Mostly known throughout the world as encaustic cement tile, [‘encaustic’ which is an art term used for metal enamelling that uses a type of lost wax procedure] there is some controversy over who designed , made and supplied the first hydraulic tiles, it all depends on your source material.
Date of First Appearance - Source 1:
“They first appeared in Catalonia in the 1850s … They were exhibited in the Paris (France) International Exposition of 1867 by the Catalan company Garret & Rivet…” - Wikipedia
Date of First Appearance - Source 2:
“…the first hydraulic presses for making encaustic cement tiles were installed close to 1850 at Viviers on the embankments of the Rhône, alongside the first cement works in France. Alternately, the book, Barcelona Tile Designs; states that the first reference to the manufacture of encaustic cement tile is from the factory of Butsems & Co. (Barcelona, Spain), in 1857 and at the 1867 Paris Universal Exposition, hydraulic tiles were exhibited by Garret, Rivet & Co. of Barcelona.” - hidrauliktiles.com
History of Production in Catalunya:
Following the 1867 exhibition by Garret, Rivet & Co., Catalunya based manufacturer; Orsola, Sola & Co. developed machinery with the capacity for mass production, helping to spread the hydraulic floor tiles popularity. Escofet, Fortuny & Co. established in 1886, became known for its innovative Art Nouveau styled designs and helped the rapid expansion throughout Spain and Latin America.
One of the indisputable hallmarks was the 1900 Escofet Tejera Company catalogue which collaborated with sort after artists such as; Domènech i Montaner, Antonio Gallissá, Puig i Cadafalch, Tomás Moraga and Alejandro de Riquer. This catalogue was not only a great success with the Catalonian bourgeoisies, but also internationally.
Antonio Gaudí designed a hydraulic tile for Escofet Company. It was a hexagonal piece which was originally designed for Batlló House but was finally placed in Milá House. The design can be seen, albeit as a smaller version, a Panot, on the pavements of Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona.
Traditional hydraulic tiles being handmade, one at a time, are each expected to have slight imperfections, which give them a unique character and depth.
They are not fired and nor is there a surface glaze layer, their durability stems from the pigment composition, a mixture of high quality white ‘Portland Cement’, marble powder, fine sand and natural mineral colour pigments, this is hydraulically pressed onto a coarse base layer of sand and cement.
The manufacturing process begins with the development of a metal mould called a ‘trepa’, based on a hand drawn design.
The ‘trepa’ is used to create the specific surface design of the tile; the artisan tile maker places the trepa inside a tile mould and then creates the surface of the tile by pouring the colour compounds into the allocated spaces for the particular design and colourway.
Once all the colour compounds have been poured the trepa is delicately removed while the mixture is still wet. The surface is then left to set.
The base layer is now created; made of cement and sand it gives depth and hardness to the tile.
With the addition of the concrete layer the tile is then pressed. This is the only stage of the process in which the machine intervenes.
The final step; that of unmolding the hydraulic tile is very delicate. Because the cement is still fresh, without the experience of the artisan, it is very easy to break the tile into a thousand pieces.
The hydraulic tile is left to set and dry naturally.
Between 1880 and 1920, Barcelona was undergoing major urban expansion resulting in the Eixample quarter. Distinguished modernist architects designed a great number of singular buildings; most of these building’s floors were covered with hydraulic tiles inspired by the modernist [Art Nouveau] movement, botanical, neoclassic and geometrics motifs were innovative and complex giving interiors great individuality and personality.
With the end of the technological revolution in the early 1900’s, hydraulic tiles were gradually superseded by newer and cheaper technologies resulting in floor surfaces such as terrazzo, salt-glazed stoneware, and more recently floating floor boards.
As is the nature of these things, designs and styles have a habit of coming back around, what was once deemed old fashioned and passé is deemed current and with merit…so tiles long overlaid with substandard materials are being rediscovered and exposed to the light of day, and Architects and Interior Designers are finding new and interesting ways of incorporating them into their renovations and new builds.
Personally I love them. I love both their organic and geometric designs and the visual interest that they bring to a room, to a floor, which can in favour of practicality be overlooked as a design feature. However; there are some very important downsides that deserve consideration; 1. Permanence: you better be prepared to love them, because unlike the alternative, a beautifully designed rug, they’re pretty much there to stay. 2. Comfort: speaking from my own Spanish apartment living experience, tiles are cold underfoot, this is pleasant at the height of summer, but they literally suck the warmth out of a room in winter. For wall to wall floor tiles, underfloor heating is an absolute must in my opinion.