Discovering The Perfect Pebble: The Origin Story of Island Stone
May 12, 2020
Misty rainforests, volcanic mountains, ancient temples and wild jungles are surrounded by a lapping turquoise sea that is home to one of the most famous surf destinations on the planet. The awe-inspiring nature of Bali, Indonesia, beckoned Nigel Eaton and Malcolm Fraser to its adventurous shores in the 1990s. It was there that the founders of Island Stone created the first mesh-mounted pebble tile and built a company that continues to design, engineer, and share the best tile with architects and designers around the world, inspiring people to envision and enhance spaces for any mood. This is the story of how a group of friends created the perfect pebble and built a global tile company founded on adventure and fueled by respect, smart work, and a relentless spirit.
how it started: surfers lured by the sea, inspired by the CULTURE
“We were all hanging out in Bali, and in no rush to leave,” said Malcolm, founder and product designer at Island Stone.
Surrounded by warm water and waves, the Island Stone founders were not just inspired to surf, they were also inspired by the people and their heritage of creativity. Indonesia is home to diversity, with more than 300 distinct ethnic groups with their own dialects, cuisine and art forms. This spectacular surf destination and cultural mecca is also home to unique textiles, ornaments, carvings and handicrafts that make the archipelago a rich art destination.
“We fell in love with the landscape, the creative atmosphere, and the people,” said Nigel.
“We saw all of these natural resources around Indonesia, and how the Indonesians installed materials, bit by bit, to create beautiful works of art,” said Malcolm. “And we started thinking, ‘What can we do like that?’ We started mucking around, making stone pavers. But they were too heavy too transport, too difficult to manage.”
the first product: making pebbles stick, literally
After watching the local artisans work with pebbles to create a variety of decorative architectural masterpieces, a light came on. It was a bold, brilliant flash of inspiration that changed the course of their lives.
The idea: “Maybe we can adhere pebbles to a piece of mesh?”
So, someone ripped down a piece of fly screen, someone else grabbed some pebbles, and another set of hands grabbed some glue. What they created that day soon became the first, the best, the often-imitated but never-equaled Perfect Pebble tile.
Their creative inspiration sorted, there was just one more obstacle: “None of us knew anything about the tile industry,” said Malcolm with a laugh. “But we knew we were onto something.”
“We had to figure out ‘How are we going to make this?’” he continued. “We started in the garage, drinking beers with mesh pebble tiles on the floor, really raw. But what we did was end up creating our first primitive factory in Bali.”
What started as a simple operation, quickly grew into a mature company. The team scouted locations around Indonesia, looking for pebble fields and how to purchase raw material pebbles from Sumatra, Flores and Rote, among other areas. They made contacts in local villages, and soon villagers were employed to collect pebbles by hand and send them to the factory in Bali where the pebbles were carefully sorted by size and color, then attached to a mesh backing using the company's proprietary tile pattern templates.
“It was a creative challenge, designing the right machinery—we had one-of-a-kind engineering,” said Nigel “We had a bit of a saying ‘Well, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.’”
Island Stone's history and current operations are intertwined with Indonesia. Its vibrant culture, incredible art and pristine natural beauty are what drew the founders of the company there in the first place. They were determined to share what they had found and loved about Indonesia with the world, while maintaining respect for the land and the people at the same time. They were also in the first steps of building a first-class, international tile company, literally from the ground up.
going global: An instant success
“When the first container load shipped to New Zealand, I was terrified,” said Malcolm. “I thought ‘I have a whole container, now I’ve got to sell it.’ The first thing I did was install it on my bathroom floor.”
The founders worked with their networks to sell the innovative pebble tile to architects, designers, builders and tile distributors. Very soon this unique tile built on small pebbles was a huge success. With growing sales in Australia and New Zealand, pebble tiles were officially introduced in the US market in 1997 and received a resoundingly positive response. The utilization of a natural stone in a design so close to its original form was groundbreaking, and the ongoing success of the design today speaks to that unique appeal.
“Before we knew it, demand was going crazy,” said Nigel.
sustainable growth: investing in the local community
This is the point in many company stories where something falters, where the people who built it lose sight of why they started in the first place, or where they turn to cheap solutions to meet demand and devalue what made them special. Needless to say, that is not what happened with Island Stone. The success of their pebble tiles lit the proverbial fire under the team who, flush with inspiration, committed to creating unconventional designs in a sustainable, eco-friendly way with innovative design processes —a commitment they still have today.
