Terrazzo is a fun word with ambiguous pronunciations (tr-aa-zow), and even if you don't know exactly what it is, it's very likely you'll recognize it as the floor or walls of a business or public building you've visited. In this blog, I'm going to teach you about it's history, how it's made, and the many differences between the different variations of this remarkable tile.
Many years ago in ancient Egypt, the origin of terrazzo was born in the form of mosaics. Although historically this is first instance the world saw of terrazzo, modern-day terrazzo is directly inspired by “Venetian Pavement”, an invention of resourceful 15th century Italian mosaic artisans. This invention repurposed chippings and scraps of marble that were discarded during production to create affordable and sustainable flooring. Those scraps were laid on the floor, had concrete or clay binder poured over them, and were grinded down by hand using pumice stones. After grinding and polishing was finished, goats milk was applied to the floor, giving it a more saturated and finished appearance.
That sounds like a lot of work, right? That’s because it was– but the advancement of technology made the production of terrazzo easier over the years. A tool called a galera was invented shortly after, which was a long wooden handle with a weighted grinding stone on the end. Envision a broom handle with a rock strapped to the end, because that isn’t far off from what this was. However impractical, it was significantly easier than grinding the stone by hand, and made installation quicker.
Due to terrazzo’s unique appearance and the extensive amount of work it took to produce, it was an expensive commodity and mostly reserved for the wealthy. It was prominent in Italy, and seen in many churches, including the famous St. Peter’s Basilica. In 1890, terrazzo was installed for the first time in the United States at the Vanderbilt residence in New York City. Not long after, millions of Italians began immigrating to the United States, and with them came the “terazzeri,” who were expert terrazzo and mosaic artisans. This technique was passed down from generation to generation, and tightly guarded with the utmost secrecy. The demand for these workers quickly climbed, and the use of terrazzo spread like a wildfire across the United States. Some other famous installations of terrazzo can be found in the Radio City Music Hall, Hoover Dam, Empire State Building, Washington Monument, and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
With this influx of popularity came better terrazzo-technology, including two pivotal inventions: the electric grinder and divider strips. The electric grinder was a groundbreaking invention, and reduced the labor needed to finish terrazzo flooring considerably. Divider strips were metal strips that allowed different mixtures to combine harmoniously on the same floor, and opened up infinite possibilities for design & art on floors. Both of these inventions were introduced in 1924, and that same year the National Terrazzo and Mosaic Association (NTMA) was established to further professionalize the expansion of this trade.
This tile continued to be trendy for many years after, and new ways to create terrazzo emerged–such as using epoxy, acrylics, and polyester. These newer binders have become more popular than the traditional concrete for indoor applications due to low cost and high strength, but cement remains the primary choice for outdoor applications. Marble chips & river stones aren’t the only materials used in terrazzo anymore– you can find fragments of glass, shells, coral, and more in this tile now. Terrazzo's increased accessibility has driven its price down over the years, and introduced new technology and techniques that have made it stronger, more unique, and longer-lasting. One of the best parts about terrazzo is that it was founded on the principle of sustainability. To this day, terrazzo is primarily made of recycled material.
After learning its history, we can all agree that terrazzo is an incredible tile, but many of you who are unfamiliar with terrazzo tile are probably thinking about how expensive it must be to have a crew of artisan workers come to your home and create terrazzo for you. Good news! Another great technological advancement is that you can now buy precast terrazzo tile or glazed tile with high definition terrazzo graphics to install in your home or business, which is a much more flexible and cost-effective approach to being able to step on these beauties everyday.
This is the stuff I’ve already told you so much about; it is installed by pouring chips of marble/glass/stones mixed with binder into place using metal divider strips to separate different mixes and colors. This method is popular for large areas where there will be lots of foot traffic but design is still important. Pour-in-place terrazzo is essentially custom-made artwork and can yield incredible designs, but the price is far greater than traditional tile. Additionally, pour-in-place terrazzo can only be applied to floors.
This form of terrazzo is created by making larger slabs of terrazzo and cutting and grinding them down to the desired shape, size, and finish. These are then sold as tiles or smaller slabs for a more traditional tile installation in homes or businesses. Precast terrazzo is considerably less expensive than pour-in-place. This type of terrazzo can also be mounted on both floors and walls.
Porcelain is undoubtedly a great choice for commercial applications because it's strong, low maintenance, and is suitable for outdoor usage without a finish or sealant. Terrazzo isn't just a material, but also a look, and one that you can find on a wide variety of porcelain tiles. Also being porcelain, it is the most cost-effective approach to adding the beautiful look of terrazzo to any room.
I hope you've enjoyed learning about terrazzo, and next time you walk into a building take a moment to stop and look down at the floor. It may not just be tile you're stepping on, but an artistic masterpiece.