Raiders of the Lost Tiles

As some of you might know, I had a summary of my modular kitchen-post published by ApartmentTherapy and as a direct result, the traffic on Chez Nous N° 21 has increased a fair bit.  It has been amazing to read AT community’s comments on our temporary kitchen solution, but it was our century old cement tiles, a detail that really sold us on this old house, that stole the show on the discussion-forum.  Having engaged in a conversation with one tile-connoisseur in particular, I was tipped of about the endless possibilities of Le Bon Coin, a local flea market site, with links to a couple of offers for antique cement tiles.  One of these happened to be advertising a lump of reclaimed tiles, not similar but identical to ours, and mere three hours away from Mazamet. 
 
Long story short, we went and got them.  We had to.
 
I was going to write about pictures and framing this week, but as this kind stranger pointed us to the direction of the best possible tiles for our future kitchen, you are getting Raiders of the Lost Tiles instead – a story about road tripping to an old Roman settlement and the perilous journey back with a boot full of cement tiles.
 
This was supposed to be a weekend of 6 Nations rugby and some serious gardening, but my husband wasted no time contacting the seller and organising a rendez-vous.  Until now every material we considered for the floor of our future kitchen had felt like a compromise.  This was really a once in a life time opportunity to replace the current 80’s porcelain tiles with something more courteous to the age and style of this house.  As we were already travelling over 200 kilometres to see these tiles, we decided to make a night of it and stay in a nearby city of Arles, an ancient Roman settlement on the river Rhône.  James hunted down a nice pet-friendly hotel close to the centre so we were able to take our dog Rusty with us too.   
 
 
Shut-Up Rusty, or just Rusty for short, is our third family member, adopted in January.  To fill you in, he is an Alsatian-cross who likes long walks on the beach, ham and plenty of belly rubs.  This was quite likely his first ever stay in a hotel and oh boy he was ever so well behaved.  Lucky us, he also loves riding in the car.  And speaking of cars… here’s a word of caution for any of those looking to pick up over 15m² of cement tiles.  They are heavy as hell; heavy enough to seriously damage your vehicles suspension or the axel if not balanced properly.  You’d be a proper bell-end not to hire a van. 
 
Naturally, we headed on our way in our humble Laguna estate.
 
The seller of these tiles was asking a “fair offer” for his reclaimed tiles and he accepted ours after a little haggle.  Each deal made on Le Bon Coin is different, but so far we had nothing but great luck with the things we bought and the people we have dealt with.  I kid you not, we found our house on Le Bon Coin!  The guy who showed us the tiles on behalf of his wife was very professional and really helpful to the point of coming to meet us in a traffic stop after their address turned out not to be on the navigator.  He even helped us loading up the Laguna.  Without trying to be disrespectful, (our offer was pretty damn close to what they were thinking about anyway)  I have seen these types of tiles go for nearly ten times that on dedicated salvage websites.  Driving three hours to view something you saw online may seem excessive, but for a deal like this, we would have done twice miles. 
 
 
And besides, Arles turned out to be beautiful!  We had the weather on our side, a high of 25 that day and not a single cloud on the sky.  Having packed up our new purchase we checked in to the Hôtel Le Rodin, a tidy little place that was more than happy to accept dogs as big as our Rusty.  The service was wonderful and the hotel was situated within walking distance of the city centre – our next stop as by the time we had fed our pupper it was pretty much beer a clock.  So we had a pit stop of dark craft beer and local cheese + a small plate of charcuterie, seated at the terrace of Picador, a bar with their own deli, near the old amphitheatre.
 
