Making of.. L’Atelier d’Art Part 1 – The Floor

With all this pesky home improvement I have seriously neglected my awesome day job: being an artist.  I don’t normally take time off my work like this, but we needed to get this old house liveable, move our gallery into new premises Chez Nous, and get married in Finland.  The house is in order now, somewhat, and we are hitched, so it was about time to get the studio sorted out.
Luckily, as most of you know by now, N°21 used to be a crèmerie and has a neat little boutique downstairs, just itching to be turned into an atelier d’art.  We loved our old rental atelier artichoc which had enough space for a big studio space and a huge gallery but those premises had serious downfalls: even after we got proper lighting installed, there were never enough wall sockets, no heating nor hot water.  All rather essential for an all-year-round event- and work space.  Even with a great landlord and good visibility, we felt like it was time to move on.
Before setting up shop Chez Nous, there was this teeny-tiny little detail to fix: a floor full of gorgeous turn of the century cement tiles dirtier than a loo at a lorry stop.  Dominantly white cement tiles.  Oh boy.  After the closure of the crèmerie, sometime in the late 50’s to early 60’s, the shop front was used as a garage.  Neglected and barely sealed, the porous tiles absorbed all the grease, grime and dirt for decades and were in a pretty grim condition when we got here.  
We came to view this house on a warm autumn day and the light filtering though the frosted glass was just amazing.  Even under a layer of dirt and grime, these century old encaustic tiles steal the show. 
Normally, antique cement tiles would not be my material of choice for an artist studio for an array of reasons: they stain easily, are incredibly expensive to replace if damaged and difficult to keep clean if not sealed properly.  But frankly, they were here before me, and if restoring and keeping these tiles would mean needing to take better care while working… so be it.  Paint spills and drips are a daily occurrence in a working studio, but with a proper sealant and a never ending supply of wet-wipes, I should be able to manage any destructive bursts of creativity. 
Having had next to no bother cleaning and sealing the other encaustic tiles in this house, I thought sorting this room would be a piece of cake.
Remind me never to be so naïve again.
These types of cement tiles do not really loose colour due to wear and tear as the pigment sits in the cement itself, but they do, however, loose their protective finish.  After the sealant is lost, the porous cement is receptive to dirt that can be incredibly difficult to lift by using your regular household products.  Take my word for it, Mr. Propre was a complete waste of time.  In fact, any off-the-shelf cleaning product, no matter how specialised, had little to no effect on the greasy marks embedded deep in the pores of these concrete tiles.
Heck, even the old de-greasing agent made no visible progress, although it clearly got rid of something as all I was left after a good couple hours of serious scrubbin’ was a pair of matching blisters on both palms and water as dirty as a sailors smile.  The clearest results were visible on the border tiles that still had their original sealant.  The centre tiles with a nice burgundy and grey pattern on cream white background remained stained and dull. 
The tiles after a somewhat unsuccessful attempt in de-greasing them: the border tiles on the left cleaned out a bit whereas the tiles on the right did not react much at all to the scrubbing nor the de-greasing cleaner. 
 This is where a lesser (to be read: smart) home improver would call the professionals, but not me.  No.  I did, however, bully James to call a few friends for advice and soon had another product to try: a professional grade cleaner for cement tiles and marble.  This stuff was PH neutral, smelled like lemons and came in a reassuringly boring plastic jug.  By design, you were to brush the product on with water, creating a soapy foam that would sit on the tiles without drying for 10-20 minutes.  In that time the foam would penetrate the pores of the tiles and lift up any dirt and grease before being brushed up and rinsed with plenty of water.
 
In reality this meant half an hour of intense brushing, letting the stuff sink in from anything between 30 to 60 minutes, followed by more rage-brushing, tears, and some more brushing and rinsing.  I repeated the treatment twice and hated every single second of it.  Although I could see the foam turn into a satisfying shade of Yuk! on each rinse, the achieved difference was near invisible to the naked eye after each wash.  Needless to say, I may have been a bit underwhelmed.
I did spy some results once the floor had dried.  The weather, although nice and mild for most parts of the year was not quite so warm and dry as it is now, thus prolonging the time it took for everything to stabilise.  It seemed I had managed to remove some of the worst stains as well as parts of the old sealant that had yellowed over time.  And this is where I decided to call it.  More brushing was only going to start damaging these tiles and the dirty ones were clearly beyond rescuing, so I went to my local hardware store and bought myself a big bad roll of wood-effect vinyl.
Kidding.  God… just kidding!  
 

 

I decided to live with it.  These tiles have been in place since 1910 and I don’t really need them to look now.  A few are cracked slightly and others still bare the marks of the space being used as a garage… but that is fine.  I never wanted this floor to look new, just less grotty and this is exactly what I think I have achieved here.  After three coats of fresh sealant, my studio tiles certainly have got their mojo back, and in a way, so have I.  After all, what is a cowboy without their horse, an artist without a studio?
 
These tiles are not new but they got a century’s worth of character to compensate.
 
