Spotlight On | Seven Ways to Recognize Sullivanesque Architecture

Louis Sullivan was a pioneering American architect, widely heralded as the Father of the Skyscraper and early mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. His more than 100 influential buildings and collaborations dot the Chicago skyline, and can be found in cities throughout the Midwest. These buildings are easily identified by their lavish ornamentation, a style that would come to be named after him: Sullivanesque.

Here at Motawi Tileworks, we derive constant inspiration from Sullivan's works, and many of our favorite tiles trace their roots to his designs. This week, to help illuminate this classic American style, we shine our Spotlight On Seven Ways to Recognize Sullivanesque Architecture.

Way #1 to Recognize Sullivanesque Architecture | Intricate Symmetrical Designs

The first thing most people notice about Sullivanesque decoration is how intricate and detailed it is, while still seaming to be orderly and organized. Sullivan drew great inspiration from Medieval Celtic knotwork, as can be seen on this panel that inspired our own Cicero tile. Shown in Lee Green in an understated and elegant kitchen, the symmetrical Cicero provides just the right level of interest for this backsplash.

Way #2 to Recognize Sullivanesque Architecture | Extensive Use of Curvilinear Shapes



Though designed for use on America's first skyscrapers, Sullivan's ornamentations were hardly limited to straight lines. In fact, an extensive use of curves and curvilinear shapes is a defining characteristic of Sullivanesque design. On the Kimball border shown at right, curve is everything, creating a sense of both depth and movement while also showcasing the variation in our Granite glaze color. 

Way #3 to Recognize Sullivanesque Architecture | Organic Geometric Forms 

When on the lookout for Sullivanesque design, a key feature will likely be a basic geometric shape that has taken on new life and interest. This was an important aspect of Sullivan's design process, and many early sketches show him beginning with a square, circle or rectangle, and manipulating the form to become some of his most beautiful motifs. In our Halsted tile, shown above, the triangle takes center stage, but with an organic twist; the legs curve out gracefully, while the rounded carving masterfully catches the firelight to highlight our Lee Green glaze color.

Way #4 to Recognize Sullivanesque Architecture | Large-Scale Decoration

Not always one for subtlety, Louis Sullivan was also known for designing decorations on a monumental scale. The Armitage Medallion, based on an extant carving produced by the Midland Terra Cotta Company in the Sullivanesque style, has a stately and imposing presence, fit for adorning the top of a building to be seen from several stories below. Our version, scaled down for use in homes, becomes an instant focal point of any room it graces, be it over a fireplace, or even in a shower, as shown above.

Way #5 to Recognize Sullivanesque Architecture | Easily Repeatable Design Elements

Often on his skyscrapers, Sullivan would design a single repeating pattern or motif that would travel from ground level all the way to the tops of the buildings. These building blocks of design would take on an almost textural effect, becoming more beautiful for how they work in tandem than as a singular piece. We took this concept to heart when designing our Archer tile, which when combined makes both handsome borders and striking all over patterns.

Way #6 to Recognize Sullivanesque Architecture | Stylized Shapes from Nature

Another crucial Sullivanesque design motif is using stylized shapes from nature. As seen here on our Fullerton Border, at left, the simplified flower is paired with an organic rectangular shape to create a repeating pattern both intricate and straightforward. The rounded leaves on the flower contrast with the flat lines that run along the tile, displaying the beautiful variation in our Lee Green glaze color.

Way #7 to Recognize Sullivanesque Architecture | Intentional Use of Negative Space

In addition to designing his buildings' external decorations, Sullivan also frequently designed the interiors as well. It is here, on several wooden and metal screens and gates, that we can see anotehr key element of Sullivanesque design: intentional use of negative space. Our Montrose tile, shown above, left, pays homage to these works, though only for a short while longer. Our Montrose series will be discontinued in September, so if you would like to add this timeless design to your home, contact us today.



Louis Sullivan, and his namesake style, will continue to be a part of the American landscape for generations to come. His intricate, organic shapes have withstood the test of time, and inspired countless architects and artists, Motawi Tileworks included. If you would like to learn more about introducing some Sullivanesque flair into your home, please contact our design team today.