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Patina: the Umami of Surfaces

We often find ourselves waxing lyrical about patina, that elusive element you feel long before you are conscious of what you are experiencing. It’s something you might not be able to articulate but that you feel on a visceral level, much like ‘umami’, the sixth taste.

hotel emma, image courtesy of zio & sons

What Is Patina?

The term derives from Latin for “shallow dish”, describing copper dishes that garnered a greenish film over time. It encompasses the fading, darkening, muting or other signs of age on the surface of stone, leather, metal, clay, cement, and wood. Functioning as a protective coating, it also produces a specific aesthetic: a slightly worn look and feel, reminiscent of treasured antiques and vintage furniture.

Patina is the very thing that draws us to a rustic Italian villa or an old English farmhouse. It’s the passage of time witnessed in well-trodden stone stairs, chipped terracotta tiles, worn wooden floors and discolored marble surfaces - spaces that have been lived in. It’s that element so well embraced by the Japanese in their appreciation of wabi-sabi, or “the perfectly imperfect”. At clé, we relish the latter and embrace natural imperfections. We like to see the work of the artisan and how their surfaces reflect this passage of time as mirrored by the patina. 

image courtesy of alexis armanet

Glazed or Unglazed Tile? Value & Virtue of Both

Glazed surfaces offer a certain convenience, especially for spaces which require heightened sanitation and sterility (think hospitals and industrial kitchens). These surfaces require minimal maintenance and are largely unchanged; a purposeful choice for particular spaces.

While unglazed tiles offer functional features such as improved slip resistance, higher abrasion resistance, and higher impact resistance, their true charm lies in their ability to patina. This slow unveiling of a natural history of time is something that cannot be mimicked through a manufactured process. 

Patina & Cement Tile

With the increasing popularity of cement tiles in the U.S., some buyers are unprepared for the natural beauty that comes to cement through everyday use. The initial appeal of the bold, colorful patterns and inviting matte texture of unworn cement tile will give way to a natural patina, very much like a wood floor. And just like a wood floor, periodic cleaning and resealing is recommended for cement tiles.

With cement, since the color/pattern runs deeper than just surface level, tiles can be sanded and resealed, a process similar to refinishing a hardwood floor. That said, if you are looking to eliminate patina, then perhaps cement is not your material of choice.

Terracotta and Patina

Raw terracotta (unwaxed and unsealed) is particularly prone to patina because of it’s porous clay body. Even sealed, the tile will develop patina over time. Our Belgian Reproduction line was created specifically with patina in mind: we wanted to create a look that would remind us of European terracotta floors that had aged over time. Our glazed terracotta offerings - Zellige and Eastern Earthenware - are more hardy than their unglazed counterparts but will still eventually succumb to patina. Architect’s Palette, with its silky matte glaze, will develop a crackle over time, enhanced more by a contrasting grout color. For instant patina, our Antique Terracotta line brings centuries old history to your home with tiles carefully reclaimed from antique French dwellings.

Is Patina Right for Your Project?

If you are feeling reluctant to embrace patina, there are plenty of other tile choices. For a more streamlined, consistent look, you can’t go wrong with a classic subway tile. If you like some surface variation and a little more depth, consider our various thin glazed brick options. These are all tile selections that will maintain their surface look and feel over time. 

There’s no “right” or “wrong” answer when choosing a tile, whether you are planning to maintain a look or are seeking a surface that will evolve with time. That said, here at clé we are big believers in embracing patina and bringing some wabi-sabi into your home.

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