marble in architecture and design

part one: from the greeks to the gilded age

by clé tile | published: Nov 10, 2022

marble may be the mood of the moment, but it has been de rigueur for centuries. because of its enduring heirloom-like qualities, we continue to add to our growing collection of this revered stone with our marble tile offerings, which include carrara, thassos, dolomite, calacatta gold, and calacatta viola.

this current designer favorite is everywhere from social media to shelter magazines as well as gracing kitchens, bathrooms, fireplaces, and everyplace in between.

to be clear, not for a minute do we think of this natural material as being purely trendy, something to remove and discard when the fashions change or the urge strikes. we revere this material too much, and believe stone and marble should be used in a thoughtful way that can be celebrated for many generations to–much as our forebearers did.

from michelangelo to mainstream must-have, marble has surged, receded slightly, then surged through millenia, waxing and waning as a result of fashion and taste–but also politics and even philosophy. throughout, it has always maintained its allure and luxury: this potent symbolism courses through its veins.

how did this particular stone–which is essentially a metamorphosed limestone–become synonymous with classic luxury and timeless elegance? and what’s in store for it in the future?

first, a natural history of marble

marble quarry - carrara, italy. image via calevro marmi

the history of marble is, essentially, the history of the earth. formed over 200 million years ago, marble is known as a “metamorphic rock” created from other rocks transformed by heat or pressure. in the case of marble, tectonic forces act on the original calcium carbonate (also known as limestone) and whatever surrounds it–whether it be fossilized materials, “impurities” such as clay, silica (sand), or minerals such as quartz, mica, pyrite, iron oxides and graphite–to create a new material. it’s these impurities that give marble its distinctive veining, color, and depth. 

carrara quarry, italy. Images via @gipsystoryteller

as a result, each piece of marble will be different–even strikingly so–from marble coming from the same quarry. but that also means that every piece of marble will be utterly unique–a testament to its individual geologic history.

and that’s the foundation of marble’s status as a luxury material: its long-lasting grandeur, beauty, rarity, strength, and radiance.

while carrara and other stones have been mined for centuries, clé always advocates using stone with great reverence and a deep appreciation for this natural gift. these precious materials are meant to last a lifetime - and beyond.

marble and stone in architecture

stone has been integral to both architecture and design since the first civilizations sought shelter in stone caves. early in civilization, it evolved from a material for shelter, to a material of veneration: stone also came to represent something more than just a structural building material. from Stonehenge to the pyramids of Giza to the Moai of Easter Island, early humankind sought to build monuments as tributes to their deities–a way to touch the divine, a tribute–and a quest–for immortality.

the Greek roots of marble

nike adjusting her sandal, temple of athena nike, the acropolis - source  

greek parthenon - source

the ancient Greeks were the first to discover and use marble, and came to believe marble was stone blessed by the gods–and was thus used to honor the gods.

while it was abundantly available in the mountains of Greece, it was still hard to quarry and heavy to transport. as a result, the Greeks didn’t use marble extensively as a building and structural material, but rather saved it for the most important religious buildings such as the Parthenon, made entirely of marble.

the ancient Greeks certainly did their part to set the tone for the real popularizers of marble: the Romans.

marble in roman times: expressive, colorful, imperial

roman pantheon (left image source, right image source

the Romans–who venerated the classicism of Greek art and architecture–were responsible for the growth of marble as both building material and symbol of luxury and majesty.

the Romans came to employ marble and stone for almost all temples, houses and fora. according to legend, emperor Augustus boasted, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.”

while the Romans initially used marble from the Apuan mountains of ​​carrara, Italy–often called the “marble mountains”–they soon began to look farther afield to their growing empire (Syene, Chios, Libya, and the Mediterranean, for example) embracing more colorful marbles in tones including black, grey, green, red, yellow, and blue. for the Romans, marble was associated not just with its aesthetic qualities, but for all it signified: power, might, and wealth–the empire personified in a piece of stone. 

going for baroque

queen's hamlet dairy at versailles. (left image source, right image source)

royalty again embraced marble with gusto during the baroque and rococo eras, (16th and 17th centuries) a period that stood out for its love of spectacle, extravagance, and movement in design and architecture. in grand baroque palaces such as the Palace of Versailles or the Peterhof Palace in Russia, every inch of space is covered in ornate detail and interlocking pattern.

these palaces kept extravagantly colored and veined marble in high demand, which trickled down into public spaces and the homes of elites. 

petit trianon, versailles - source

marble staircase, versailles - source

however, during the neoclassical era that followed, highly colored polychromal marble fell out of fashion and solid white marble stepped into the spotlight. some of this was due to expense, but also to a new “fashion”: democratic values, as reflected in the embrace of classical Greek architecture. colored marble became relegated to furniture and smaller architectural details like mantle pieces.

marble in the gilded age

a few hundred years later, the “new” money entrepreneurs of the post-Industrial revolution in both Europe and America returned to opulent, colored marble to signal their social arrival.

in fact, when Alva and William Kissam Vanderbilt constructed their beaux arts summer house in Newport Rhode Island, they spent $7 million (out of the home’s $11 million total cost) on marble alone. 

the gilded age interiors of the marble house, newport, rhode island (left image source, right image source)

could this have been the apex of marble maximalism? and what lies in the future?