 
After checking out few of the main attractions, being hurried along by Rusty who was frantically looking for a grassy spot to do his business, we found a little restaurant called l’Autruche – the ostrich, which had just re-opened.  They, like most businesses in France to be honest, were happy to have a dog lounging in our feet as we tucked into their daily-changing set menu of locally sourced produce.  James and I both chose fresh asparagus, served with a soft boiled egg, a small salad and pureed greens.  A superb starter to go with our chosen bottle of organic wine, which James followed up with a combo of a lamb chop & tatties, and I with flaky white fish, steamed and seasoned, on a bed of green lentils.  Not normally a huge fan of the bio wines, I enjoyed this red – it was a lot lighter than expected, almost like the new season’s stuff, apparently due to the lack of sulphites that help to preserve the flavour in wine produced using the traditional methods.  The tipple came warmly recommended by the owner, who was really damn nice.  For a Friday night, it was pretty quiet everywhere.  We felt a bit like crashing a private party – everyone here was clearly pretty well acquainted…
 
 
 But hey-ho.  We did stay for a second plate of cheese that day to end the evening. 
 
In the morning we were faced with a task of redistributing yesterday’s loot in a manner that our Laguna wouldn’t brake in half during the hard drive home.  That meant fitting as many tiles as it was safely possible into the front passenger seat, thus seating myself in the back with Rusty.  DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, folks.  Just because we and our vehicle survived, it doesn’t mean it was a good idea.  As the bottom of our estate was nearly scraping ground all the way to Mazamet, we chose to favour the motorway.  Pity, as otherwise we would have taken a detour to see where the couple that built our house came from.
 
Based on the details they left behind, we have a reason to believe the original owners had a connection to a village called Blauvac an hour and half away from Arles.  Down to the design and colour, the tiles of our kitchen and the ones we just purchased are identical indicating they came from the same factory.  These types of encaustic cement tiles are still being manufactured by hand, using the traditional colours and patterns, most prominently in Marocco.  Our motif is pretty rare and typical to these parts of the South of France, so it is reasonable to assume there might have been a factory manufacturing them in the region. 
 
 
 
I couldn’t resist digging around online and it seems, indeed, that the biggest cement works producing encaustic cement tiles, Cimenterie Lafarge, was based in the village of Viviers in the department of Ardèche since 1850.  Their tiles were initially reserved for the bourgeoisie but soon became popular everywhere.  Sadly the production was ceased in France by the 1970’s; colourful cement tiles featuring intricate geometric- or stylised floral motifs, had fallen out of vogue in favour of ceramic tiles which were a lot cheaper to manufacture.  In 1910, however, when our house was built, encaustic designs were still all the rage.  It may be relevant to mention that Viviers, the centre of cement works in the South of France, is situated an hour and a bit from Blauvac as well as hour and a half away from Arles. 
 
I present my case: our tiles are made in France, not so far from where the builders of my house might have come from. 
 
They rest safely in out cellar now, waiting to be cleaned and re-sealed before being installed into the room downstairs that is to be our new kitchen.  It will not be any time soon – perhaps the summer next year, but I am glad we did not let this opportunity to slip through our fingers.
 
Random stranger from the Apartment Therapy forum – thank you a million times for finding out about this seller and his wonderful tiles!  We couldn’t have done it without you.  And an honourable mention for our Renault Laguna, you are the best. 

Little Bathroom of Horrors

Little bog,
Little bog o’horrors.
Little bog,
Little bog o’terror.
Call a cop.
Little bog o’horrors.
No, oh, oh, no-oh!

Yeah.  This is where we were just a few short months ago – stuck with a gross loo and a bath that could make a grown man gag.  Luckily, after a deep clean, what had felt like a sick joke was revealed to be a pretty decent little bathroom with relatively new fixtures.  We then set out to make it, not just liveable but pretty, on a minimal budget and armed only with my painting expertise and James’ endless trust in the power of DIY. 

This photo was taken on the day we first viewed this old house.  Something needed to be done.  Fast.

 

From the long list of complaints, the mouldy wallpaper was first to go.  I can only ask what sort of a sick bastard would choose floor-to-ceiling wallpaper for a wet space in the beginning with – Jesus H Roosevelt Christ, it was even IN THE SHOWER!  The only thing keeping the plaster work dry was a layer of ancient gloss paint, in better-than-expected condition, but stained with god-only-knows-what.  We were lucky to find out the tiles, on the walls and the floor, were mostly intact and usable as was the bath, although all of the grout lines had been painted with the strangest shade of acid green.

