Seeking Truth in Terrazzo
The Journal of Modern Craft
This essay poses questions about the ubiquity of terrazzo in our contemporary moment. Originally an aggregate material created by skilled craftsmen, terrazzo has since been reduced to a pattern printed on small design objects and circulated worldwide. Like wood, marble, and brick, it has been divorced from its materiality, and reduced to a reproducible graphic motif. How did terrazzo go from innocuous flooring material to icon? Why do digitally produced surfaces often imitate existing materials, rather than offering new innovative alternatives? This essay will analyze contemporary trends concerning terrazzo while considering the effects of digital practices on traditional crafts.
The similarity between the Franklin Street Subway Station in New York City, the South Dale Mall outside of Minneapolis, and the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, Italy, is not immediately obvious— until you look at the floor. Terrazzo: a material that finds its roots in fifteenth-century Italy now permeates our designed world, decorating the floors of both private homes and public buildings internationally. The pervasiveness of terrazzo reflects
various histories, from Italian emigration to the dispersion and evolution of trade skills. More recently, terrazzo has made a resurgence in design and has become ubiquitous in a way that its original craftsmen could not have predicted. For centuries, terrazzo has been a familiar chromatic flooring material, with which our feet make contact when we make a trip to the post office or run through a train station. Like wood, marble, and brick, however, it can be divorced from its materiality, and reduced to a reproducible graphic motif. Today, terrazzo is still being implemented in interiors and objects alike, but it has also transcended
its materiality, rendered as a wallpaper print, a motif for tote bags, and an image on social
media. The practical and economical elements that once made it an ideal flooring material in frequently visited spaces have now been overshadowed by its aesthetics. How did terrazzo go from innocuous flooring material to icon? Why has it entered the limelight in recent years, and what is it that makes terrazzo so attractive to contemporary design sensibilities?
This article will discuss the historical evolution of terrazzo, while analyzing how modern technologies obscure craftsmanship within the trade. In the contemporary resurgence of the material there are two contrasting tendencies: on one hand, respect for the origins of traditional terrazzo making and its craftsmanship; on the other, replication of its appearance as a purely planar surface. Many designers have embraced the material precisely
for its roots in craftsmanship and sustainable practices. The Terrazzo Project, initiated in 2011 with a mission of “reclaiming the unnoticed,” develops different variations of terrazzo and offers custom made furniture and design consultancy services while fusing new technologies and traditional craftsmanship. In 2014, production company Dzek developed Marmoreal, a large aggregate terrazzo designed by Max Lamb using recycled stone fragments. Debuted at Paris Design Week in 2017, Anna James Design’s furniture series Collezione L!Puff incorporated Hungarian materials, and involved collaboration with local craftsmen. Tom Dixon’s Materialism series from 2018 includes objects
made of terrazzo, cork, stone, alloy, and oil. Other designers and studios that have experimented with the material include Super Local, Another Brand, Alberto Bellamoli, Normann Copenhagen, Besler & Sons, Huguet Mallorca, and Olivia Aspinall, among others. This list of contemporary explorations of terrazzo (which is by no means exhaustive)
reveals a heightened interest in traditional craftsmanship and sustainability.
The tendency to treat terrazzo as a fashionable image was popularized in 2014 when the fashion house Acne produced a line of terrazzo print clothing. The motif has since infiltrated the designed world. Designers such as Hannah Zenger, Natascha Madeiski, One We Made Earlier Studio, and Aacute Studio, among others, have recently developed ceramics, jewelry, and other objects bearing terrazzo patterns. In 2017 Danish design company Ferm Living developed two terrazzo print motifs that have decorated wall paper, tote bags, lunch boxes, and stationery sets. Aectual, a Dutch design-driven tech company established in 2017, creates 3D printed flooring systems with a “terrazzo infill.” More recently at the 2018 Salone del Mobile in Milan, Cappellini has launched a new “fake-terrazzo” material with Giulio Cappellini’s Gong table and Patricia Urquiola’s Radical Fake desk, emphasizing their new
material’s synthetic quality.
There is a gray area between the real and the imaginary, of course, and the idea of “truth to materials” has been a subject of debate dating back to the nineteenth century. In 1849 John Ruskin wrote his Seven Lamps of Architecture, in which the second “lamp” illuminated this principle. The concept became a leading ideological platform of the Arts and Crafts movement and was then adopted in the twentieth century by Modernists who sought integrity in design and worked against masking the nature of materials. However, Ruskin also expressed pleasure in imitation: “Whenever anything looks like what it is not, the resemblance being so great as nearly to deceive, we feel a kind of pleasurable surprise,
an agreeable excitement of mind … the resemblance [must] be so perfect as to amount to a deception.” In applying such concepts to terrazzo, there are several problematics that need be addressed. First is the obvious fact that terrazzo is not a naturally occurring stone but rather a man-made material. Second is the fact that the majority of the current projects using terrazzo exclusively as a planar surface pattern employ computer-generated motifs; they are not intended to deceive, but have nonetheless erased the presence of the hand. Here Jean Baudrillard’s well-known concept of the simulacrum is apt, as is his general
claim that “the acceleration of modernity, of technology, events and media, of all exchanges—economic, political, sexual—has propelled us to ‘escape velocity,’ with the result that we have flown free of the referential sphere of the real and of history.”
His use of an astronomical metaphor here— “escape velocity” occurs when a body frees itself from the gravitational field of a star or a planet, and is no longer a part of its referential sphere—does seem appropriate to the contemporary proliferation of terrazzo, in which it appears to have transcended its origin, its referent to the real. In Baudrillardian terms, the simulacrum of terrazzo has become “hyperreal.” Kimberley Chandler has explored similar transitions in her exploration of the skeuomorph, an object that retains traces of its former self despite being fabricated in different materials. Just in this way, terrazzo motifs exist as traces of their former selves within a digital context. Rather than placing this phenomenon in an ethically judgmental context, as if it were “good” or “bad,” the goal of this article is to observe how technological advances and design trends have both enhanced and obscured an industry that was established on the foundation of skill.