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Transformed by Tiles

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TILES: 1,000 YEARS OF ARCHITECTURAL DECORATION Hans Van Lemmen Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 240 pp., $60.

TILES have a way of taking over people. And their buildings. Take David Reynard Robinson, for example. He was a builder in Hull, in the northeast of England, and when in 1908-09 he built a house for his retirement, his ``love of tiling led him to cover completely both the inside and the outside of the house with English, Dutch, and Spanish tiles,'' as tile expert Hans Van Lemmen says.

Mr. Robinson named his house ``Farrago,'' which suggests he had a sense of humor about it - a farrago meaning a conglomeration, medley, or assortment. A photograph of one of Farrago's rooms looks like an extravagantly organized showroom for sample tiles. It would not be easy to feel tranquil in this room - but, on the other hand, it does have a stimulating visual bravado about it.

In its desire to cover all surfaces with color and pattern, Farrago is not very far away from buildings of many and various cultures over the ages, such as the 14th-century Palace of Peter the Cruel in Seville, the 1880s Casa Vicens by Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi in Barcelona, and even ``La Torre Arcobaleno,'' a dull old water tower in Milan elegantly and freshly reclothed in 1990 with a careful gradation of colored tiles from top to bottom.

I know nothing more about Robinson than what can be culled from Mr. Van Lemmen's new book, ``Tiles: 1,000 Years of Architectural Decoration.'' The current volume is a comprehensive chronology. It illustrates (with a large number of fine color plates) the fact that tiles are one of those elements of building, from very ancient times until today, which no period has been able to dispense with, or has wanted to. Tiles have shown themselves to be extremely adaptable both to the changing whims and taste and to technical developments. As this book shows, it is possible to trace the history of taste by tracing the history of tiles.

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