BLOG

The Inspired History of Terrazzo Tile

Terrazzo was created over 500 years ago when mid-16th century artisans began wondering what to do with odd-sized marble chips discarded during construction projects. Lovely to look at, but essentially leftovers, an inspired idea was born. Why not used the marble remnants to build terraces that would bring added luxury to their own working-class homes?

Necessity, it’s said, is the mother of invention. But for Venetian mosaic workers, it could be said “the love of beauty” was the driving force behind their invention of terrazzo tile.

Terrazzo was created over 500 years ago when mid-16th century artisans began wondering what to do with odd-sized marble chips discarded during construction projects. Lovely to look at, but essentially leftovers, an inspired idea was born. Why not use the marble remnants to build terraces that would bring added luxury to their own working-class homes?

At first, they took these precious remnants, set them in clay, then smoothed out the rough edges by hand with heavy rubbing stones. The end result was an even surface that was comfortable to walk on. Terrazzo was born! As time went on, clever workers attached the heavy rubbing stones to handles to create tools they called “Galeras.” Intended to ease the back-breaking work while improving the quality of the terrazzo, craftsmen leaned into their Galeras to create a force with their body weight that could achieve a much smoother surface than hand rubbing.

The surface they produced was indeed smoother, but there was still a problem. It lacked the rich color and sheen of marble. We have no idea how they came up with the next brilliant thought, but we can’t help but think it might have been a fortunate accident, and a stellar example of why you shouldn’t cry over spilt milk! Intrigued? We thought so.

As it turns out, one of these artisans found that goat’s milk helped restore the original luster of marble. Perhaps he spilled a glass of milk on the terrazzo and it was happenstance, or he had an epiphany that allowed the terrazzo tile industry to take off. Either way, the art of terrazzo (once mastered) was passed from fathers to sons and dominated by families primarily from the Fruili region for generations.

Michelangelo was an early fan, choosing to use terrazzo in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1546. As chief architect hired by Pope Paul III, the renowned painter and sculptor designed the intricately patterned terrazzo floors that still retain their beauty and shine (with proper maintenance)  so many centuries later!

Papal coat of arms of Pope John Paul II
Papal coat of arms of Pope John Paul II

While it wasn’t until the early 1900s that terrazzo began to gain a foothold in the United States, one of the first examples of its use can be found in in the home of America’s first president. George Washington’s beloved Mount Vernon began as a small farmhouse but was later enlarged into a 21-room mansion that featured terrazzo as his flooring of choice. Given that Washington was 6 foot 2, weighed over 200 pounds and wore what would be in today’s measurements size 13 shoes, we think it is only fitting he would choose such a durable surface to walk upon.

Mount Vernon Estate Mansion
The Cornelius Vanderbilt II House, 1 West 57th Street, New York City

As one of the most wealthy American families, the descendants of railroad & shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt also had discerning taste in flooring. In 1890, Italian immigrants known as “terrazeri” were hired to lay terrazzo floors inside the grandiose Vanderbilt residence on 5th Avenue in New York. Sadly this example is lost to us as the mansion was demolished in 1926 to make way for the Bergdorf Goodman Department Store.

Vanderbilt Mansion aside, there are still many buildings that showcase terrazzo, thanks to the immense popularity it began to enjoy post World War I. Due in part to the invention of an electric grinder that allowed for finer finishes, greater speeds and lower costs, the availability of brass divider strips took terrazzo to a higher level as it allowed for the creation of  highly artistic and intricate patterns. Architects soon began jumping on the terrazzo bandwagon as they realized it as the ideal medium for their smooth curvilinear Art-Deco designs of the 1920s.

Today, stunning examples of terrazzo can be found in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum and Radio City Music Hall in New York. The pristine terrazzo at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach features bold lines and geometric patterns, while the creative folks at Disney have embraced terrazzo for bright and colorful displays at Disney theme parks in the United States and around the world. If you are a sports fans, you’ll find many arenas and stadiums featuring emblems, crests, and mascots of teams immortalized in terrazzo. The Chicago Blackhawks and Michigan State University are great examples - just to name two!  We would also be remiss if we didn’t mention that The Hollywood Walk of Fame is 18 wonderful blocks of terrazzo underfoot. Imagine all the celebrities and fans who have walked over this magnificent monument in the past, and thanks to the durability of terrazzo, will continue to walk over it for many years to come.

Stunning examples of terrazzo can be found in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
Guggenheim Museum NYC
Stunning examples of terrazzo can be found in several lobbies of the Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Radio City Music Hall At Christmas
The pristine terrazzo at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach features bold lines and geometric patterns.
Colony Theater Lobby Miami Beach
The Hollywood Walk of Fame is 18 wonderful blocks of terrazzo underfoot.
Hollywood Walk Of Fame

From public buildings and landmarks to private residences, terrazzo adds a touch of elegance beyond compare. Owners of mid-century homes are exposing terrazzo covered by carpet for years, and adding rustic terrazzo for exterior use on patios and pool decks; while builders of new homes are embracing the beauty of terrazzo for a number of reasons. According to the National Terrazzo and Mosaic Association, new developments with zero-free VOC epoxies, polyesters, latex, and acrylics have continued to make terrazzo even more cost-effective, high-functioning and versatile. The spectrum of colors is now unlimited, with newer thin-set and environmentally-friendly epoxy based terrazzo options less labor intensive with great design flexibility.

Given that its provenance is based on recycling discarded chunks of marble, terrazzo has been “green since the beginning” with an outstanding record of durability and performance dating back over a thousand years. Terrazzo floors typically last the life of the structure, and in many older buildings, can be restored to their original luster at a fraction of the cost of replacing the floor with other materials.

Long valued for its life cycle characteristics: low maintenance, durability, and indoor air quality learn more about our line of beautiful, sustainable terrazzo products by giving us a call at (866) 508-7363 or sending us an email at info-us@trend-group.com. At TREND Group, we believe the only limit to creating superb designs is the imagination. We encourage you to view some of our amazing projects by visiting our Gallery.

Leave a Comment