We have the perfect niche market,” says Ricardo Cortiço, gesturing to the exuberantly patterned and coloured reclaimed tiles that cover every surface of the Lisbon shop he and his three brothers opened in 2014. “All these were made between the 1950s and 1990s: they are no longer in production but nor are they museum‑worthy yet.”
The Portuguese have been producing azulejos (tin-glaze tiles) since the 16th century. They are found throughout the capital – adorning churches and palaces, shop entranceways and stations. It was Ricardo’s grandfather Joaquim who started the family’s collection of industrial tiles: working in the Lisbon building trade in the 1970s, he started to keep the unwanted tiles he came across and soon became the go-to man for repairs and replacements.
His impressive collection – millions of square metres of tiles displaying over 900 patterns – is still being added to by Joaquim’s four grandsons. Tiago, Pedro, Ricardo and João recognise the importance of this heritage as well as its potential within contemporary design. “Tiles are the skin of Portuguese houses,” says Ricardo, who points out a blue and white c1980s “crackle” design (€3.90 each) with three fish – one of the shop’s most popular recent offerings.
Other current gems include floral patterned 1940s tiles (14cm sq, €5.90 each) in mottled turquoise and lustrous sage green from Lisbon’s Constância factory, and a bold 1960s/’70s graphic grey and white design (15cm sq, €5.90 each) created by Carvalhinho in Porto. “The Cesol factory in Souselas is one of our favourite sources, mainly for its striking tiles with relief designs,” says Tiago, pointing out a dusky olive example (15cm sq, €5.90 each) enlivened with raised concentric circles.
While some tiles have been found in sufficient numbers to complete whole decorative schemes – such as a large London bathroom that was part of a project by architect Annabel Karim Kassar – the nature of the store favours a mix-and-match aesthetic. Combo boxes (€15) house four different but harmonious tiles and nothing is wasted: broken tiles can be bought for €5 per kilo for use in mosaics. A striking example of this was created by the award-winning architecture and interior design company Atelier Data, which offset a sleek, minimal white kitchen with a vibrant mosaic splashback by bricolage artist João Mouro.
The tiles are also put to eye-catching contemporary use by eldest brother Pedro and his wife Rita, who run Pedrita, a multidisciplinary design studio. Their grão (grains) technique uses each industrial tile as a pixel to create large-scale digital-esque installations, as seen in the city’s Tropical Botanical Garden in Belém.
“We think of our shop as an informal gallery,” says Tiago, adding that its location in Mouraria is apt: the area was lived in by the Moors after the Christian reconquest of Lisbon in 1147. It was the Moors who brought their horror vacui – fear of empty, ie, undecorated, spaces – to Portugal along with their tradition of tiling houses. Today these colourful fragments of Portuguese history remain the perfect antidote to cold, empty spaces.