CHECKERED PAST: The History of a Much-Loved Pattern
by clé tile | published: Sep 07, 2023
humans are, at root, pattern makers. Our minds love to tease repeating elements out of the things we see around us, from the scales of snakes and the petals of flowers to the crosshatched crags of desert mountains. Pattern recognition is kind of our thing. So it’s no surprise that throughout history and around the world, cultures have cloaked everything from walls and floors to themselves in the alternating squares of color or shade that we know as “checks."
the belly of a corn snake — image courtesy of tribal corns
the petals of a checker lily or fritillaria affinis flower — image courtesy of Seedville USA
Archeologists and art historians have found checked patterns in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and pottery and woven into cloth that dates back millennia. And, of course, game boards have played a part in its longevity, too. The motif acquired its common name around the 7th century, from shah, the ancient Persian word for king, drawn from a long-ago predecessor to chess played on a board that would look quite familiar today. The game migrated to Medieval Europe, and by the 11th century, was known in France as eschec.
Checks appear in medieval heraldry on coats of arms and family crests, and can be found on flags from racetracks to regattas today, owing as much to their inherent visibility as to their martial past, no doubt.
In fashion, checks have appeared everywhere from the traditional tartans of the Scottish clans to perennially preppy gingham (which, itself, dates back at least 400 years). Buffalo plaid, a large check variant in red and black, became the choice of American lumberjacks after Woolrich began producing woolen fabric in that pattern in the mid-1800s.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, black-and-white checks became synonymous with ska music style in England and America (signifying racial unity) — and are still a fashion staple for hipsters and skate punks today.
And just this past June, Pharrell Williams — hip-hop megastar and creative director of Louis Vuitton Menswear — turned paris' storied Pont Neuf into a checkerboard runway to show his debut collection for Louis Vuitton (Menswear, Spring-Summer 2024), featuring suits, ties, overcoats, boots, satchels and more with pixelated patterns that reinterpret LV’s signature tonal check motif (aka the Damier) with fresh, edgy, modern style. In addition to the sea of fortunate fashionistas flanking the runway in Paris, the show was watched by more than 1 billion people around the world, on LV’s website and via media outlets.
Tile Floors? Check!
Checkerboard floors have been a staple architectural feature spanning thousands of years, beginning with the ancient Egyptians and Romans.
They were popular for grand and luxurious spaces throughout the Renaissance and Victorian eras, appearing in some of the most famous palaces and ballrooms: Versailles, the Palace of Venaria and the Tsarskoe Selo (summer residence of the Romanov tsars), just to name a few. England’s Westminster Abbey was floored in squares of black and white marble in 1677. Also in the 1600s, Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer depicted checkered floors in many of his paintings, setting them diagonally to lend depth and drama to the scene.
Checking & Savings
In America, the 20th century ushered in the widespread use of ceramic tiles in kitchens and bathrooms, at first for their hygienic properties (ease of cleaning at a time when germs and bacteria were increasingly recognized as causes of illness), and later for their durability and the way they beautified spaces affordably. By the 1920s black-and-white checkered floors were all the rage, and as the ‘30s approached, both the checkerboard tiles and the bathroom fixtures themselves got a shot of color.
The rise of linoleum flooring, which made checkerboard floors cheaper and easier to install, kept the pattern popular for everyday consumers through the middle of the century. Checks appeared in kitchens, foyers and family rooms all across America. Public spaces got into the act too, with checkerboards appearing underfoot at diners and bakeries, schools and libraries.
zellige checkerboard kitchen — design: hollie velten / photo: danielle st. laurent
zellige checkerboard walls and floor — design: hadley wiggins / photo: pernille loof
zellige checkerboard walls — image courtesy of jennifer l. harrison
While the era of linoleum flooring has come and (largely) gone, the checkerboard floor is here to stay. clé’s cinema collection: mythology marks a new beginning for both cement tile and the beloved checkerboard floor, with a panoply of artist-designed palettes allowing for high contrast or subtle shading and chromatic themes that flow from room to room.