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One of Bénédicte Boadard's tile-topped tables
Cracked, broken, faded and filthy, Barcelona tiles often lie unnoticed underfoot, beneath decades of grime or under uniform wooden parquet. Worse still, they are wrenched up and routinely smashed as waste products in extreme reformation jobs.
Yet 150 years ago, Barcelona tiles, also known as encaustic cement or hydraulic tiles, revolutionised floors worldwide. Invented in the Catalan capital in 1857 by the company M. de C. Butsems & Fradera, tiles were made from a new cement compound that didn’t need oven baking. Usually measuring 20-by-20 centimetres, these floor tiles became cheaper and quicker to produce and easier to transport.
Two Barcelona residents, Mario Arturo Hernández Navarro and Bénédicte Bodard are determined to save the Barcelona tile and restore it to its former glory. Mario Arturo, born in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico in 1963, researches and digitally preserves tiles in all their kaleidoscopic beauty. He first “fell into” tiles in Puerto Rico in 1990 and picked up the trail in their birthplace, Barcelona, where he has lived since 1997.
He painstakingly traces each one using computer programs Illustrator or Freehand, and has collected the images in a hardback pocket book entitled Barcelona Tiles (www.pepinpress.com). “The little book is proving very popular,” he told Metropolitan. “Everyone knows about Gaudí’s ceramic trencadís but people often say to me, ‘I would never have noticed the floor, until I met you.’”
Bénédicte Bodard is equally dedicated. Born in Rouen in Normandy, France in 1960, Bodard worked as a stylist in Los Angeles before moving to Barcelona with her husband seven years ago. She now runs her own business, Mesa Bonita, recycling antique floor tiles as original artisan tables. “I don’t want people to ask in 10 years, ‘Where did all the tiles go?’”
At the turn of the last century, in the heyday of Modernisme, Barcelona tiles were in great demand. It was a time when floors did not have to match the furniture, said Mario Arturo Hernández. Anything was acceptable, from geometric classical patterns to Celtic-style chains, from stylish curves to flora and fauna explosions. Prevalent colours were brown, burgundy, green, black and, particularly, pink. “In Barcelona they were everywhere. In the Eixample they were the original flooring, in the Gòtic they are early 20th-century reformation jobs, which covered clay or wooden tiles.”
Tiles gave the illusion of being a carpet, and they often had an outer border, which compensated for the irregular shapes of Barcelona rooms. They were particularly impressive in the grand houses of Indianos, the name given to entrepreneurs who made their fortunes in former Spanish colonies and who returned to Catalunya after the 1898 Spanish-American war. At the same time, Barcelona tiles were widely exported to former French, Spanish and Portuguese colonies, as far afield as Cuba and Vietnam, where colours and designs matched the personalities of their adoptive countries.
During the Franco years (1939-1974), much of the city’s historic architecture and its fabulous interiors were left to deteriorate or were demolished, and it wasn’t until after the dictator’s death that steps were taken to revive the city streets. Local tile company Escofet, founded in 1886 and still responsible for a great deal of Barcelona’s street architecture and paving stones, was entrusted with the job of repaving Passeig de Gràcia in 1976. It was while walking down this famous promenade in 2001 that Bénédicte Bodard came upon her first prospective table, in the shape of a 45-centimetre-wide hexagonal turquoise tile, one of the original Escofet paving stones sporting a design loosely adapted from Gaudí’s floor in La Pedrera.
At the time, these tiles were being replaced by a smaller 25-centimetre-wide version boasting an authentic rendition of Gaudí’s relief. No one seemed to want the big Seventies tile, so Bodard picked it up. “I didn’t think twice,” she admitted. “I told my daughter to get out of the stroller and replaced her with the tile.”
On a whim, she took it to a local metalworker who fashioned a hexagonal table with a tray-like top, and slotted it in. The paving stone was a rare find. Less rare, but more colourful, are the interior square tiles that Bodard finds by the bushel, dumped in skips all over town. She had marvelled at these interior tiles in an Eixample apartment that she had formerly rented. “They were beautiful but in very bad repair. If you are renting, what can you do? It’s up to the owners.”
Discarded tiles can be caked in cement and weigh up to three kilos each. Bodard lugs them home thanks to a “gift from heaven,” a durable Bugaboo baby buggy that she found abandoned by a dumpster just when she needed it. “It’s heavy work,” said Bodard, who sports some impressive biceps for her slight build. “I have to chip off layers of cement with a hammer and chisel, clean the surface and apply linseed oil to bring out the colours.” She relies upon the expertise and enthusiasm of local metalworker Jaume Alsina when it comes to making the wrought iron base and legs, which she rusts for an antique look.
Bénédicte Bodard is a big fan of Mario Arturo Hernández’s book and uses it for reference, matching up the tiles that she finds with the designs. Its digital symmetry is an ideal, of course. At the time perfection was something to be strived for by designers. “Tiles were hand-made and custom-made,” explained Hernández. “Their designs were so intricate and with all the colours, it was extremely difficult to fit the tiles together.”
At first, Bodard made tables to furnish her own home in Sants, but her heavy-duty, highly original furniture, the very antithesis of IKEA, earned the admiration of friends who began to place orders. “I find tiles in limited numbers so I make tables on a first-come, first-served basis, like a pastry shop! The most popular are the sober colours: nothing too garish, so they’re easy to match with other furniture.”
Bodard has sold her tables, comprised of three, four or six tiles and priced at €420, €450 and €600 respectively, in France, the UK and the US. Does this mean that Barcelona tiles are coming back into fashion? Mario Arturo Hernández, who has also published a book on Havana tiles and is working on a book on Puerto Rican tiles, is optimistic: he pointed out that many Barcelona shops and homes now revel in their splendid floors.
“Everything comes back into fashion!” Bodard affirmed. “The closer they come to disappearing, the more likely this is.”
Where to tile watch:
Where to tile-watch:
Find them in cafés La Bodegueta, (Rambla Catalunya 100) or Xador (Argenteria 61-63, Born), boutiques such as Josep Font (Provença 304, Eixample), chemists such as Farmacia M. Ferrer Argelaguet (Roger de Lluria 74, Eixample) or, perhaps most breathtaking of all, flower shops such as Verdi i... (Verdi 81, Gràcia).
Find Bénédicte Bodard’s tables in sporadic street markets Pulgas Mix and Zapato Rojo, and via her blog:
First published August 2008