The beautiful and unique aspects of the Maltese tile were the main reason Thomas embarked on his fascinating project. Each tile is made by hand, one by one.
The Maltese tile is making a comeback! And it’s thanks to, in no small part, people like Thomas Camilleri, who founded his project—aptly named Lazarus Tiles—during a home renovation. Learning about the history of the Maltese tile inspired Thomas to start looking around for discarded tiles around the Maltese islands. After restoring them, he mounts them onto frames and transforms them into remarkable works of art. His mission: is to “bring Maltese tiles back to life” to be enjoyed in this innovative manner.
Ruums spoke to Thomas to learn more about Lazarus Tiles.
The beautiful and unique aspects of the Maltese tile were the main reason Thomas embarked on his fascinating project. Each tile is made by hand, one by one. They can withstand the test of time—many for over a century of hard wear and tear. And yet, so many of them are, sadly, discarded during renovation and construction projects.
“I was working on the renovation of a 19th-century Ħamrun maisonette,” Thomas told us. “It had beautiful tiles in some rooms. However, other rooms had plain, broken tiles which needed replacing. Rather than buying new ones, I salvaged tiles from other properties to use for these rooms.”
“During my search, I encountered many beautiful tiles, but I couldn’t use a number of them. Some weren’t the right colour; others were not enough in quantity. I was saddened by the fact that they would probably end up in a landfill. So, Lazarus Tiles was my way of turning these hard-working, iconic representations of our vernacular architecture into wall art. In this way, I managed to save as many as I wished.”
What makes the Maltese tile so different from other tiles?
Maltese tiles are encaustic tiles. Unlike a ceramic tile where the pattern is part of the glaze, the colour of a Maltese tile is an entire layer. This is why giving old tiles an abrasive polish (‘togħrku’ in Maltese) brings out the vibrancy of the original colour.
Our iconic tiles originated along the southern Mediterranean, from Istanbul all the way to southern Spain. They were also adopted by the English, which is how they probably ended up in Malta. Victorian hallways used to be adorned with these tiles in the most beautiful geometric patterns. They are, nowadays, highly prized as original features within British homes.
So, how does Thomas find and rescue these beautiful tiles?
Through exposure on his social media pages, Thomas has developed somewhat of a reputation when it comes to architectural salvage. “Whenever friends or family see a skip outside a construction site with anything interesting inside, they’ll call me.” Thomas mused.
“My friend Gaby called me a few weeks ago and told me about a skip full of Maltese tiles outside a house on Norfolk Street in Sliema. I was there in a flash, rifling through the contents of the dumpster like a stray cat. This search yielded some beauty. I managed to restore quite a few, and they are now available from Lazarus Tiles.”
The process of restoration for Maltese tiles is as unique as they are.
Although one can polish these tiles, there is nothing that gives them a hard-wearing patina like years of usage. The gentle, constant rubbing of footsteps seals off these tiles and creates a protective layer that is not achievable through any chemical process.
So, when preparing these tiles for mounting, the cement is first chiselled off the back of the tile. The tile is then washed in warm water. The next step is to remove any cement or stains on the front. This is done by gentle scraping to avoid removing the entire patina. The tile then goes through a wax process that brings out the colour without sealing the tile off. This allows it to breathe, as well as ensures it will not stain over time.
Thomas believes the Maltese tile is no longer a thing of the past.
Luckily, there are several wonderful people out there who have helped create awareness through their work. People are definitely more appreciative of Maltese tiles today. While there was a long period when they fell out of fashion and many were lost, they are now firmly back—and as popular as ever.
While many new tiles are being made, there are also plenty which is being restored within old homes. This is ideal because there are manufacturing methods, such as marbling, which have been lost through the ages. This makes these original tiles practically priceless.
We finally asked Thomas what he loved most about his venture.
“It’s hard work,” he admitted, “but I love it, because every week introduces me to new patterns and colours I had never seen before. I also love Maltese architecture. So, when I am saving these tiles, I get to explore old houses full of history and loaded with memories. I find it all so fascinating.”
“The stories that clients approach me with are also a wonderful part of the job. Sometimes, the tiles I mount are brought to me as commissions. The reasons behind these orders are often very precise and quite poignant.”
Thomas’s work is an excellent representation of high esteem for our local heritage. By saving and restoring these tiles, he is helping to revive a tradition which has existed for hundreds of years. The tiles he rescues may no longer perform their primary function. However, his work ensures they are still adorning the walls of many houses with the iconic patterns and colours that we all know and love.
Visit and experience the creative spirit of Lazarus Tiles.