I know.  And don’t even get me started on the Asterix-stickers…  for shits shake.

This is the only useable bathroom in the house so our only option was to focus on small changes to make this space more practical.  We patched all the holes, gave the walls a new lick of paint and replaced a few small details such as the mirror, the shower head and the toilet seat.  The layout could be more functional for a narrow space and eventually I want to do something to cover up the very invasive waste pipe coming down from the upstairs loo, but for the time being I am pretty happy with what we got here.
As if the frosty minty wallpaper was not ugly enough, all metalwork in this bathroom was painted in the strangest shade of acid green.  On the right you see a comparison of the wallpaper and what we found underneath; banged up and stained sage green gloss paint.
Our aim was to create a fresh, modern space that would reflect the character of this old house as well as our taste, so we chose a moody shade of sage green, a bit darker from the original colour of the room, and paired it with a dominant, crisp white with hints of blush pink.  Sage is something we have going on a lot in this house and it felt like a good contrast for white that was used to bring light to this small and enclosed space.  Together with the grey of the exposed plumbing and the deep blue of the floor mosaic, I had a complete colour palette to work with.  James took a bit of convincing on the blush, but I think the finished article works rather well.
Choosing a über-trendy colour such as blush pink can be a bit risky, but if you truly love a shade, trendy or not, why hesitate?  Life is too short to fret about decor anyway.  On the flip side, it might be a good idea, before putting your money down, to think how easy a trendy detail is to change if and when the fab turns naff and how much it would cost you to do so.  As we were not ordering a custom kitchen or spending hundreds on paint, I felt comfortable experimenting a bit.  If we ever get bored with our little bathroom, repainting it would not bust our balls or our budget.

 

  This was my check list for the project:
– re-attach a few cracked tiles below the bathroom mirror
– patch holes in the plaster and a few on the floor 
– Replace the mirror – it was damaged as well as ugly
– fix or replace a broken shower head
– attach a rail for a shower curtain
– patch holes on the door and adjust the fit (the door did not close properly)
– Sort out all grout lines that have been painted over with that gross green gloss
– replace the toilet seat with something more comfortable
– create storage for toiletries, towels etc. 
– paint the walls, plumbing, tub surround and all trims
– Patch up the paint in the ceiling above the bath/shower
– attach a new towel rail closer to the bath/shower
– remove old towel hooks that were too far from the bath/shower
– decorate like a boss  

We did not have a set budget, but incredibly I ended up spending less than 300 euros on this update, bulk of if being the cost of paint.  As there was no plumbing or electrical work for the time being, I was able to do all of it myself, thus avoiding to pay for labour entirely.  Because we had to complete the painting while using the bathroom and wait to get the paint delivered, the whole process took a couple of months.  It could have been a week’s project for somebody with the materials at hand and another shower to use but taking it easy gave us time to think what we really wanted from this mini-renovation; what was necessary and what was not.

The paint I used had to be oil based in able to adhere to the old gloss base, so I picked self-undercoating Dulux Trade Eggshell in Brilliant White for the long walls, and Dulux Valentine Laque in Sage 4 and Framboise 2 for the accents.  We were in luck to have a friend pick us up some British paint as it can be silly expensive here in France.  Some say it’s not the same stuff either – and they are right; most Dulux paints sold in France are adjusted to the French taste in both colour and composition.  They are also largely made in France, therefore different from the ones sold in your average building supply store in the UK.  Not available beyond the French-speaking market, the Valentine gloss with a satin finish was pleasant to use and dried pretty quickly.

