With the Red Clay of New Mexico, a Couple Moulds Their Life Together

A cosmic alignment — a syzygy — and an artistic alignment of handcrafted tiles

Lee Gruber was intrigued when David del Junco asked her on a date to a pottery and tile workshop in the 1990s. Little did she know that date would change the course of her life.

As they roamed the storied halls of Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Pennsylvania, the pair fell in love with the beauty of the handmade tiles. During the tour, they were awestruck not only by the intricate tile designs, but also by the fact that people were still using their hands to produce tiles in the modern era.

With permission, the duo observed and snapped photos of the machines and processes for the rest of the day. As their trip came to a close, they realized this was their future.

“We said to each other, ‘We can do this. And this is something we could do together,’” Gruber says. Gruber and del Junco are cofounders and owners of Syzygy Tile.

Syzygy hand-glazes each tile, instead of using the spray paint often applied to tiles in modern factories. (Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)
Syzygy hand-glazes each tile, instead of using the spray paint often applied to tiles in modern factories. (Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)

They started their venture with a small workshop in the garage of their adobe home in Silver City, New Mexico. They added a third partner, Kay Merritt, and got to work.

They needed a name for their business, and thinking about the three partners, del Junco suggested Syzygy, a Greek astrology term that describes the alignment of three celestial bodies. As fate would have it, the three partners officially went into business in October 1993, the night of a lunar eclipse — a syzygy.

“We couldn’t find anyone who could build things the way it was built back then.” –Lee Gruber, Syzygy Tile

With the business officially formed, now all they needed were the proper tools. But finding antique tools in the modern world would prove difficult.

“We couldn’t find anyone who could build things the way it was built back then,” Gruber says.

Inside the Syzygy Tile workshop. (Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)
Inside the Syzygy Tile workshop. (Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)

Undeterred, del Junco decided to make what he couldn’t find. Among his many creations is what he calls “the harp.” Created from durable piano wire, the harp is used to scrape excess clay from Syzygy’s decorative moulds.

“It was very important to us that we emulate not only the historic nature of the tile, but really the historic nature of the process, where people use their hands to produce something,” Gruber says.

(Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)
(Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)

When Syzygy formed, tile manufacturers were beginning to shy away from natural red-bodied clay in favour of manmade white-bodied clay, also known as porcelain. Porcelain is typically made from ground glass or other recycled products, allowing companies to easily mass-produce tiles and standardize colours. It allows companies to produce more tiles, but those tiles lack the natural variances of the mineral-filled, red-bodied clay that has decorated homes for centuries.

For a company based in New Mexico — a state known for the red clay of its landscape and also for its traditional red-clay pottery — sticking with the natural product dug from the earth made more sense. It took the company five years to find just the right red-bodied clay, but the wait paid off.

Clay cut into shape for tiles in the Syzygy Tile workshop. (Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)
Clay cut into shape for tiles in the Syzygy Tile workshop. (Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)
Tiles cool after being taken out of the kiln. (Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)
Tiles cool after being taken out of the kiln. (Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)

“Because of the iron in that red-clay body, the glazes have a really distinctive look about them,” Gruber says. “I think it sets us apart in many ways.”

Each displays the spots and specks unique to its clay, each detail formed not by paint in a factory, but by Mother Nature’s hand over the ages.

Syzygy’s tiles showcase the minerals found in the pieces of earth from which they were made. Each tile has its own unique shade and tone — like snowflakes, no two are the same. Each displays the spots and specks unique to its clay, each detail formed not by paint in a factory, but by Mother Nature’s hand over the ages.

Tiles ready to glaze. (Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)
Tiles ready to glaze. (Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)

Space to grow

After five years, Syzygy outgrew the garage, moving into an old power plant downtown. After three years there, Syzygy found its dream location — an old Buick dealership in downtown Silver City, where they remain today.

Built in the 1930s, the space is lined with huge windows and skylights. The abundance of natural light gives the space a warmth, says Gruber, and provides a positive working environment for her employees.

“My husband and I really wanted to create a place that was not a factory environment,” Gruber says. “We never wanted it to be a big factory, and we’ve maintained that tradition for 25 years, making tile by hand.”

Small, loose tiles, ready to be sorted by hand. (Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)
Small, loose tiles, ready to be sorted by hand. (Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)
(Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)
(Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)

Del Junco and Gruber have taken their handmade tiles to design shows across the country, and the reaction has been inspiring each time.

“They honoured it with their hands, touching the tile over and over again,” Gruber says. “It was quite beautiful to see.”

“The soul recognizes this is something special.”

Syzygy Tile will be part of a display by Vancouver’s Bullnose Tile at the Luxury Home & Design Show, June 21–24, 2018. The show is hosted by Taste of Life, Magnifissance’s parent media organization. The show will embody the Renaissance spirit — renowned artists, artisans and premier brands will set up shops at a venue resembling an Italian piazza. Each shop has its own story to tell, offering some of the world’s finest in craftsmanship, bespoke services and designs never before seen in Canada. Learn more about the Luxury Home & Design Show.

(Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)
(Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)
A bathroom wall featuring Syzygy tiles. (Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)
A bathroom wall featuring Syzygy tiles. (Photo courtesy of Syzygy Tile)

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