An Introduction to Cement Encaustic Tiles

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An Introduction to Cement Encaustic Tiles

Towards the end of the 1950s, the arrival of Italian terrazzo, followed a short time later by ceramic floor coverings, lead to the almost complete disappearance of cement encaustic producers who had until then dominated the floor covering market in Spain, France and Italy. The beautiful colours and designs of cement tiles inspired by Catalan Modernisme are still lovingly preserved in private residences. Their craft manufacture is undergoing a recovery thanks to the efforts of some family-owned workshops which have followed tradition to re-establish their quality and beauty for contemporary decoration.

Since 1988, the Marti brothers with their factory in Barcelona, have been working hard to restore the old presses, repairing moulds and reclaiming the templates and stencils used in old modernista designs, making it possible to lay new floors in the style of those from the past that were much loved for their quality and beauty.

Sinter Studio Mosaics & Tiles has been working directly with the factory for over two years and in this time has built a solid business relationship which includes detailed product knowledge.


Origins of the Encaustic Tile

Mosaic cement tiles have a very long and noble history. From Greek and Roman times, floors were covered with stone and brick. The process was quick and cheap since it employed much larger, cheaper and easier-fitting pieces. Slabs of marble were used, or, in humbler households, floor bricks. These bricks, larger than factory-produced bricks and often square and thin, are still widely used in Mediterranean countries, especially in villages and country houses.

After bricks and tiles came terracotta flagstones and tiles which, because of the care with which they were produced, occupied a place between slabs of stone or marble and the humble floor brick. Stone slabs are to found wherever such stone is abundantly available and this sort of flooring is the most common sort in villages all around the Mediterranean from its European to African and Asiatic shores. The cement encaustic mosaic tiles had their origin in these villages. They do not derive from the terracotta tiles but from mosaic and stone slabs. What is more, they are a hybrid of both. Greek and Roman influences have left their mark all over the Mediterranean and it is a time-honoured tradition to give flooring the attractive multicoloured appearance of mosaic in combination with the strength and resistance of stone.

The 18th century had seen the appearance of square, hexagonal and octagonal tiles, made by hand with naturally damp cements on a wooden mould which was beaten with wooden paddles until the required shape was formed with an oxide paste, later polished, spread on top with a spatula. The encaustic tiles, produced in moulds in which a material consisting of cement, sand and water is compressed and in which dividers are employed to create the designs and a vice-press is used for compressing, is more recent. They were first produced towards the end of the 19th century and were very popular during the first half of the 20th century and even upset the position of ceramic tiles on the interior flooring market.


A Fashionable Floor Covering

The first factory in Catalonia to produce cement encaustic mosaic tiles was Butsems & Cia in 1856. The reasons why cement encaustic mosaic tiles dominated the flooring market during the building boom that occurred during the early 20th century can be summarised as follows:

• The quality of the surface which was shiny and easy to both clean and polish.
• The ideal shape of the pieces, neither very large nor very small which meant that distortions caused by movements of iron beams, common at that time, could be accommodated.
• Competitively as a consequence of the ease of production and installing.
• Speed with which the pieces could be laid. The pieces were larger than ceramic ones and were easier to handle and to level.
• The production process which, as well as being highly efficient, did not require a vast outlay of initial investment.

Furthermore, the companies of the day found the way to make cement tiles fashionable as a floor covering. They emphasised the quality of the product and they used designs made by the best artists of the time. Their advertisements emphasised the prestigious nature of the product.
Although originally the encaustic mosaic tiles, like all the first derivatives of cement, arose as a result of attempts to imitate other materials such as marble, coloured tiles and even wood, or to imitate other styles such as Greek, Catalan Gothic, Italian Renaissance and so forth, the versatility of its surface was such that, with the arrival of movements like Modernisme, Art Deco and Noucentisme, they soon acquired their own character. The manufacturers employed graphic artists who had trained in various disciplines of the decorative arts who were aware of the events unfolding at successive international and local exhibitions.

The graphic language of the mosaic tiles was the same as that employed on paper, textiles and with wrought iron. During the period in which Modernisme was at its height, the period in which these products were fully marketed, there were many artists, designers and architects who came up with their own designs. Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1850-1923), Josep Puig i Cadafalch (1867- 1956) and Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) himself all contributed to the tiles being accepted by the cultural elite.


The Recovery of Past Glories

In the 1960s, the arrival from Italy of a new material for interior flooring known as terrazzo threw the Catalan cement tile industry into disarray. The processes involved in the production of terrazzo are automated and while they require great outlay in initial investment; they do not require a large labour force. Few cement tile producers were able to restructure their businesses to produce this new material. Some abandoned the production of cement tiles to devote their attention to other artificial stone products. Others, mostly family businesses, redirected their energies to the retail aspect of the business. The building boom that occurred in Spain during the 1960s was characterised by a strong increase in demand and by poor quality, and this led to the almost complete disappearance of traditional production techniques, amongst them, those employed to produce encaustic tiles.

At the turn of the new century, some small workshops have sprung up. These are mostly family concerns whose great attraction is their ability to produce a crafted product and the beauty of the colours and their designs. With these assets in hand, production is on the increase again. The Barcleona based factory with whom  Sinter Studio Mosaics & Tiles works directly with, is a pioneer in the task of recovering the past glory of this historic floor covering.
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