but as a full-color reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Actually, the Rapps probably wouldn't go that far. But they could. If it can be drawn, they can put it on tile.

It works like this: a silk-screen template is made of the design (a New Orleans street scene, a pair of hummingbirds and a still life with a bottle of Tabasco sauce are typical of the Arius standard repertoire), and wax is screened onto the tile to define the outlines of the various figures. The sections defined by the wax are then numbered and, in much the same way as a paint-by-numbers canvas works, bright colors are then hand-glazed onto the corresponding numbered sections. The tile is then fired in an 1,800-degree kiln, the wax disappears and what's left is a detailed reproduction of . . . anything. (Well, almost anything; they're nice folks, so don't ask them for an Amin bathroom mural.)

Go ahead, try to stump them. A set of four vertical framed tiles that form a Kwakuitl totem? It's standard, $95. Reproductions, eight inches square, of M.C. Escher's fish and lizard designs? Take 'em home for $36.95 each. A coral reef mural, 48 inches by 72 inches, with enough colorful fish and sea life to make you rethink that saltwater aquarium? Line the shower with it for $2,495. They've even reproduced van Gogh's "Sunflowers": 10 inches by 13 inches for $49.95.

How exact is it? They can duplicate wallpaper patterns. Also, if the design requires writing, precision calligraphy can be done with a computer. And Deborah says she's particularly interested in duplicating children's drawings as permanent keepsakes.

Expect a bit of a wait for custom work. Because the Arius gallery in Laguna Beach is a licensee of a Santa Fe-based company, the local design work is done in Orange County by Deborah and two other designers, and the glazing and firing is done in Santa Fe, where 1,800-degree temperatures are common. The stock designs--and there are a lot of them--show up regularly in the Laguna Beach store, however.

Two of those designs that are among the most frequently requested, said Deborah, are decorative address plates for the front of the house and a stylized tree-with-birds tile that represents a family tree, customized with precision-calligraphy names.

You'll be tempted to handle the tiles gingerly. Fair enough. Unsupported and free-standing, they're brittle. Drop one and it'll probably shatter. It is, after all, clay. But lay it into a wall, countertop or--get this--a floor, and it becomes nearly bulletproof.

Walk on this tile? Absolutely, said Duane. The glazing and firing process produces a strength and impermeability in the tile that makes it very difficult to scratch or chip. Some customers, he said, have been walking on large inlaid murals for years without any dulling of the original brilliance.

Which is more than you can say for the average T-shirt. My own Idi Amin model, for instance (one of the correspondents who snitched them is a friend of mine), couldn't even stand up to a friendly game of lawn darts.

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