“The locals, with buckets on their heads, still pick up pebbles off the beach,” said Nigel. “It has to be hand-picked so that the product is enviornmentally sustainable, maintaining the abundance of this beautiful natural resource.”
Alongside maintaining respect for the local environment and culture, the Island Stone production facilities in Indonesia house state-of-the-art, custom engineered equipment and include environmentally-friendly recycling systems. Core to the creation of Island Stone products is the team of artisans who handpick and handcraft the tile.
"Whenever possible, we invest in the local supply chain and the local people," said Nigel Eaton. For example, when the company's suppliers require additional capital or resources to grow, Island Stone partners with them to help them succeed.
“I have worked for Island Stone since 2010,” said Mr. Pandi, an Indonesian supplier who exclusively sources and prepares stones for Island Stone. “The company has had a very positive impact here. Through these jobs, villagers have been able to improve their quality of life.”
Island Stone remains committed to a quality workplace and works closely with the Indonesian government to ensure a safe working environment that exceeds the strict standards associated with employment and manufacturing. Everyone who works in the factory is over 18 years old, there is gender parity among employees and the employee retention rate is one of the highest by any company's standards with most employees having worked there for over 10 years.
“When I wanted to build a warehouse and add electricity, rather than continue to use a generator, Island Stone gave me a loan,” said Pandi. “It really meant a lot to me. It shows how much they are concerned about quality.”
maintaining a competitive edge: innovating new products
“We were fanatical about quality—still are—and after a few years, others started copying us,” said Malcolm. “But they’re cheap, nasty looking tiles. We knew as long as we kept our quality, maintained our standards, and continued to only use uniform, smooth, well-placed pebbles, that customers would continue to use our product.”
While the competition was busy trying to copy the popular pebble product, the Island Stone team continued innovating, drawing on their foundation of creative problem-solving and years of technical expertise to evolve the signature pebble tile.
Shortly after the success of the first Pebble Tile, the team sought new ways to configure the beautiful pebbles For each design, stones are individually sorted and only those displaying the highest quality and ideal size, color and flatness are used. You can see this outcome of this process in other Island Stone pebble products:
- Level Pebble, a flat version of Perfect Pebble, designed for spaces that require an ultra-even surface
- King Pebble, a larger, flatter version of Perfect Pebble
- and Cobbles, which mimic the appealing natural curve of pebbles while also capturing the the smooth surface of Level Pebble
more than pebbles: Glass, timber and more
In 2017 to maintain a competitive edge and satiate the desire to constantly create new tile, Island Stone engineered a new machine and process for creating tile products that would capture the look of pebble in different materials. Spindrift Marble and Glass is the modern version of the original pebble tile the team pieced together using creativity and fly screen that long ago night in the nineties.
“In the last three to four years we’ve developed an engineered version of the pebble tile, the Spindrift tiles” said Nigel. “It’s a high-level pebble look and high-level medium using glass and Carrara marble.”
Spindrift Glass tiles mimic the classic Pebble design with the brightness and additional color options provided by glass, and the Spindrift Marble tiles is a modern design with traditional marbles. Each pebble product, and the entire foundation of the company itself, is built upon the fact that Perfect Pebble’s seamless appearance, unmatched quality, and installer-friendly construction make it the premier pebble tile in the world.
Since the inception of Island Stone, the company has fostered innovative tile engineering techniques with partner manufacturers to expand the product offerings. Today, Island Stone offers over 400 different tiles in stone, glass and timber.
“It is very satisfying to have created something that so many people respond to and want” said Nigel. "We enjoy the process of creating unique tile that makes someone say 'wow, that's really cool'."
Tile featured in this article:
Cobbles in Sterling Grey
Perfect Pebble in Alpine
Perfect Pebble in Bird’s Egg Blend
Level Pebble in Java Grey
Random Squares in Beige & Tan Marble
Spindrift Marble in Nebula
Spindrift Glass in Stratos Matte
Contact email@example.com to request a sample of your favorite pebble product.