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Studio Tour: Bharat Tiles

by Rohini Wahi

For me, iconic Mumbai-born Bharat Tiles (commonly shortened from Bharat Flooring and Tiles) has become synonymous with the design landscape of the city. You will find the presence of the 100-year-old company’s ceramic patterned tiles from the city’s worn government buildings and bustling train stations to the most stylish design destinations, cafes, stores and hotels across the metropolis.

The story of Bharat Tiles dates back to the Freedom Movement of India. In 1922, Pherozesha (also known as Phiroze) Sidhwa was studying to become a lawyer, when he met freedom fighter Jamshed Mehta who told him, “India needs to be economically independent. India needs industry, not more lawyers.” The freedom fighter and philanthropist offered to teach Pherozesha how to make tiles. Thus was born the Bharat Tiles and Marble company. Situated on a plot of land across the harbor from Mumbai, the company started with an order for the iconic Readymoney Building in Fort. However, the first lot of tiles made were thrown into the sea because they did not match Pherozesha’s high standards. This lot of tiles, worth the then-princely sum of 50,000 Rupees, was later found to be fine with only the polishing lacking, but Pherozesha had to borrow money and start again. The Readymoney Building still has the tiles Pherozesha made in many parts of the building.

After this early hiccup, the company grew and grew, and replaced all British imports of tiles. This alarmed the existing merchants to the extent that they filed suit against Pherozesha claiming that he was importing tiles and repackaging them to appear as if he made them. Pherozesha won the suit, and this further bolstered the company’s reputation as making tiles “equal to the best made in the world.” The tiles went on to grace palaces, Raj Bhavans, railway stations, the newly built movie theaters, and many of these tiles still exist in Mumbai’s buildings.

However, the company still had its ups and downs. It almost shut down during WWII as the British seized every bag of cement for war efforts. Later on after the 1970s, cement tiles became cheap and generic and the company’s high quality standards meant it could not compete on price. The company made ends meet by renting out factory premises as warehousing.

In 1990, the first Kala Ghoda fair was held with a focus on Mumbai’s heritage structures. The organizers asked Pherozesha’s daughter, who was running the business at the time, to prepare some cement encaustic tiles as samples to show how tiles were made in the old days. Digging up the old processes and molds, she made some encaustic patterned tiles and displayed them at the fair. The response was warm, and the company soon received orders to provide tiles for restoration of historical buildings. From this nascent start, the Heritage line was born. Another chance meeting led noted interior designer Tejal Mathur to use the tiles for the trendy Pali Village Cafe.

Today, the company is run by Pherozesha’s grandson, Firdaus Variava, and is enjoying renewed interest from design aficionados injecting vintage charm into Mumbai’s (and the rest of India’s) most stylish design destinations — from Abode Hotel to Pali Village Cafe in hipster Bandra and The Pantry.

The company has also been collaborating on contemporary tile collections with up-and-coming designers  Sian Pascale, a yoga teacher and ceramic artist, Alice Von Baum, a textile designer, The Busride, product and interior designers, and Shonali Mahajan, an interior designer. — Rohini

Bharat Tiles Studio Tour on Design Sponge
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The founder's grandson, Firdaus Variava, now runs the family business. Firdaus' day begins at 7:30 am, and after seeing his two kids off to school, he heads to the office around 10 am. He typically divides his day between meeting clients, visiting sites where work is going on, reviewing marketing efforts, and spending time with designers who are working on new products for the company.
Bharat Tiles Studio Tour on Design Sponge
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The area the company is located in is called Fort, named because it was the original fort of Mumbai. Now it has become the commercial and financial hub of Mumbai with the Stock Exchange right in the center. The neighborhood is jammed and buzzing all day, except in the evening when it suddenly clears out. The current workspace dates back to when the brand was still known for restoration work. The style is very classic, with lots of wood and tiling and decor options. However, the brand is revamping the entire space to reflect their contemporary personality and the space will show a new way of using the materials.
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The 3D pattern by Bharat Floorings adds elegance to the kitchen counter's walls of The Pantry in the heart of Mumbai.
Bharat Tiles Studio Tour on Design Sponge
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One of the showroom displays showing off ornate heritage designs.
Bharat Tiles Studio Tour on Design Sponge
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Samples tiles of designer Sian Pascale's collaboration with Bharat Tiles. A combination of traditional crafts and a modern aesthetic, the concept for the range is called Japanese Line. It draws on Sian's (also a yoga teacher) meditation practice and a book called "In Praise of Shadows" by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, an essay on Japanese aesthetics written in 1933.
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Sample production of Sian's award-winning Borobu tile.
Bharat Tiles Studio Tour on Design Sponge
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Sian Pascale working on the design of her Japanese Line range.
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Bharat Tiles have a fantastic team, some of whom have been working with the company for over 30 years. Here, a pressman displays one of Sian's Japanese Line tiles fresh off the press.
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"Classic Beauty" tiles in Fawn and White at the trendy Pali Village Cafe in Bandra.
Bharat Tiles Studio Tour on Design Sponge
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The factory moved out of central Mumbai a few years ago and was set up in a quaint hamlet about two hours from Mumbai. Life is very peaceful there and it suits the handicraft nature of the products perfectly. Here, part of the metal mold is removed after pressing the tile.
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Fresh off the press. A new tile is born!
Bharat Tiles on Design Sponge
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Star Pattern with Scallop border at Kesariya in Bangalore by Dalvi Architect.
Bharat Tiles Studio Tour on Design Sponge
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The handmade metal stencils from which Heritage tiles are made -- almost works of art and works of history themselves.
Bharat Tiles Studio Tour on Design Sponge
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Designer Shonali Mahajan of Studio Wodehouse in the factory working on her Shibori range inspired by the forms, patterns and lines created by the unique process of Shibori.
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Firdaus' favorite bookshelf in his home and his favorite floor.
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The strong and beautiful flooring at the British Brewing Company.

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Comments

  • Am I odd that I would love to have a coffee table book of pictures of every single one of their tile creations? Thanks for the article – very interesting to learn a bit of the history, struggle, and success!

  • Thank you for this well-written, well-researched post. I like it on two levels. Ever since I made a down payment towards my own apartment, I have been mood-boarding what Indian elements I would like to include in this new home- these tiles might be the way to go, because I also wanted custom tiling in my bathroom!

    Secondly, as an Indian, I think these are endearing, true, accounts of an important time in India’s history. The time you speak of was a period of great entrepreneurial activity, and many of the businesses set up at this time are still going strong and are merged inexorably into Indian culture.

    • Hi Swati, I loved hearing this story from Firdaus too and its just so very moving that his grandfather’s hard-work and struggle paid off – to this incredible extent! Rohini

  • Rohini – THANK YOU!

    Just loved discovering more about this company, seeing how the third generation is making their own contemporary, passionate interpretations of a heritage product; the designer collaborations; the artisans; tools in the factory… just wonderful!

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story with us and best of luck to the Bharat tiles team

    Ruth
    x

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