One of the lines that has always resonated with me is, “there is nothing new under the sun,” because it is both true and false. We obviously live in a world considerably different from the one occupied by the author of that line, but quite often the new is deeply rooted in the old. I sit in front of a modern computer using a language that has its origins in one used by people running about in togas. And it doesn’t stop there. We know the ancient Romans for aqueducts, roads, armies, empires, architecture, and the spread of the Latin Language, which is the basis for many European languages, including our own English. But the most ubiquitous of their many influences is surely one of the most prosaic: Concrete.
The Colosseum in Rome was mostly built with concrete, and it was also used in a structure that is a marvel to this day. The Roman Pantheon is said to be one of the best-preserved of all Ancient Roman buildings, having been finished under the reign of the emperor Hadrian. It was dedicated somewhere around 126 AD and has been in continuous use throughout its history, being used as a church since the Seventh Century. But despite its antiquity, the Pantheon’s dome is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.
Concrete, as it turns out, is more than just a construction material. My father was the one who introduced me to a little of its creative aspects. Some forty-two years ago he made an elaborate backyard behind a small house on a tiny six thousand-square-foot lot. I doubt that backyard was more than twelve hundred square feet, but it was as charming a place as you could imagine. What made it work was some benches the Old Man made, which consisted of concrete backs and bottoms perched on perforated concrete cinder blocks. Those benches are not the sort of thing you can order at your local hardware store, so the Old Man made them himself. The backs and bottoms were really just slabs of concrete that had been shaped in simple forms he made of ¾” pine planking. What made them glorious was the glazed ceramic tile he covered them with. Really, it was my first lesson in what could be done with tile. And also with concrete, because he also made a number of narrow concrete walkways that meandered through the raised flowerbeds he’d made. So that was then.
It wasn’t until some thirty-five years later when I began writing for this website that I began learning about the beauty—and the possibilities—of both tile and concrete. I have several times written about companies who make glorious countertops with concrete, but not until I got the latest press release from my favorite publicist, JoAnn Locktov, did I know that people also make tile from concrete! At first blush, it seems impossible, but as you begin to explore the possibilities of such a medium, it takes on a logic all its own. Start with the durability of the product itself. The Pantheon’s dome is made of concrete, and it still stands some 2000 years later, which is considerably longer than I would need any tile bathroom I might make but which, when you think about it, provides concrete tile—or my father’s concrete benches—with an implied warranty that just boggles the mind!
I’ve written about clé tile before, blogs that almost wrote themselves, because of the passion they bring to everything they do. Lots of companies claim to “push the envelope a bit,” but when they say that “clé is about pushing the boundaries of tile,” it is not so much clever ad copy as it is a statement of belief, no make that a mantra. Which brings us to their latest.
In this day and age you wouldn’t believe that a big company still manufactures items by hand, but that is exactly what clé does with their cement tiles. The process starts with an artisan-crafted mold made of a steel frame the size of the tiles. Then the interior of the mold is formed with perfectly shaped pieces of brass that make up the intricate patterns. They then pour various shades of pigmented cement into these molds, which ultimately becomes the surface of the finished tiles. This is followed with cement powder that is sprinkled over the pigment to solidify the pigment into place. A final coat of concrete powder is applied over the first two layers, making it three layers in all, not unlike one of those glorious multilayered tortes filled with whipped cream, buttercreams, mousses, jams, or fruits.
Clé’s tortes don’t go into an oven; they go into a press that applies some 1500 PSI of hydraulic pressure to forever meld the layers together. The tiles are then removed from the mold and placed in a bath of water, after which they cure for several weeks. The finishing touch is to hand polish every tile and wipe them down with a sealer that will protect them for the generations one expects these heritage tiles to last. John Keats wrote that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever,” but casting it in concrete pretty much seals the deal.
No comments yet
Leave a Reply