Inspiration: Tiles of Portugal
There’s little doubt that Portugal is a design lover’s paradise. Around every corner you’ll find glazed ceramic tiles, or azulejos, adorning every surface, from eye-catching church frontages and metro station walls to hard-wearing benches and fountains. At the forefront of Portuguese culture, azulejos tell stories and create interest where, in other countries across Europe, walls might be left blank.
In the Beginning
The word azulejos comes from the Arabic “al-zuleique”, meaning “small polished stone”. Dating back to the thirteenth-century, designs started with geometric shapes in neutral tones, used to fill spaces on large, gothic walls. They often featured modest depictions of birds and leaves, inspired by fabrics imported from overseas, and the foreign influence didn’t stop there. King Manuel I brought inspiration back with him from Seville, and those geometric shapes morphed into ornate painted and transfer-printed designs, mostly blue and white and later with hints of yellow-gold and green.
It was after an earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 that the use of azulejos across Portugal started to rise. During the rebuilding of the city, the tiles moved from inside walls to out, covering religious monuments and palaces, community hubs, restaurants, bars and railway stations. Not limited to wealthy, urban centres, their popularity spread nationwide into rural areas too, used in villages to cover street signs and beach walls, framing the doorways and windowsills of family homes.
Through this beautiful but practical tradition, it’s become a Portuguese custom to share stories. Over time artists have depicted religious fables, historic events and cultural celebrations on the ceramic surfaces of tiles, alongside small messages of remembrance and protection from the elements. These stories became public artwork for all to see, love, and learn from.
Without age, and seemingly above trend, azulejos change with the times but remain a constant. Walk the streets of Lisbon and you’ll see nods to Art Nouveau, Art Deco, the transfer-print methods of the nineteenth century and much more besides. And if you need any more convincing that azulejos live on, as recently as 1988 a collection of modern artists were commissioned to decorate Lisbon’s newest metro stations with the famous tiles
Not Just a Pretty Façade
Not only are they gorgeous to look at, these tin-glazed tiles are practical too. The Portuguese used them to protect against damp and heat – creating functional, safe places for people to gather, celebrate, worship and relax.
If you find yourself in Portugal, must-sees include the Sao Bento Railway Station in Porto - a sight to behold with large panels made up of tiles numbering well into five figures, depicting historical events and cultural scenes. Next up, try Buçaco Palace, a luxury hotel nestled in the mountains. You could also wander the grounds of the Fronteira Palace, drinking in its colourful tiles dating back to seventeenth-and eighteenth-centuries. Its Room of Battles is not to be missed, nicknamed "the Sistine Chapel of Tilework”. For your final stop, make your way to Lisbon’s Museu do Azulejo to see the best of the best.