TO BE CONTINUED… Next time on the same atelier time, on the same atelier channel, I’ll be ranting on about painting ceilings as a shorty, French neighbours and dog hair.  

Series of unfortunate events: FLOOR EDITION

I talked previously about the history of our walls and thought it is time to kick off the grand saga that is the ongoing restoration and cleaning of our floor tiles.  After all, it was those gorgeous antique tiles that sold us this house last autumn.  And boy there’s a bit to talk about: some of the floors were already beautiful beyond belief and only needed a deep clean – but some… well, had been considered to be beyond repair.  SPOILER ALERT – THEY WERE NOT.*
*So suck a fat one, the previous owners of my house from the 1960’s who thought so!
Starting from the most labour intensive job, this is a story of me and my hubby discovering, cleaning and sealing a bunch of terracotta tiles that were hidden under ghastly sheets of linoleum.
Over all, the tile work in our little old house is in pretty good nick:  The trend of erasing history of old dwellings swooped by our place, not once or twice, but every generation or so and where the walls with their decorative strips of crown molding took a bit of a hit each time, the floors were left pretty much as they were – with the exception of these 20x20cm terracotta tiles.  We discovered them on our first visit to the property, hiding under some pretty fragile linoleum and in a desperate need of tender love and care.
In fact, only one of the rooms of this house has had a complete floor change since the house was built in 1910, not counting in the bathrooms that would have been retrofitted by the 1940’s-1950’s.  Tile-wise, on that ground floor salon that was refurbished as a bedsit, perhaps to accommodate an aging proprietor in the early 80’s, they did a pretty good job, ignoring the complete lack of taste exhibited by their choice of a patterned porcelain tile.  I am normally against replacing something that is perfectly good and functional, but these tiles are just so god-awful that I am willing to make an expensive exception.

Having needed some space to live, our first task upon moving in was to clean enough floors to fix ourselves a temporary living room, a bedroom and a kitchen.  The house had been derelict for just over ten years and everything was, understandably, dirtier than a blind mans toilet.  Cleaning the kitchen floor, rocking the beautifully moody encaustic tiles shown above, was a piece of cake:  It turned out, most of the tiles cleaned up well with just a drop of PH neutral dish soap and were, rather surprisingly, not in a desperate need of resealing.

The case of terracotta tiles found hiding in our bedroom and the lounge, however, was a different matter entirely.  Having been in a need of a sealant and re-grouting, somebody in the 60’s (curse these people to hell) thought, either, that repairs were too much work or just preferred more of a contemporary no-maintenance material.  Luckily, instead of lifting the tiles and the sand-cement they were laid on, the homeowners leveled the floor by covering it entirely in lime and installed a carpet of linoleum straight on top of the compacted lime dust.

 Of course, a no-maintenance material does not exist – except in the dreams of salesmen and lazy homeowners.  Easy to install, easy to care materials such as linoleum, vinyl or laminate do not need maintenance at first and clean with ease, but after a decade or two, depending variables such as the quality of the product, general wear and exposure to the sun and moisture, even the toughest of these materials will age ungracefully and will need to be replaced.  The wood imitation-linoleum, laid on top of our century old terracotta tiles, had faded, bubbled and cracked so badly under the blazing sun of Mazamet that it was taken straight to the tip.  It did not adhere to the floor at all, implying that it was never properly fastened to it’s base or the glue holding it had dissolved a long time ago.

Turned out, taking off the lino was the easy part…

It took the both of us, me and my husband that is, two days to scrape off the packed lime dust on each floor.  Sometimes the stuff came off in big sheets, but more often than not, it needed to be chiseled off one tiny chip at a time.  To save our little Henry the Hoover from clogging up, we swept the dust by hand before revving up the vacuum – in hind sight, I firmly recommend wearing a mask for these types of jobs… safety first boys and girls!  You don’t want to be digging out dust from your nose like I had to.

We followed up by a couple turns of serious moppin’ before getting down and dirty armed with a sponge and a bucket.  Where the scrubbing was not quite as back-braking as the chiseling of the lime, it took it’s time; a full working day in each case.  I finished the job with two coats of sealant that was specifically designed for porous terracotta tiles.  This stuff was pretty easy to use and dried up in about half an hour per coat.  If only the tiles had never been covered in the first place!  Where we spent four days on each room restoring the look and function of our antique tiling, cleaning and sealing them in the 60’s, instead of paying for linoleum, would have taken less than 4 hours per floor.  Cheesus Christ!

 

But all said and done – I’d say the results were well worth it!  These tiles don’t look new, but why should they?  They got holes, residual lime stuck between the grout lines as well as wear and tear worth a century, but that’s what we like about them.  Replacing these tiles with new ones would have cost us a big penny – even if I would have chosen to go with new linoleum.  And that would have, in turn, needed to be replaced after a few decades under our burning sun.  Terracotta is hard wearing, extremely easy to clean and maintain, as well as pretty trendy for the time being, just in case you need a reason or two to start giving your elderly tiles some love.
I hope ours will be good for another 100+ years.