 
So the painting begins…
I did not need to use a primer when painting the sage accent walls as the transition between the old and new shades was minimal, but I did use a cheap white gloss I had left over from a previous project to go under the blush pink to stop the 90’s acid green from showing through.  Applying a proper primer takes time, but I would always recommend using one when you are painting a new wall or transitioning between two very different shades, especially when going from dark to light.  Primer helps the paint to adhere to the surface you are transforming and stops stains or the previous colour from showing through over time.  Also, a layer of primer will save you time and money on the top coats by stopping the wall from absorbing the paint too quickly – you get better and more even results while using less paint.
Another thing to keep in mind when using any oil/solvent based products is good ventilation – this stuff can get your head spinning.  It is best to wear a mask when painting and take care handling any thinners or the paint itself as they are toxic enough to harm your skin.  Not to mention flammable.  You must clean your tools with white spirit or turpentine and dispose all left over liquids and paint by taking them to a collection point.  Public déchèteries accept paint scraps in France, but check the advice of your local council if unsure what to do where you are based.
 
As a general rule, you can use gloss over emulsion but never the other way around.  The emulsion or any standard water based product* will not adhere to a base painted in non-water-soluble paint – it will just crack and flake off.  Most household paints today are water-based and whole walls painted in gloss, such as those in our bathroom, are highly unusual.  Historic homes have their quirks, but as an average decorator, you are more likely to stumble on an oil based product on trims, window sills and baseboards.  Replacing gloss with gloss is easy, but by stripping the surface bare, followed by a primer, you can use any type of paint.  Modern emulsion paints are hard wearing and come in all sorts of finishes so you can achieve the look of old-style gloss without using a messy oil based product.  
 
* There are a lot of contemporary innovations that allow all sorts of witchcraft, but I am not an expert on those. 
The Dulux Trade Eggshell, like most professional products, is limited in shades, but it is excellent value for the performance you get.  I enjoyed using it and being a qualified painter of one sort, did not find it difficult to manage cleaning wise.  The scent of the product is stronger than of those aimed for regular DIY use and you need to clean all the equipment used with white spirit or another suitable brush cleaner.  You can buy the stuff without a trade license, but I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners as there are plenty of products that get you the same results but are a lot more user friendly.
The clean and neat AFTER shots.  I am very pleased how it all turned out.
The manufacturer recommends two coats and I found this to be sufficient – even on a larger than normal surface such as my bathroom walls, where you really do not want brush marks or other imperfections.  I used a wide synthetic brush to save paint and enable me to reach behind awkward pipework, the radiator etc. and a smaller one for the wooden trims.  You could use a roller just as well, but for the most even results, choose one that is designed for oil based paints and prepare for a cleaning session from hell.
Thankfully, my James with his formidable 6’6 frame took over the roller in order to paint the ceiling.  This was a simple emulsion job and we chose to use Dulux Bathroom + that repels mould and is guaranteed to last a minimum of five years.
This unit used to be in our kitchen, now it hold all of our toiletries and a formidable stack of towels.  Not a shabby space for a spa day.
Having finished painting the room we needed to decide on storage.  Not being a fan of open shelving in a wet space myself, we decided on a vintage unit bought originally for our kitchen in Bretagne.  The chest is just about narrow enough for this bathroom and has plenty of draws and shelves for our toiletries and towels.  The existing marble shelf above the sink was cleaned and kept for our toothbrushes and it looks pretty nice with the new mirror thrifted from a local depot vente.  The dark wood of the storage unit, a fancy new toilet seat (mahogany, baby!) and the mirror frame really tie the different elements in this bathroom together.
The mirror is not currently fixed on the wall, but rests on a shallow marble self above the sink.
The towel hooks that were inconveniently far away from the bath were taken down and replaced with chrome-finished towel rings.  Our old textiles such as the bathmat and the shower curtain were still in a perfect working order so we did not feel the need to replace any of them.  The accessories, too, were from our old hoard of stuff, merely repurposed to suit this bog.
 
