The elegant, shabby and exotic look of cement and encaustic tiles enchant me and bring back visual memories from my childhood. A sustainable and artisanal material, cement tiles deserve a closer look and more thorough appreciation. Today’s post explores how cement and encaustic tiles are made and how their patterns changed in contemporary design.
Patterns of My Childhood
As toddlers, my sisters and I spent most of our time crawling, walking, climbing, falling, sometimes eating and sleeping on the floor. It was the 90s and most houses in Hanoi were lined with low-cost, local made cement tiles called gạch bông in Vietnamese. Unconsciously, my visual memories recorded the look of the old school tiles.
In the early 2000s, my parents moved to a new house and one thing they did not pack to the new life was the then-outdated cement tiles. They represent not only an outdated aesthetic but mostly an obsolete lifestyle. After all, in the birthplace of those tiles in the US and Western Europe, they already went out of style after World War II.
With the recent hype over retro, rustic chic style, there is a come-back of decorative cement tiles, although the scale of application is often limited to hip cafes, shops, and boutique hotels. I used to take cement tiles for granted until this trend refreshes my memories and reminds me of how elegant they can be. More than just beautiful, cement tiles does not require heat to produce and is thus more eco-friendly compared to ceramic tiles. Most of today’s manufacturers I have seen still make cement tiles one by one, which raises the question of scalability and price competitiveness.
The Technique of Cement vs. Encaustic Tiles
Cement tiles are often referred to as encaustic tiles, Cuban tiles (in the US), hydraulic tile, Victorian tiles (because it came back to style during the Gothic Revival of the 19th century) – although they are not exactly the same. While the final aesthetic is similar, the technique to make cement (also Cuban and hydraulic) tiles is fundamentally different from that of encaustic tiles.
Cement tiles, or concrete to be exact, are made with a mixture of concrete, powdered marble, and mineral pigments. The tile is casted in in three distinctive layers, starting with the patterned layer:
First layer – pattern: The maker prepares and pours a mix of portland cement, powdered marble and colorants into different compartments of a metal mold to form the design. The mold is removed as soon as the design is dried.
Second layer – reinforcement: A mortar made with fine sand and standard gray cement is added to reinforce the patterned layer and absorb pressure during compression.
Third layer – base: A porous cement mixture is added to improve the sturdiness of the tile.
The three layers are then fixed together under high pressure and cured for about three weeks. Since the cement mixture is porous and cement tiles are often not glazed, final users will need to “seal” the tiles with specific wax upon laying.
The following video details the process of making cement tile:
Encaustic tiles, on the other hand, is made by inlaying clay mixed with color pigment. Inlay is an old technique which basically means depositing an article onto a background of different color and level the surface to make it flat. Encaustic derives from Greek and means burning in. The word takes its roots from encaustic painting – an ancient technique of painting with colored beeswax where the color is fixed through firing.
Freshly made cement and encaustic tiles may have similar appearance. The difference is more obvious in worn out tiles. In cement tiles, the patterned layer is thick and the design permeates deep into the tile. In encaustic, the colored clay is shallow and soft and thus, is more prone to wearing with time.
Both cement and encaustic tiles requires specific care from the end users. Since clay is an absorbing material and cement is porous, the tiles needs to be sealed with oil or wax. Use of strong cleaning products is a no-no. Replacing old tiles can be complicated and expensive. Thus, those two artisan tiles often find their home with the enthusiasts.
Modern Takes on Artisan Tiles
Today, cement and encaustic tiles exist not only in replicas of vintage tiles but also in contemporary designs by specialized studios.
Marrakesh, a Swedish design house, brings a Scandinavian flair to tiles. Simple, smart and versatile, their tiles come in 5 basic motifs and various colors, which can be combined simultaneously to create different patterns. Priced at about $180/sqm, Marrakesh Design’s tiles is not the cheapest option you can get out there but their approach to this age-old tradition is quite unique.
Exquisite Surfaces, a high end surface design studio based in LA, opts for a South of French or Italian antique look. From patterned to plain, their expensive tiles will make you miss your last vacation in the Mediterranean.
Also sold by Exquisite Surfaces, tiles by Commune design studio combines Scandinavian design with Native American heritage to create never-before-seen cement tiles.
Filmore Clark, a well known supplier of both ceramic and cement tiles, carries a wide range of tiles to meet with your taste, be it countryside rustic or progressive modern.
While Europe used to be the center of tile production, most cement tiles today come from Morocco. Tiles made in Morocco has an exotic feeling to them. The patterns tend to be more ornate, colorful, almost mosaic-like appearance. Mosaichse has several tasteful collections that stays true to the original aesthetic of cement tiles while also adds an interesting twist to a modern home.
At the same time, Craven Dunnill Jackfield in England dedicates themselves to bringing back the traditional craftsmanship of tile-making. With high quality tiles made by artisans in small batches, Craven Dunnill Jackfield specializes in restoring history landmarks. They execute modern and custom design, too, and the process is beyond pleasing to watch.
There are many more producers of cement tiles located in different countries. I would want to end the post with some examples of tiles used beautifully and harmoniously in the modern home. What I would want to see more is the application of the process and the patterns beyond of the flooring/wall decor area. Shoot me a line if you have or know someone who has an idea of how to use cement and encaustic tiles differently.