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The Force Behind Julep Tile Company

An artist wife and engineer husband create ceramic tile installations that are a modern take on the ornate wallpapers of the Victorian era



Photos by Eleanor Williamson

“It’s definitely my parents’ fault,” Kirsten Sharp says of her old-school tile design. Kirsten, a ceramics artisan, grew up in a Victorian farmhouse where her folks, with help from Kirsten and her brothers, were constantly working on a painstaking renovation. “I don’t think I fully understood how influential the house was on me,” she says of her Midwestern childhood home. “Apparently, these things stick with you!”

And stuck they have. Today, Kirsten and her husband, Pete, as Julep Tile Company, create ceramic tile installations that are a clean, modern take on the ornate wallpapers of the Victorian era. From damask, one of her first designs, to brocade, many of Kirsten’s tile patterns offer flowing, meandering shapes and serpentine silhouettes that repeat like stamped wallpapers of years gone by.

Kirsten’s designs began taking shape while she was earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in ceramics. After graduation, she moved to Phoenix and met Pete, a manufacturing engineer, and together they assembled a studio in their garage and found themselves creating tiles on nights and weekends.


Kirsten Sharp is the ceramicist behind Julep Tile Company, where each tile is touched at least 15 times before it leaves the studio.
It was important that the finished installation look seamless, like wallpaper. Often it seems like grout is an afterthought in tile design, but we use it to our advantage.” — Kirsten Sharp

“I bought a kiln and a slab roller—it’s like a pasta maker and squishes the clay into a flat slab so you can cut shapes out of it,” she says. “I’d make a stencil for a pattern and hand-cut it into each tile. Each one took me 20 minutes.” It was a slow-moving, hands-on process that wouldn’t allow any sort of scaled production—especially because both she and Pete had full-time jobs.

When the couple moved to Louisville in 2010, they decided to broaden their adventures in tile making, and Julep Tile Company was born. “He leaves the design work up to me, and he handles the technical manufacturing processes,” Kirsten says. “Pete is one of the best problem-solvers I know. We like to say we ‘out-stubborn’ the problems.”

The couple’s soft-spoken Midwestern nature also bleeds into Julep’s color palette, which whispers rather than roars. It spans bright white to dark gray, with 36 soft, earthy hues in between, each offered in a variety of finishes—ranging from matte to shiny, crackled to smooth. But the production process, the couple explains, is what really sets Julep’s product apart. “I create a model in clay,” and then that becomes the template for pressing each design in a hand-crank tile press, Kirsten explains.

“Depending on the weather—humidity can really slow things down—the tile takes a week to 10 days to dry.” From here, Julep’s product takes the road less traveled.

 
 
Tile designs, clockwise from top left: Two-color Bloom, Cobham, Bloom, Damask.

“The traditional ceramics process is to bisque-fire the dried tile, glaze it and then fire it again,” Kirsten says. “Because we single-fire, we glaze the tile as soon as it’s dry and create a quality, finished product in one firing. This helps us cut down on the energy we use, which is important to us.”

Pete adds, “We pride ourselves on using the most eco-friendly manufacturing processes, and we use recyclable/biodegradable packaging materials whenever possible.”

Kirsten and Pete’s stick-with-it-like-wallpaper-glue approach has prevailed. Julep now offers 18 designs available in three dozen colors and six glazes. “I try not to get caught up in design trends,” says Kirsten. “I realized early on that trying to fit my style into what I thought other people wanted took away from its uniqueness. Owning your unique style allows you to most fully express it.


The four-person team Julep—John Statz, Pete Sharp, Kirsten Sharp and Courtney Hickman—inspect their product.

 


Hand-pressed designs are in relief on the face of the tile. Damask tiles shown here before glazing. 

MORE:
Visit juleptile.com to see the full line of field tile, field shapes and trim tiles, as well as selections of colors and glazes, and a list of showrooms. prices range from $37 per square foot for basic field tile to $160 per square foot for intricate decorative tile. from start to finish, lead time on most orders is four to six weeks.

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