deep dive: limestone in art, architecture, and design

by clé tile | published: Apr 20, 2022

mamilla hotel, jerusalem. design: safdie architects / photo: timothy hursley, ardon bar hama

To celebrate our collection of elevated european heritage limestone tile—grand place—we wanted to let you in on why we at clé (and so many architects, architects, and designers past and present) are so drawn to this stone.

limestone is more than a pretty face beloved for its refined, serene presence, as at home in ultra-modern spaces as it is in classic, traditional ones.

its allure goes far deeper.

in fact, if you’ve ever wanted to time travel, look carefully at a piece of limestone and you can see millions of years into the past. depending on the type and origin, you might see swirling patterns, grains, or even fossils–those ancient organisms preserved for eternity in stone. clé’s grand place limestone tile gives you a chance to bring millions of years of history into your home.

lincoln memorial. photo: mayer tawfik

limestone is a sedimentary rock, composed of calcium carbonate deposits left behind by long-dead sea animals. sedimentary rock describes a large portion of the rocks on earth—yet only those containing more than 50 percent calcium carbonate are considered limestone.

pure limestone, with few fossil or mineral particles, ranges in color from creamy white to pale gray. the presence of fossil and mineral particles, as well as other organic chemicals, can yield an impressive range of red, pink, yellow, or even black limestone. because limestone is found all over the world, each region’s specific fossil and mineral composition yields unique color and grain variations.

limestone’s journey begins in warm shallow waters rich with marine life. there, in the coastal waters of europe and the mediterranean, clams and other prehistoric corals and crustaceans flourished. upon their death, marine animals with calcium-rich exoskeletons became one with the ocean floor, ground up into sand or tiny fossil fragments.

this sediment then undergoes a process called lithification, in which the fossil fragments are compressed into solid rock over millions (in some cases, billions) of years. we can see fossil fragments in many types of sedimentary rock, making them hugely important for the study of prehistoric ocean life.

limestone created from marine fossils is called marine limestone; its counterpart is evaporative limestone, in which water is evaporated from the stone as calcium-rich water drips from stalactites on the ceilings of caves. the results give way to travertine, another common building material.

limestone throughout history

The great sphinx of giza. photo: francisco gomes

humans have been working with limestone since the holocene period (aka the bronze age) with the earliest lime foundations appearing in turkey over 14,000 years ago.

parthenon limestone columns. photo: darryl low

early builders in china and the middle east discovered that limestone, when burnt and combined with water, produced a material that would harden with age. lime, sometimes known as “sticky rice mortar” has been integral to construction ever since. the earliest recorded evidence of lime use was in 4000 bc when it was used for plastering the pyramids. later, during the ming dynasty in china, lime was used to repair the great wall.

limestone as an art medium

six apostles from retable, french, 14th century

although limestone was used primarily as a construction material, it has made its mark on art history as well. the famous upper paleolithic venus of willendorf fertility sculpture, as well as the egyptian bust of nefertiti, are both hewn from limestone. ancient iberians, byzantines, mayans, and greeks all boasted limestone sculptures, architectural friezes, and more. limestone was also used as a medium for painting: greek funerary steles were made from limestone blocks and painted in bright colors.

jumping forward a few thousand years, modernist sculptors such as brancusi, modigliani, and others used limestone as a medium or employed limestone blocks as part of their artwork.

modigliani, head of a woman, 1912

brancusi, the kiss, 1916

builders and artists, both ancient and modern, have chosen to work with limestone because of its comparative softness and porosity. these material characteristics make it perfect for sculpture and carving, and with modern technology, the raw rock is easily transformed into versatile blocks and sheets.

limestone torso of a hunter, roman, 1st or 2nd century ad

however, these characteristics also mean that limestone is easily affected by increased carbon dioxide levels associated with climate change. many ancient limestone cultural heritage sites have been considerably damaged by polluted air, especially in china, where pollution levels are extremely high.

fortunately, conservationists are working hard to find ways to protect ancient limestone from air pollution, so we may continue to appreciate and learn from these ancient structures.

every stone is a piece of history. with clé grand place limestone, you’ll be bringing history into your home—and be a part of continuing that rich legacy. what will you create with it?