Hundreds of rectangular glass tiles in all the shades of the rainbow line white shelves like a candy store. The ColorLab is a long, light-filled room located within the expansive factory of Interstyle Ceramic and Glass Tiles in Burnaby. Selection, rather than variety, is the challenge for designers here, as more than 120,000 options ranging in colour, size, and finish sit waiting to be discovered.
Interior designers have long turned to Interstyle, Canada’s only glass tile manufacturer, for a range of projects, from the Vancouver International Airport to residential his and hers bathrooms (covered floor to ceiling in custom 24-carat gold tiles for her and platinum tiles for him). As all items are made in Burnaby, Interstyle has the flexibility to produce custom products and quantities for ventures of all scopes.
Back in the 1970s, these seemingly limitless design options were not available in Canada. Interstyle founders Ernesto and Georgia Hauner experienced this firsthand when they moved to Vancouver from Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1975 and set out to renovate their new home. In search of more interesting and varied options, Ernesto (who had a background in furniture design) travelled to his birthplace of Italy and decided to import a shipping container of tiles to see how they would perform in Vancouver, officially founding Interstyle in 1977. “It wasn’t really a business plan,” says Kim Hauner, Ernesto and Georgia’s son and the current director of Interstyle. “It was like, ‘Let’s bring some materials over and see what happens.’”
Shortly after, Ernesto encountered health problems; Kim, who had a job lined up at General Electric in Connecticut and knew nothing about ceramics, was called to help with the company in Burnaby. “I dropped everything and came over and opened this container and said, ‘Now what?” Kim recalls. He hit the pavement, going door to door selling the unique tiles to architects and designers. In speaking with locals, he quickly realized that the design community was looking for options that suited the West Coast style (at the time influenced by Arthur Erickson), with subtler colours in contrast to the orange and avocado shades popular in Europe.
“People on the West Coast were saying, ‘We want more neutral, we want lighter colours,’ so it was difficult to find that,” says Kim. “So we came up with the idea to manufacture things for the local market.” He purchased a small kiln, and with his mom as his designer, Kim started experimenting with how to make his own tiles. He also learned how to silk-screen in the basement of a local art supply store, eventually creating a makeshift machine for the Interstyle factory. Kim’s hand-done silk-screening process remains the same today, with his improvised machine still located at the back of the factory (along with newer models, of course).
Years of experimentation continued, including a discovery that would create an entirely new category in the industry. Kim’s friend was a distributor of glass windows and convinced him to try finding a way to recycle the pieces that broke during shipping. Many attempts later, and with input from his father, Kim discovered a process for creating delicate, whimsical coloured glass tiles. Initially sold to the design community as borders or accents to ceramics, after a chance encounter in an elevator with tile magnate Ann Sacks, the glass pieces were offered as standalone products.
Today, Interstyle’s artisanal tiles can be found around the world. But the company has worked on some beautiful local spaces, too, such as the York Theatre on Commercial Drive and the Vancouver Convention Centre downtown; in a perfect example of what Interstyle can do, the convention centre’s 500,000 glass tiles with 100 unique colours create a distinctly, and perfectly, West Coast look.
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