Back in the 1980s, Michelle Griffoul chose her home for one reason.
“It had forklift access to the backyard,” said Michelle, who bought the home, in the Santa Barbara County community of Los Olivos, when she was a fledgling ceramic-tile artist with a very large kiln. “The house itself was irrelevant.”
But the sage-green house with eggplant-colored trim has become relevant over the last 24 years, serving as a canvas of sorts where Michelle has tried out and lived with her whimsical ceramic and bronze tiles. Today she makes her living designing and manufacturing tiles sold in 140 showrooms nationwide.
Michelle’s own tile projects — in her bathrooms, on fireplaces and walls, on furniture and in and around a sumptuous swimming pool and spa — remind her of the stages of her life: a first marriage, motherhood, divorce and remarriage. And they also chronicle her emergence as an artist.
First, a work space
In her first major remodel in 1983, Michelle added a 640-square-foot tile-making studio adjacent to the garage where she could throw, push, roll, tear, pit-fire, raku-fire, high-fire, low-fire, flock, paint and otherwise stretch, in her words, “the acknowledged limits of clay.”
In 1987, the year the first of her two children was born, she and her then-husband added a den with a fireplace. The next year, she tiled the wall above the fireplace with a large, abstract mural — similar to large installations she was doing in airports and hotels across the country — in the corals and grays that were popular at that time.
Michelle’s focus shifted from one-of-a-kind art tile to production tile in 1989 when upscale tile retailer Ann Sacks asked her to design a line of tile. Eventually, Michelle had to move the operation out of her home studio and into a commercial building she purchased in nearby Buellton.
Her kitchen backsplash was next to be tiled with a horizontal row of her signature ceramic spirals along with squiggles, “eyebrows,” dots and triangles of various sizes and colors.
By the time she tiled her daughter’s bathroom in 1994, her product lines included many shapes taken from nature — brightly painted fish and sea creatures, palm trees, lizards, turtles and frogs.
The bathroom’s backsplash includes a border of palm trees and spirals, and the shower displays a mosaic of sea creatures and tropical fish set into wavy patterns of square green tiles. Though the project is 13 years old, it looks fresh. “I still like it,” Michelle said.
When Michelle was ready to remodel the master bathroom in 1997, she opted for a bathtub surround with a more serene composition of brown tiles and jumping salmon. “I wanted something quiet for myself.” She traded a tile job for a set of upscale shower doors.
She also put two sinks into her master bathroom, and when her son pondered why a single woman needed two sinks, she explained: “Because I’m optimistic.”
A year later, Michelle met Michael Byrne, a book author and expert on tile and stone installation, at a conference in Philadelphia where he was a featured speaker. After his talk, she sought his advice on tiling a table. They hit it off, spent the evening talking over drinks and were married the following year.
The marriage has enriched Michelle’s life professionally as well as personally.
“Now I know so much about installation,” she said. “Any manufacturer should know the whole process.”
It was after the couple honeymooned in Bora-Bora that Michelle suggested they put in a pool.
“Michael was still dizzy from his honeymoon and said, ‘OK, honey,’ ” Michelle recalled. At the time, the couple thought the pool might cost $20,000 to $30,000.
“What a joke,” she said. The finished project cost $80,000, not including the tile.
The pool decking is made of flagstone with tile insets of animals in blue surroundings, meant to evoke critters splashing out of a pond. Although the pool is rectangular, its edges undulate slightly.
Michelle’s tiles rim the inside of the pool, where images of large sea creatures and schools of smaller fish flit across the bottom. Water from the attached spa cascades over more tiled fish designs.
More recent tile projects at the Griffoul-Byrne household include a masonry chaise longue, a patio table and a barbecue surround.
Working in bronze
Michelle’s latest line features bronze tiles. She and Byrne covered the once-boring living-room fireplace with travertine tiles inset with bronze spirals, bars and squiggles.
She grew impatient with Byrne’s installation when he insisted on painstakingly cutting the travertine around the curved lines of bronze, rather than the easier method of setting the curvy piece of tile into a straight line and filling the curves with grout.
“I just didn’t want something that looks like someone else can do it,” Michael said.
Michelle conceded: “It looks fabulous. There’s no doubt about that.”
The future is sure to bring more tile projects, even reworking existing projects.
Except for the powder-room countertop — its glaze is decorated with impressions of her children’s feet — everything else is impermanent.
“I love redoing stuff,” Michelle said. “For me, it’s fun.”
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