By Karen Hery
There’s a lot more going on at SE Salmon and 3rd St. than meets the eye.
Over a million pounds of clay arrives each year. Thousands of shapes and sizes and patterns of artisan clay tiles leave again for projects large and small around the US and abroad.
It wasn’t always that way. Thirty years ago Michael Pratt and Reta Larson had one kiln in the basement of their SE Portland home experimenting with making the kind of artisan tile popular in the craftsman homes of the 20s and 30s.
It was a passion that grew and grew and grew to 45 kilns and almost 90 employees. There is a tile showroom (one of over a hundred in the US and Canada) that features other locally-made tile and a discount tile outlet area.
Talking to Michael Pratt and Tim Roberts (the CEO he and Larson hired a few years ago), it’s clear the growth has been a steady, organic process with the art of it all well in the lead.
“There are more efficient ways to make tiles,” Roberts admits, “but that would take the art right out of it.”
Some of that art still comes from handpainting tile by tile, a coveted job at Pratt and Larson. With many manufacturing jobs having high turn over, there’s longevity for all types of positions at Pratt and Larson and, these days, 30% of the manufacturing crew is Tibetan.
“That began,” Pratt recalls, “from hiring one Tibetan woman and then her husband. There’s a real family feel here.”
The buildings they occupy were part of a long stretch of languishing properties when they made their investment in the property in the 80’s. Manufacturing was moving out of these multi-story older buildings near the river to more modern, larger one story sites farther out, but Pratt and Larson didn’t want to leave their favorite part of Portland.
“Our whole goal was not to have to drive anywhere,” Pratt says proudly looking youthful as he edges closer and closer to 70. “More and more this area is turning to retail from manufacturing but we’re still here.”
The gas-fired kilns run mostly at night, when other power usage in the city drops down. Specialized equipment that makes good sense to upgrade to has been incorporated in parts of the lengthy process from conception to finished product. Many steps though, take advantage of simpler solutions.
Drill presses and milkshake mixers are still used to blend glazes. A basic fish aquarium pump does the best work when painting artists are hand-spreading glaze on tiles.
Even the most experienced designer’s eyes can glaze over looking over all the tile options on display – metallic tiles, nature scenes spread out over multiple tiles, specialty marine life and forest animal tiles, more shapes and angles of white and colored trim tiles than seems geometrically possible.
Sites like Yelp have no shortage of posts with suggestions on how to cope both with the mind-boggling variety and the cost of Pratt and Larson’s well made, artisanal tile.
Do-it-yourself-on-a-budget homeowners often go to the outlet tile stacks for the bulk of a project and use the showroom tile for finishing touches. Decorative tiles and decorative murals become more affordable elements when blended with other less costly types of tile.
Reta Larson branched off a number of years ago to run Side Street Gallery on SE 28th near Burnside which carries on the same sense of art and whimsy.
Carrying on as the artists they always have been, hiring other artists happy to work on and stay on, and staying on the course of only automating enough of the process to strip away the tedious parts to get right at the art has brought Pratt and Larson tile to the world from the heart of Portland.
Pratt and Larson are at 1201 SE 3rd. 503.231.9464 Hours are Mon-Fri 9-5 pm, Sat. 10-2 pm. www.prattandlarson-or.com.