From terra cotta to cement and with seemingly endless design options, unglazed tiles are a surfacing staple. But one studio has found a way to take their versatility even further. Deborah Osburn, the California-based designer behind online luxe tile marketplace Clé, is applying traditional Japanese textile-dyeing techniques to tile production using a method that relies on equal parts chemistry and patience.

The Watermark Collection comprises dipped tiles (shown) as well as stroked, stained, and washed variations that can be used indoors and outdoors for applications such as backsplashes, showers, and feature walls. Residential Architect talked with Osburn about her work on the collection, current tile trends, and her own sources of inspiration.

How did you come upon the idea for this collection?
I was on a studio visit in northern California and was looking at some unglazed tiles and was captivated by them—I always have been. There’s a lot you can do with those surfaces in the kiln or in the production of the tile. It isn’t manipulated by something that’s placed on top of it such as the glaze. So when I spotted the blank tiles sitting in the studio, I was really enchanted by them. They were like empty canvases.

I asked if I could just order those and we could play around with the unglazed surface in our studio. I had been distracted by ombré and other dyeing techniques. It’s sort of a textile thing, but it’s also very on-trend and I thought, well, the textural techniques are not something you can do with [glazed] tiles but I thought you could possibly do that with unglazed tiles.

Can you explain your design process?
I put some indigo dye in a vat and just stuck one tile in and left it there. Immediately it started drawing up the dye. After several days, I pulled it out of the stain and let it dry and didn’t know quite what to make of it. Everything about it was very new and obviously not a surface anyone has ever seen or experienced before.

How do you ensure that the tiles are visually uniform?
Some tiles will only absorb a quarter of an inch of color and that doesn’t do anything for anyone. We created three of four different depths of the stain bath, so if [a quarter of an inch] is as far as [the dye] goes, then I’ll put [the tiles] in another level of stain that will be similar to where the other tiles are absorbing. You want to have color that’s about three to four inches into the tile. It’s tricky, yet, at the end, a client wants to have a certain level of uniformity.

There’s no visual clue as to how absorptive the tiles will be?
No, not at all. And what you’re really after is that fabulous ombré edge. The different vats will help you get that.

How long does the process take?
For a single tile, about three to four days. It will be longer if the tile does not absorb much and you have to transfer it to the various vats. But you don’t find that out until it’s been in the original vat for three or four days. Because the unglazed surface is so absorptive, we seal [the stained tile] with a proprietary sealant.

Where does Watermark fall within current tile design trends?
Right now, pattern is huge. Texture is another, as is openness to surface as art and an embrace of craft as an art form. It used to be very delineated—you had artistry and craftsmanship. But now you can have unbelievable craftsmanship that’s called artistry or you can have do-it-yourself craftsmanship that the younger generation embraces as something they would put in their home. Craft has become a big deal, which is why I think the Watermark Collection is interesting; there’s such a hand-hewn process to it.

Where do you find inspiration for your tiles?
I’m constantly on Pinterest—that’s how Watermark came about. I was pinning delft images like crazy and every now and then a blue and white ombré design would pop up and so I’d throw that in. Also, if I go to Cersaie, you’re going to find me at the show for maybe half of a day. Where I’m finding all my inspiration is in the fashion boutiques in Italy. Or, even if I’m at a trade show in the States, I’ll [go to places such as] Barneys or, in New York, Bergdorf Goodman, to see what’s going on with fashion and fabric and so on. From an interiors perspective, that’s where you’re going to find people being the most innovative. That’s where all this has come from. Clé [derives] from my blog, Tile Envy, and that was what Tile Envy was about: my own design process, which bounces back from fashion, to art, to surfaces.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.