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Master of the Southwest: Meet Arizona’s Undisputed King of Mexican Tile

2024 MASTERS of the SOUTHWEST Award Winner - Phil Shelton

“Mexican tile’s popularity cycles over the years, but it never goes out of style. It’s classic.”

Phil Shelton Tile Pioneer

By Nora Burba Trulsson | Portrait Photography by Melissa Valladares

Phil Shelton is not someone given to bouts of philosophizing or growing sentimental over his life’s work. Trained as an engineer, he’s instead linear and matter-of-fact when explaining his history. But trailing him through the warren of rooms and seemingly acres of storage units that hold products at his Phoenix company, Handcrafted Tile Inc., you can see his eyes light up as he picks up samples of tile he imports from Mexico or handcrafts on site. “Right here, we’ve got about 80,000 tiles in this storage unit,” Shelton says as he walks through a space filled with racks of clay tiles and boxes. “Outside, we’re finishing up some pavers with coats of linseed oil. And look at this wall of tiles that we carved and painted in our studio.”

If you’ve lived in the Valley for more than a nanosecond, chances are you’ve been in a home, hotel, restaurant or public space where Shelton’s tiles were a big part of creating an elegant, regionally inspired ambiance. After nearly six decades in the business—and at the age of 90—Shelton is Arizona’s undisputed king of Mexican tile, selling his product retail and wholesale, as well as offering tile installation service.

“Phil Shelton blends his engineering precision and a passion for Mexican crafts to make everything come together just right,” says landscape architect and Phoenix Home & Garden Master of the Southwest Greg Trutza, who has specified Shelton’s products in gardens for decades. “He goes into the far reaches of Mexico to get tile that isn’t available elsewhere.” Says interior designer and frequent Shelton collaborator Karen Rapp, also a Master of the Southwest, “Phil is a treasure trove of Mexican tile history. He’s developed such deep relationships with his sources over the years and navigates international trade with ease.”

Growing up in Oregon, Shelton knew nada about the traditional clay crafts of Arizona’s neighbor to the south and never considered that this would be his life’s work. “I was drafted and served in the Korean War,” he says, “and when I came back, I went to Washington University in St. Louis to study electrical engineering.” A job with Motorola brought him and his wife, Sue, to Phoenix. Soon thereafter, he was sent to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to work as a consultant on the Mariner 64 program, which measured the atmosphere of Venus. The project gave him some extra money, and back in Arizona, when a friend approached him about going into a Mexican import business, he said yes, thinking it would be what’s now called a side hustle. It was 1966, and they worked out of a garage in central Phoenix.

“We started importing cement floor tiles,” Shelton recalls. “At the time, there was no competition.” A few years later, Shelton was on his own and moved the shop to the first of several locations in downtown Scottsdale. “Our first major project was the Dos Puertas townhomes on 40th Street and Campbell,” he recalls. “The developers were Charlotte and Bill Heuser of Casa Builders, and they wanted Saltillo tile in each of the houses.”

Shelton admits he didn’t know much about Saltillo, having been buying it from a retailer in Texas, who didn’t share his source. Wanting to import it himself, he took a fruitless 5,000-mile road trip looking for the tile. “We came back home, then we realized that Saltillo was not just a tile but a place,” Shelton remembers with a laugh. “We jumped back in the car and found our source in Mexico. We introduced Saltillo tile to Arizona.”

Thus began many forays deep into Mexico, where Shelton developed many contacts and sources for all things Mexican tile, as well as hand-carved stone, hand-painted sinks, pottery, tin mirrors and more. Charlotte Heuser also was the impetus for Shelton to start importing Talavera tile, taking him on another trek through Mexico to find import sources.

“People told me you couldn’t even give Mexican tile away, but I guess they were wrong.”

—Phil Shelton, owner, Handcrafted Tile Inc.

“I speak enough Spanish to get by, so that’s why I made sure that my daughter, Kimberly, learned Spanish in school,” Shelton says with a wink. The strategy paid off, with Kimberly Shelton now joining her parents in the business, facilitating the logistics of Mexican travel and trade, plus handling the company’s social media.

Along the way, Shelton also developed an art department, initially run by Scottsdale artist Joan Baron when she was starting her career, along with Naida Brooks, who has now worked for the company for some 40 years. The artists filled in the gaps of what was not available to be imported with custom tiles and murals.

Over the decades, Shelton has been the tile source and, often, installation contractor for projects ranging from a Valley Bank, Macayo’s restaurants and, more recently, the Omni Montelucia resort in Paradise Valley, where some 35,000 decorative tiles were installed. There were houses, hundreds of them, and Shelton has gone back decades later to the same homes to oversee tile repairs or replacements. His clients read like a who’s who of the Valley’s design community—builders such as Geoffrey Edmunds, Dave Hansen, Jon Kitchell, Gary Jones and Nance Construction; architects, including Bennie Gonzales and George Christensen; landscape designers Jeff Berghoff and Charlie Ray; and interior designers, including Nancy Kitchell, Isabel Dellinger Candelaria and others. He’s done work for Stevie Nicks and Gunsmoke’s Amanda Blake and has trained his installers so well that many went on to launch their own successful businesses.

1. A powder room by interior designer Wendy Black Rodgers features a backsplash made with sea foam green Mexican Talavera tile. 2. A view of a hallway in a Tempe home, where Shelton worked with the homeowner to do the wainscot in a classic Talavera tile and the floor in oil-finished Saltillo. 3. Rodgers also used custom tiles in a vintage motif to create a walk-in shower. 4. Deep blue Talavera wainscotting and a handpainted Talavera sink set off the Saltillo flooring at a Tempe residence.

Since moving to Handcrafted Tile Inc.’s present location—a warehouse area near Sky Harbor International Airport—in 2005, Shelton has not slowed down, even as he has become a nonagenarian. “Do I plan to retire?” Shelton asks. “My family wants me to, but I don’t. Making customers happy makes me happy.”

Trutza puts Shelton into perspective. “Phil is one of the youngest souls I know. His energy and passion keep him going.”

1. The hexagon Castillo series of tiles are hand-painted in Mexico. 2. Handcrafted Tile Inc. took inspiration from the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix to create this hand-painted, carved relief design. 3. Red terracotta in a fleur-de-lis pattern awaits sealant. 4. A Tempe kitchen features signature Saltillo tile and a backsplash done with the Malibu series. Phil Shelton took the catalogue of the defunct Malibu Tile company in California and had the patterns recreated in Mexico. 5. Another view of a hallway in a Tempe home, where Shelton worked with the homeowner to do the wainscot in a classic Talavera tile and the floor in oil-finished Saltillo. 6. Rodgers chose Talavera tiles to delineate an exterior staircase.
Sources

Tile supply and installation: Phil Shelton, Handcrafted Tile, Inc., Phoenix, hctile.net.

Interior designer: Wendy Black Rodgers, Wendy Black Rodgers Interiors, Scottsdale, wbrint.com.

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