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Some time in the mid- 19th century, a revolutionary technique was discovered to mass-produce tiles without the need for firing to harden them. This new technique involved the use of an hydraulic press and a mould to apply a multicoloured pattern. The great advantage of this method was that the tiles could be manufactured in one go. This in contrast to the traditional technique to produce ceramic tiles that involved the application of each colour separately and repeated firing – a labour-intensive and time-consuming practice. ‘Encaustic tiles’ – sometimes referred to as ‘encaustic cement tiles’ or ‘hydraulic tiles’ – were simply left to dry for some weeks after pressing.
Encaustic tiles are around 2 cm thick and consist of three layers. The top layer is the decorated surface, about 4 mm thick, made from a mixture of white Portland cement, marble sand and pigments. For each colour, the pigments were blended with water and placed in the corresponding section of a mould. The second layer, the intermediate layer, is about the same thickness as the top layer and made of a mixture of grey Portland cement and sand; its function was to absorb the excess water from the top layer. The third, base layer is approximately 12 mm thick and was made of a mixture of grey Portland cement, regular cement and sand; its porosity made it easy for the tiles to adhere to the floor during installation.
The first reference to a manufacturer of this type of tile is the factory Butsems i Companyia in 1857. At the 1867 Paris Universel Exposition, encaustic tiles were introduced by the Barcelona-based Garret, Rivet i Companyia. Later on, the Company Orsola, Solà y Compañía was established, which made this type of tile popular in Barcelona, thanks to its modern machinery and capacity for mass production. Another prominent manufacturer is Escofet, Fortuny i Companyia, founded in 1886, which was soon noted for its innovative, Art Nouveau-style designs, and whose rapid expansion throughout Spain and Latin America contributed to making this type of flooring so popular.
The popularity of encaustic tiles fortuitously coincided with the rise of Modernismo, the local version of Art Nouveau; innovative, bold designs were created that would have been unthinkable in other periods. Many factories had specialised draughtsmen on staff, and occasionally commissioned prominent artists to design tiles. A wide variety of design elements were employed: geometrical shapes, stylized floral, vegetal andother organic motifs, and, on rare occasions, animals or human figures. The most widely used colours were shades of maroon, green, pink, yellow, brown, cream, grey, white and black, although other colours such as red, blue, orange and even purple can be found. The tiles were made in a variety of sizes and shapes, the most common being squares measuring 20 x 20 cm and hexagons with each side measuring 11.5 cm.
The designs devised to create a flooring pattern using encaustic tiles often bear some similarity to carpet design: a central panel consisting of a repeated pattern, framed by tiles with a length-wise repeating design with matching corner pieces (for example see pages 56-115). The design would be complemented by an outer border, made of plain tiles in subtle colours. These elaborately designed ‘carpets’ were mainly used in the rooms in the main part of the house, such as the entryway, the living room and the dining room. In the secondary quarters, designs tended to be simpler.
The construction boom in the 1960s required building materials to be manufactured more economically and hindered the customary focus on quality. Thus, encaustic tiles gradually stopped being used. As since older buildings have been torn down or remodelled, many beautiful mosaics have disappeared. So, although still a familiar sight, there is a risk of this elaborate art to vanish. Fortunately, in recent years some construction companies and interior designers have once again shown an interest in encaustic tiles, viewing it as a beautiful and high-quality alternative to modern industrial products.
This book is a tribute to the artists and craftsmen who designed and made the floors reproduced. The tiles were photographed from original floors or rescued from the city’s rubbish, and carefully traced and digitized.
Marin Arturo Hernández Navarro was born in Rio-Piedras (Puerto Rico) in 1963. He studied at the University of Georgia (United States). He began his professional career as a graphic designer in San Juan de Puerto Rico, where he became interested in conserving encaustic tile designs. He later moved to New York, where he became involved in publishing. In 1996, he moved to Barcelona, where he currently lives and combines his work as a designer with research into encaustic tile designs.
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