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The Jerwood Gallery tile

When designing the Jerwood Gallery, we knew that the material we chose to clad it needed to be very carefully chosen. We wanted something that had a sense of permanence and solidity, as well as being impervious to the worst that the British seaside weather and wind could throw at it. We also wanted it to be a single material covering the whole building, but not to feel uniform or monolithic. It needed to feel alive.

We developed the idea of a ceramic cladding through both technological and aesthetic influences. We were interested by the traditional mathematical tiles in Sussex – including on a building opposite the site – which appear to be bricks, but are in fact tiles hungon wooden battens, a way of cheaply updating the look of timber framed buildings when brick came into fashion. For whatever reason – perhaps durability – these tiles were frequently finished with a glaze that, while black in colour, shimmers in the light when viewed from different angles. We were interested in the oily, shimmering effects of these tiles and wondered if we could achieve something similar with contemporary technology and techniques.

We found a wonderful local ceramics workshop – Robus Ceramics – who actually made replacement mathematical tiles, but who had also worked on contemporary ceramics projects. We worked with them to develop a bespoke glaze that could be applied to an industrially produced tile – similar to those used on shopping centres all over the country – that would be robust and cost effective. We had a fantastic few months of interesting packages turning up at the office, containing first chips of different glazes, then – as we got closer to what we had in mind – full tiles. It was fascinating to discover how the same glaze would react differently on tiles from different manufacturers – and then to work with Robus to ensure that every detail was considered, including making sure that all the edges were fully glazed so that glimpses of bare clay would not be seen through the joints.

Lastly, we worked with the cladding installer, ICS, to develop all the fine detail of fixings and fabrication. We discovered through full scale mockups, how the mitre cut corners needed to be held tight together. We got ICS to spray paint the aluminium carrier rails black where they would otherwise glint through the joints. The difficult junctions of the sloping sill and canted reveal to the big lookout window at the back, and the flush glazed windows at the front, were drawn through exhaustively.

The final result has become, as we had hoped, emblematic of the gallery and unique to it. The oily glaze can appear burnished and almost bronze in some lights; silver at others; and deep blue-black at yet other angles. The hand glazed finish makes every single tile unique, making the building intriguing close up as well as soft from a distance.