Finlayson towels – this pattern is called Elefantti and it was designed in 1969 by Laila Koskela.
I think it is justified to claim this Little Bathroom of Horrors has been completely rehabilitated.  As it stands, it is a clean, welcoming and sweet-smelling space – no mouldy wallpaper in sight.  No longer do I have to recite Hail Mary’s whilst seated on my porcelain.. ahem.. mahogany throne nor feel dirty after taking a shower!  And I cannot underestimate the importance of this update – after a functioning kitchen, bathroom is the most important room in the house for me; it is an oasis to escape to after a hard day of living on a building site.
Or removing Asterix-stickers from other surfaces around the house.  Bastards.
But going back to the bathrooms… my bubble bath is waiting! *Crabs the ice cold flute of Blanquet and turns up Steve Wright.

DIY Lightbox

I am about to take all the credit for it, but this DIY is really a creation of my darling James’ gadget oriented imagination.  In fact, it was he who salvaged this long forgotten print screen of mine when visiting family in Finland and thought about turning it into a light box.  The pattern, or more accurately, a negative of a pattern the screen was made for, would have looked nice enough on our wall without additional fiddling, but fixing an LED-system behind the frame really helped to bring out the beauty of this relic from my teenage past.
 
And making one yourself is dead easy; all you need is a frame of some description, covered with a material that lets light through and a strip of LED-lights.  We used a self-adhesive kit, but other kind of lights would do just fine.  
 
The light box in situ in our boho bedroom.
Screens such as these are most commonly used in all sorts of printing from artist books to textiles such as T-shirts and tote bags.  This one, however, was a tool in producing large scale custom-patterned linen as a part of my Textiles and Printed Fabrics-course in the School of Visual Arts for Children in Forssaback in 2005.  My group was one of the first to use their brand new textile classroom and our mission was to design patterns inspired by the history of the area the school was based in – the grounds of an old Finlayson textile mill.
 
My pattern, depicting circular details found around the old spinning mill, manhole covers, factory lights and drains, was printed on linen in two variants; olive- and lime green.  I ended up selling some of the fabric, made a few tote-bags and, as most fifteen year olds would, forgot all about it until my mother dug out the last of it and turned it into a duvet cover set.  That turned out to be one of the most thoughtful gifts me and James received on our wedding day last December.
 
Our DIY lightbox made of a screen used in textile printing and our bed, made with textiles I printed as a teenager with this very same screen.
The screen in its wooden frame, however, was forgotten a long time ago.  My mother did not want to throw it away – after all, it was rather expensive gizmo to buy for a fifteen year old at the time, and I am glad she did not!  Having finally found its home with us in France, we set out to find the best way to display it in our new home.  James thought we would have the best contrast of the blue (the medium used to transfer the negative of the desired image onto the screen) and white areas (the bare mesh where the ink would be able to transfer through) if we would light it up, thus he promptly went and bought a remote control LED-strip, normally meant to illuminate telly stands and the underbellies of cabinets.
 
As mentioned, the light strip was self-adhesive and attached easily to the back side of my wooden frame.  Although the strip could be shortened to length, I chose to wrap the whole 5 meters of it around the frame giving me almost 3 full laps of lighting power behind the screen.  For additional durability, I finished the job with a few staples on the corners and along the sides where the lights could come loose with time.  The kit set us back 15 euros at our local ACTION store, but you could find similar LED-strips either at a homeware store or online.  This model came with a dimmer and a remote controller which is a pretty nifty detail, especially as we both are proper lazy, but most importantly, so that I could hide the manual control panel, similar to those on common Christmas lights, permanently on the back of the frame.
 
The light box comes with a remote dimmer and an off switch – lazy sleepers dream!
I am aware that printing screens are not that common to come by when searching for materials for your own lightbox, but a wooden frame covered with a loosely knit fabric such as lace would look pretty amazing too.  Holiday lights can be used as a substitute for the adhesive strip that I chose to use, but make sure you stick with the LED’s – old style bulbs, although tiny, heat up and can be a dangerous when installed too close to fabrics. 

 

Happy crafting! 

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.