Italy has the most breathtaking floor tiles
The trattoria was nothing special, but its floor caught my attention. After a day strolling on the Mediterranean beach and the cobbled alleys of Sestri Levante in Italy, I was looking for a aperitif when I saw it – a decades-old composition of hex tiles with a three-color diamond pattern that created an illusory three-dimensional field of cubes. That such a graphic statement was present in a time-worn trattoria, rife with sand shoes and Negronis slaps, was unexpected. But in Italy, a country with a long history of producing dramatic tiles, it usually doesn’t take long to find inspiration underfoot.
“In Italy, the floor covering is the most important element of the house,” says Paolo Colucci, interior designer based in Rome. “It is because the production of tiles started very early and the Italians have always adopted it.”
Italy’s history of stunning floors dates back to Roman times, when artisans in Pompeii created elaborate mosaics using shards of colored stone to represent everything from geometric patterns to snarling dogs and battles. against sea creatures. In the 15th century, the inhabitants of southern Italy began to produce rustic terracotta, and as they refined the process began to experiment with decoration.
“Occasionally in old aristocratic houses you will see this beautiful terracotta in great condition as it has been carpeted for centuries,” says Colucci, adding that the old tiles can sometimes look surprisingly current. “A lot of times you discover fantastic designs that look like what you would see now.”
At the end of the 16th century, artisans from the Amalfi Coast began to produce joke tiles with hand painted nature and religious scenes. At the same time, the Venetians invented terrazzo by combining pieces of marble in mortar and grinding the mixture flat to reveal a spray of confetti-like color. In the 20th century, Gio Ponti designed glazed tiles with bold geometric patterns, including the blue and white ceramics he created for the Hotel Parco dei Principi in Sorrento, where each room has different patterns underfoot, and some expanses of tiles are inlaid with marble, like clay rugs.
Today, manufacturers in Italy continue to push the boundaries of technology and produce tiles with three-dimensional glazed surfaces for added texture; porcelain tiles with photorealistic representations of marble and wood; thin tiles that can be installed over existing floors; and very large format tiles to compete with the size of stone slabs. Almost everything – mosaics, terracotta, hand-painted tiles, terrazzo, bold geometry, and high-tech porcelain – remains popular today. The choice simply depends on what you want to achieve.
Rome-born Chicago-based interior designer Alessandra Branca is currently developing tiles based on 18th-century hand-painted Italian faux wood designs for a home in Palm Beach. “Tiles are a wonderful way to add embellishment,” she says. “Not in the sense of adding ruffles, but creating a visual articulation of the space.”
New York-based interior designer Michelle Gerson has also embraced tile for both aesthetic and functional reasons. “I’m starting to do more tile floors, in foyers, kitchens and locker rooms,” she says. “The truth is that a tile is so much more durable than a wooden floor.” For Arlene Gibbs, an American designer based in Rome, nothing beats the classic appeal of terracotta. “But it’s not your noIt’s terracotta, ”she says. “Not that burnt orange. It is lighter in color and there is more texture. “
As for the surprisingly striking hexagonal design that I spotted at Sestri Levante, there are many manufacturers now producing the same pattern. But, like so many motifs in Italian design, it is much older than it appears – the same motif can be found in the unearthed ruins of Pompeii, adorning a floor in the House of the Faun. It doesn’t get more timeless than that.
This story originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of ELLE Decor. SUBSCRIBE
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