Reader LuRu, a ceramic artist, has been a lontime a fan of midcentury design in its many forms — from tiki to atomic sci-fi. When it came time for her and her husband to remodel their tiny kitchen, LuRu knew she could use her creative talents to make a one-of-a-kind space. In addition to new flooring, cabinets and countertops, LuRu created, glazed and installed 64 square feet of custom ceramic tile on the walls of her kitchen — including a space themed ‘stovescape’ — transforming her kitchen into a true work of art.
I have been focused on making ceramic tiles full time for the past four years. I earned my ceramics degree from Ohio State in 1995. Although I did a large tiled piece as part of my senior show, I predominantly focused on sculpture afterward and eventually went back to grad school and earned my degree in sculpture from Louisiana State University. I returned to tile and clay because it is a great vehicle for my creativity and it is more accessible to a larger audience.
People are more likely to have tile in their house than a six foot tall sculpture. It also allows me to work through ideas fairly quickly and explore a variety of themes. Since starting Tortuga Tile Works four years ago, I have created approximately 400 molds and have produced thousands of tiles. Although most of my business is now custom, I have spent the past few years peddling my wares, tile by tile, at indie craft shows across the state of Florida.
Q: What made you decide to make your kitchen retro, and why did you decide to go with an atomic theme on your tiles?
My husband and I have always been partial to vintage design, from mid-century modern to Tiki and everything in between. I have also always been a sci-fi junky, so when it came time to think about the kitchen of our house which was built in 1947, it seemed appropriate to make it a mid-century sci-fi dream. The “Atomic” tiles were the first line that I produced because I knew that is what I wanted for my kitchen.
When it finally became time to do the kitchen (the cabinets were being held together with record album covers,) I took my favorite ideas from that initial collection and revamped them so that I could use my pneumatic hand press to aid in production. I reformulated new glazes to better match our cabinet and fabric colors and added a burlap texture to mimic old barkcloth fabrics. The boomerang design got reworked so that it would have a consistent repeat when stacked subway style. The final touch to the redesigned tiles was the addition of white gold on the starbursts and lithium atoms.
I wanted to have a focal point above the stove. I chose the intrepid astronauts on an alien planet scene because it is so iconic. A variety of pulp fiction covers served as inspiration to get my explorers to look just right. I wanted that wholesome, strapping, clean cut type that was so typical in the art of that era. The tile pieces are compositionally shaped so that I wouldn’t have square lines running through the design. For easy installation I glued the mosaic pieces to fiberglass mesh beforehand. The stovescape is really framed nicely under the stainless steel hood, which casts a soft glow on it in the evening.
The tiles took about two months from initial mold making to installation.
The entire remodel took six months. My husband, my parents and I worked weekends gutting it down to the studs and then rebuilding it. The house had been flipped sometime in the past 15 years, and they tore out the original tile and just put a laminated MDF surround on top of the mesh and rubble left behind by the tile. When we pulled that off we realized what a mess the walls were.
Also, whoever flipped it did not update the electric. It was so outdated we ended up getting seven new outlets just to bring it up to code. Apparently the one outlet that was fine in the 50’s just doesn’t cut it in the 21st century. What’s more sci-fi than plugging in all your small appliances at once anyway!
The shelves and lower cupboards are painted a dark teal that helps ground the overall feel of the kitchen and complements the tile and wall color.
The countertops have a vintage feel with a silver cross hatched laminate that is also reminiscent of vintage fabric. For right now the floor is just vinyl. The hardwood floors that run through our entire house are safely waiting underneath sheets of luan to be refinished at a later date with the rest of the house.
The pantry is an IKEA unit to which I added Michael Miller vintage looking fabric.
All of my tiles are themes which you will not typically encounter. Most hand-made tiles are rooted in historical motifs or nature scenes. I wanted to make tiles with a bit more edge for those of us into vintage/underground culture. So Tortuga Tile Works specializes in things like robots, rayguns, Tikis, pin-up girls, sugar skulls, graffiti, and spirit bottles.
As for the laminate countertops we got Arctic Retro from Lab Design.
They are holding up just fine, but I am not sure I would recommend them to your readers as when the laminate arrived, it had a sticker saying it wasn’t meant for countertops. Due to the fact that we already had paid for it and gotten it and needed to stay on track with our already behind schedule, we went with it.
The link to the data sheet says it is for countertops:
“Basic Uses: Lab Designs Laminates are recommended for interior vertical and horizontal decorative applications. Possible uses are hotels, restaurants, cabinet
doors, store fixtures, exhibit manufacturing, office furniture, kitchen counter tops, columns, and slat wall. Not recommended for: Areas exposed to high temperatures, or exterior use”
So who knows. Time will tell. Kool-aid and wine doesn’t stain them and they seem pretty durable thus far.
My dad, husband and I built the countertops out of MDF and laminated the Arctic white laminate onto them with contact cement. We made patterns for the MDF out of 1 x 3”s, and for the pass through we also used cardboard to get the shape just right. We used three pieces of the laminate, There is a seam in the L shaped countertop to the right of the sink. We glued the laminate down and then cut it to the shape using a router with the special countertop bit. We did not use the 45 degree bit for the edge. because the inside of the laminate is dark grey and it would have made a dark line around the edge. I just filed it with a hand file a bit so that it wasn’t sharp. The countertops took two weekends. Saturday to make the L pattern, Sunday to cut the MDF, glue the laminate, trim it and install the sink. The second weekend we made the pattern for the pass through and glued and trimmed that piece.
LuRu, your kitchen turned out great. The many handmade art tiles you created and installed in your kitchen really give the space a personality all its own. You also may have coined a new design term — I’ve never heard of a ‘stovescape’ before, but I like it. Kudos to you on a job well done and thanks so much for sharing your space-age space (!) with all of us.
- LuRu’s Tortuga Tile Works.
- LuRu’s photographer friend, who took her portrait and some of the “after” photos of her kitchen: Kris Starry of Starry Night Photography