OLD LYME — “In King Solomon’s temple, lilywork was the carved lilies on the top of columns … it was decorative ornamentation way, way up high in the temple … and they say that only God could see it,” explained Esther Halferty, co-owner of Lilywork Artisan Tile, who was standing in the studio’s partially-finished space at 56 Lyme St. on Tuesday morning.
“[The name] has a nice flow to it and also we have a lot of behind the scenes work that nobody sees the details [of] and the hours of labor — but it’s what we do and we’re passionate about making things by hand,” said Esther.
Halferty and her husband, co-owner Paul Halferty, recently moved from Pawcatuck where they had a small studio in their garage. They said they wanted a space with more visibility on a Main Street — and they’d always liked Old Lyme.
The move has allowed them to set up a studio space open to customers by appointment.
“A lot of our business — because of our setup before — was going out by wholesale, but we just love meeting with people and learning what their projects are, so that’s why we wanted to get the showroom set up,” said Paul.
The showroom is in the front of the two-story barn-like building — an exhibition space with display boards of tiles of varying patterns, colors, shapes and sizes that can be used for fireplaces, bathrooms, back splashes, and any other creative project a customer has in mind.
In the middle room of the studio, laid out on a large wooden table was an almost-finished mosaic of St. Tropez port of France done in light blues and grays — a custom kitchen backsplash for a Newport couple.
“They have a rather large, light blue stove. This couple are sailors … and they sailed actually to this port,” said Paul.
An interior designer saw Lilywork’s mosaic designs — that include a crab and a number of fish and birds species — at a showroom.
“The showroom connected us with the designer who just wanted something unique for their client,” said Paul.
In the back room of the studio are three electric kilns. One was fired up and had tiles drying on top of it. The kilns fire up to 2,200 degrees and the glazed tiles go through two firings.
Paul said the tile making process starts with wedging the clay over and over again — a process similar to kneading that removes air bubbles — until it is formed into blocks that are cut into thin slabs.
“Then we use plaster molds — these are hand carved,” he said after opening a cabinet filled with numerous molds, each about 6 inches square and 2 inches thick. “You take a piece of clay, put the mold on top and hammer them down into place. We make the molds. All the designs are things we’ve gathered from travels and just things that inspired [us].”
Esther and Paul started Lilywork 15 years ago. They both graduated from art school — he from Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University and she from Hartford Art School at University of Hartford — and met at the Morovian Pottery and Tile Works, now known as the Tileworks, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
“I had an apprenticeship and he was a mold-maker there and we got together and started our own business just about a year later,” said Esther.
Esther, who is from Southington, said she had always wanted to make tiles, which came from her interest in architecture, and two-dimensional and historic patterns. Paul, originally from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, had always liked ceramics and pottery and but his interest took off after a teacher suggested he work at Morovian Pottery and Tile Works.
The couple normally takes part in a tradeshow every year where they meet showroom owners — but between the pandemic and their desire to connect with local interior designers and customers, they’re going to hold off this year.
“We’re reaching out to interior designers and local [designers]. We’re often working with the trade but we’re hoping for just walk-ins and some homeowners,” said Paul. “That’s what I love about it too is we get to install the project sometimes and you just get to have a kind of relationship with people, by the end you’re kind of friends with each other and it’s just nice.”
The pandemic has pushed the business toward working more directly with customers, said Esther, because customers were finding the website directly but also because showrooms were closing down.
“We had a lot of dealers in New York and Los Angeles and things in the cities and Colorado were closing down, the showrooms were closing down, it was very hard to work through them so we kind worked more direct,” she said. “It’s dual right now, we do both.”
With more people renovating their homes during the pandemic, tile trends have become more personal, with more texture, color and pattern, said Esther.
Paul said color trends have shifted from mostly neutral tones to a broader range of hues.
“There was this white and gray thing and now people are putting in greens and blues — and I think that’s why people are taking a second look at what we do, and also just the feel of it, having something handcrafted,” he said. “Because it’s handmade, it has a different look, you see the irregularities.”
Plans for the studio — besides adding heat, which had not been turned on yet — are to provide clay workshops for adults and older teenagers, possibly starting in February.
“We have ideas for popup day workshops but also longer term four to six week day workshops for adults or older teenagers [to learn about] the clay, the glazing process and even setting up some mosaics and eventually learning how to make the molds themselves for some of the advanced potters or ceramicists,” said Esther.
During town events, the studio could also offer hands-on workshops to give people a feel for working with clay, Paul said.
“We’d like to have little popup things where people come and make a tile,” said Paul.