Lowcountry Modern

Palmettos, Patterns, and Pigments

L: Photo of palmetto frond sheaths, commonly referred to as bootjacks. R: Initial single tile design with abstract bootjack pattern.

This past fall, I taught a graduate-level design studio at the University of Miami’s School of Architecture, where I’m one of the part-time faculty.

I like to introduce an exercise at the start of the term that challenges the students’ preconceived notions about architecture and design. Twelve students first analyzed a plant species of their choosing from the native pine rockland habitat of South Florida, identifying structures, geometries, and proportions, and patterns.  Using this information that they described through drawings and diagrams, they then developed three-dimensional systems for architecture, exploring things like connections, structure, space, and form.

On my morning commute to campus I like to grab a Cuban coffee passing through downtown Miami.  Waiting outside a vintanita at NW 1st Street and NW 1st Avenue on that sweet dark caffeinated nectar, it hit me. Cuban tiles! I’ve had a pattern tessellating through my brain for a while then, but sometimes an application for an inspiration doesn’t hit you until later.

Cuban Tiles are Cement Tiles

One theory as to why cement tile is called “Cuban Tile” in South Florida is that these finishes were entrusted to Cuban tile manufacturers who made them by hand for residences and other buildings.  The origin of cement tiles goes further back though, to Catalonia in the 1850s when they were first produced.  Because they were cheaper, more durable, easily produced, and offered virtually unlimited artistic potential, they were considered a revolution in floor finishes.

Sample medallion tile pattern from Cuban Tropical Tile Company, Miami.

Sample geometric tile pattern from Cuban Tropical Tile Company, Miami.

By the beginning of the 20th century, cement tiles were a popular high-end floor covering installed in thousands of notable public buildings and luxury homes.  During the 1940s, they regained popularity once again in Florida.

Unlike other tiles, cement tiles are not fired and there is no glaze on the tile’s surface. Instead, they are produced by hydraulically pressing a patterned layer of mineral pigments onto a layer of finely dehydrated ground Portland cement and a coarser layer of sand and cement.  High quality cement tiles use only mineral based pigments which do not fade over time like non-mineral based pigments.

Cement tile mold, France, 1920.

A handmade metal mold with a pattern design is used to apply pigments, a combination of natural mineral color pigments, high-quality white Portland cement, marble powder, and fine sand.  The handmade process gives each tile its own character and depth through slight imperfections.

Elongated hexagonal cement tile handpress.

Elongated hexagonaal cement tile handpress with pigment layer in place.

Manufacturers worldwide produce cement tiles for floor and wall applications in a variety of sizes, shapes and patterns. Smaller companies tend to use a hand-operated hydraulic press.  The inconsistent pressure applied with this type of press means that the quality of the tiles varies. Electric-powered hydraulic presses typically used by larger companies consistently produce a higher quality product with a thicker pigment layer embedded into the tile.

Wall application of cement tiles by Crafted Tiles featuring a medallion motif.

 

Cement tile by Granada Tile used in a stair riser application.

Abstraction

Abstraction has been used throughout our history from our earliest beginnings and across every culture and continent. It has been applied to nearly every material including wood, clay, stone, concrete, glass, metals, fabrics, and even our own skin. From jewelry to buildings to entire landscapes, abstraction is our shared inherited graphic language.

Designated the state tree of both South Carolina, as well as Florida, the sabal palmetto is both ubiquitous and iconic. Its range extends from the Bahamas and Cuba up across Florida and, like its boot jacks, diverges west along the Gulf of Mexico and north up the Atlantic toward Charleston, a route I know mostly by rail since I’ve been teaching in Miami.

L: Repeated single tile of abstracted bootjack pattern. R: Photo of palmetto bootjacks.

What’s been of interest to me is the patterning created where the fronds emerge along the palmetto’s trunk.  Light plays across the cylindrical imbrication, creating shadow, shade, and highlights.

The still-attached frond sheaths (the bootjacks, what are left after the upper petioles have been pruned or broken off, form a pattern similar to fish scales. The texture of the lower trunk is a result of scaring from shedding eventually shedding the bootjacks.

Abstracting the palmetto’s bootjack imbrication was actually very simple and turned out to be most similar to an argyle pattern.

Variations of abstract bootjack pattern.

Where it gets interesting is in playing with the pattern’s tessellation: rotating, offsetting, grouping and repeating sub-patterns to create some surprising geometric fields.

Two different tiling options using initial single tile. L: Alternating up/down row layout. R: Vertical mirroring and alternating up/down rows.

The other element in this developing sabal pattern is the use of color. Up to now, I’ve been working with a monochrome of four hues, focusing more on the geometric patterns.

Moving forward, there are two design elements I’ll be exploring, with color being one. The other will look at using the geometry of the pattern instead of using a square tile in which the repeating pattern is contained. I expect it to open up some really exciting results. Here’s a look at where that’ll be going. Stay tuned!

Irregular hexagonal tile organized in a repeating radial pattern. This would require two additional tile shapes, a parallelogram and regular hexagonal tile.

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