Handpainted ceramic tiles are beautiful, fashionable - and often expensive. Rosalind Russell looks at a novel way to add luxury to a kitchen or bathroom
DAVID BOWIE has them. So does Roger Daltrey, Sally Burton and Robert de Niro. The Sultan of Brunei has them in his shooting lodge in Scotland. What are they? Hand-painted decorative wall tiles. In fact all these celebs bought them from Paris Ceramics, the company owned and run by Charlie Smallbone, the original founder of Smallbone Kitchens.

The kind of tiles we are talking about here cost the equivalent of a piece of art. Which is almost what they are, as they are designed and painted by the firm's own artists. A 54-tile panel of tiles called the Chef's Alphabet - which takes in everything from Artichoke to Zucchini, by way of K for Kipper - costs pounds 865, including the tile border. That's an expensive splashback in anybody's recipe book, but it makes a striking centrepiece in a keen cook's kitchen. You can always buy them one at a time at pounds 23 each and put in requests to friends and family at birthdays and Christmas.

A Seawater Fish panel of 35 tiles costs pounds 900, or you can invest in just one of the five (haddock, plaice, lobster, bass or mackerel) which cover between six and eight tiles, from pounds 180.

At that price you would have to be very sure you weren't going to move house for a few years, although estate agents do tell of tight-fisted clients prising tiles from the bathroom walls and carrying them off with the cutlery and curtains.

A new series by Paris Ceramics is the Adam cups, inspired by the work of Robert Adam. Neo-classical in design and five by five inches in size, they are painted in the soft Georgian colours of blue, green and gold and feature swags, festoons, griffins and goddesses. Each tile costs pounds 45; to buy the panel of 12, including matching relief border tiles, costs pounds 607.

Even a small panel of expensive non-mass-produced tiles in a room can be enough to boost the rest of the look. World's End Tiles, which recently extended its Battersea showroom, holds over 5000 different designs, which should be enough to cover most tastes. But people are moving towards lustres, matt white and modern metallic finishes, says the company's Alex Portelli.

Although it is the only commercial tile manufacturer in London, World's End also imports ranges from Europe, notably Italy, where tiles are used more extensively in homes, and not just in the bathroom and kitchen.

Among the new launches is the Screen range, designed by Trussardi, from his design centre in Milan. Inspired by the television screen, Trussardi has given his tiles a concave outline. Made of glass and etched with his trademark greyhound, the tiles are backed in grey, blue or white, giving them depth.

"Each movement of the greyhound as it runs on each square is different, giving the effect of an old-fashioned flick book," says Portelli. "But of course you have to like dogs..." The greyhound tiles cost pounds 17.04 each.

The firm has also also just launched the Zillig range, inspired by the mosaic and boiserie of the North African Berbers. The tiles come in six sun-bleached and wind-weathered colours: antique white, yellow, aqua-green, blue, manganese and earth red. Prices start at pounds 37 per square metre. As a final bonus, World's End's showroom includes a coffee bar and a creche.

A handmade lookalike tile at a much cheaper cost is made by Stoke-on- Trent ceramic-tile makers H&R Johnson (more popularly known under the Cristal brand name). Their new Cotswold collection has six different surface textures with deliberate colour variations.

There's a note on the box advising buyers not to try to even up the ones with the same finish on the wall, or the effect will be ruined.

The designs are all named after places in the Cotswolds, including Fairford: that design is based on the stained glass window in the medieval church. The Sherbourne is patterned with bowls of spring flowers such as hyacinths and tulips. A box of 25 plain tiles costs pounds 6.99; the Sherbourne decorative tiles, with eight in a pack, is pounds 12.45.

Paris Ceramics 0171-371 7778 or in Harrogate 01423 523 877; World's End Tiles 0171-819 2100; H&R Johnson 01782 575575