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In the middle of the 19th century, a technique that revolutionised the tile industry was developed for the production of decorated tiles. This new technique used a mould to apply multi-coloured patterns and a press instead of firing to harden the tiles. At first, the presses consisted of a worm screw with balls at one end, which were turned faster and faster in order to compress the tile quickly and powerfully. Later, these heavy presses gave way to hydraulic ones with individual levers, and after that to groups of presses powered by a compressor driven by injection pumps. Tiles made using this method came to be known as ‘hydraulic’ tiles.
Traditional methods of ceramic tile production required each colour to be applied separately and a[[ the tiles to be fired repeatedly – a labour-intensive and time-consuming process. In contrast, multi-coloured hydraulic tiles could be produced in one go and were simply left to dry after pressing. Hydraulic tiles production originated in Spain and flourished there well into the 20th century. In the 19th century, this technology spread around the world – most notably into France, Italy, Morocco and Latin America.
With the introduction of hydraulic tile production in Havana in 1886, Cuba became the second country – after Mexico – to introduce this technology in the Americas. In the beginning, it was difficult for Cuban companies such as Quírico Gallostra and Bielsa to establish themselves because tiles were readily available as imports. However, the construction boom in the early 20th century and the popularity of this kind of flooring led to an increased demand and the emergence of new manufacturers.
The La Balear factory, located on Oquendo street and owned by Severo Redondo, was able to compete with the most advanced factories in Spain because of its excellent quality and beautiful designs.
Founded in 1894, the factory grew quickly and became known as much for its elaborate, artistic designs as for its financial success. Tiles from the La Balearfactory featuring designs by Restituto del Canto, a well-known artist at the time, and the pattern designer Manuel Aya were highly acclaimed at the 1909 Palatino Exposition, Cuba’s premier industrial / agricultural exposition at that time.
Founded in 1903 with a floor space measuring 10,000 m2, the La Cubonsfactory was heralded by the contemporary press as the largest in the world. Located in the Luyanó district, it was owned by Ladislao Díaz, Ramón Planiol and Agapito Cagiga. It had an edge over its competitors because it was equipped with the latest tools and used mined land – consisting only of silicates and free of salts that could affect the colours. It also excelled because many of its employees had previously worked for Escofet, Orsola and Butsems,three leading tile producers in Barcelona.
In 1910, Ramón Garcia Rodriguez, head of sales at the El Almendares cement factory, founded El Nuevo Almendares, where tiles were painstakingly made from premium-quality materials. That the factory could meet the needs of even the most demanding architects and customers is evidenced by the fact that its tiles were used to pave the floors in the former Presidential Palace, the church of the Jesuit Fathers on Reina street, the Zulueta y Dragones police station and modern homes in El Vedado and elsewhere.
The fact that the floors in ail the buildings in Havana’s San José quarter between Lucena and Marqués González were decorated with tiles made at La Imperial– as were those in the new building for the National City Bank of New York, located at O’Reilly and Compostela – is a tribute to the quality of its output. This Company was founded in 1922 by Luis A. Izcorbe and later acquired by Pedro Marrero and Jesús Martinet, who introduced the latest tile manufacturing methods at their Santo Suárez site.
The companies mentioned above were the most important ones in Havana in the early decades of the 20th century. The existence of so many high-quality producers in Havana led to a competitive market, which resulted in a wide variety of tile designs. At first, Cuban tile designs were very similar to those produced in Barcelona, but tiles made in Havana quickly developed a style of their own and evolved into more colourful designs with more complex and ornamental floral motifs. The most common size for these tiles was 20 x 20 cm, the same as those made in Spain.
The production of hydraulic tiles continued to grow, thanks to a building frenzy in Havana in the first half of the 20th century. During this period, many new building projects embraced the spirit of eclecticism white, at the same time, floors in older buildings were being replaced. Damaged and ageing colonial floors required repair, but floors were also replaced simply to incorporate the dazzling beauty of new tile designs in line with the fashion of the day. Tile production in Cuba declined in the second half of the 20th century, but in 1987 a plan to revitalise small industry led to the establishment of 16 new factories and a resurgence of hydraulic tile production.
The designs collected in this book date from the first half of the 20th century, an era of splendour in Havana tile design as expressed in the historic districts of La Habana
Vieja, Centro Habana, El Cerro and El Vedado. Even though hydraulic tiles were mainly used to decorate homes, they can be found adorning Havana’s businesses, schools, hospitals, banks and religions buildings.
The choice of tile patterns reflected the purchasing power and taste of the buyer. In some buildings, a Humber of different designs were used, depending on the size and spatial layout of rooms. In other cases, one consistent design was used throughout. The designs may – or may Hot – match other design elements such as the base of the staircase, which was usually made of marble. This gave rise to interesting contrasts. In addition to being used indoors, hydraulic tiles can be found on galleries, balconies, terraces and driveways.
Whereas, in the 19th century, light filtering through stained-glass windows shone onto floors to produce lovely carpet-like effects, after 1900 this was achieved with hydraulic tiles. Designs of great quality and beauty were produced, with up to eight colours used in a single tile design. The colours most frequently used were greens, yellows, sepia, pinksand reds – and to a lesser extent blues, turquoise, violet and black. White and grey were used interchangeably for either background or figure.
Countless examples of hydraulic tile floors can be found throughout the Island of Cuba, in every major City. Many of these are now deteriorating due to natural ageing. Some have been repaired blending different designs, when the original design was no Longer in production. But there are also many that have been preserved intact, where one can admire the magnificent floors that were created during the golden age of Havana’s tile design and production.
The illustrations in this book have been assembled from photographs of these tiles, gathered as a homage to the artiste and craftsmen who dedicated themselves to this art form in Cuba.
Yamira Rodríguez Marcano
Specialist in historical research of the heritage of the city of Havana
Marin Arturo Hernández Navarro, a Puerto Rican of Cuban origin, was born in Rio Piedras, San Juan 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 hydraulic 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 hydraulic tile designs. He is the author of Barcelona Tile Designs (The Pepin Press, 2006).
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