After being handed over a case filled with 12 brass molds and stumbling upon a jumble of colored tile fragments and exposed patterns in his family’s wrecked cement tile factory, retiree Edgard Chaya was destined towards a new chapter in his life: reviving Blatt Chaya, his family’s disused artisanal cement tile production in Lebanon.
Blatt Chaya began in 1881 when Edgard’s great grandfather opened a factory in blatt, the outskirts of Beirut’s town center, to produce cement tiles with imported motifs that, at the time, colored the floors of several houses and apartments along the Mediterranean coast especially Italy, Portugal and Morocco.
After 60 years of production, Blatt Chaya went through a period of hibernation marked by declining demands and that lasted through Europe’s second world war and Beirut’s civil wars.
As one can imagine the heritage that defined the architectural transition from the traditional marble lined floors of the reception area in Lebanese homes to the “neo-traditional” Terrazo (sejedeh) tiled modern apartments of the wealthy families in Beirut has been largely destroyed.
Thankfully, Edgars’ initiative to revive Blatt Chaya along with his son’s, Karim, entrepreneurship have contributed to remember an ancient craftsmanship and reconstruct a forgotten architectural style – piece by piece – through the production of these tiles.
The patterns often capture floral intricacies and geometric symmetry, while the choice of natural pigments (moghra) create the moods. Together these aggressive patterns and contrasting bold colors form – if I may say so – a canvass of tiles that merge Mediterranean and Middle Eastern tastes and that create an almost sickly feel to look at.
But this sickly feel can be, subjectively, a nice feeling and in fact Blatt Chaya has been on a roll: sales have been increasing 20% annually with architects from Barcelona to Dubai embracing the revival.
The interesting aspect of Blatt Chaya is that each tile is produced using artisanal and ancient practices which gives a human aspect with its tiny imperfections, and allows for a greater flexibility in the choice of colors and disposition of patterns without forgoing durability (which has surpassed international norms).
After years of production Edgard Chaya dreams of carpeting Maarad street in Downtown Beirut with patterns of rust-hued reds, saffron yellows and deep blues to encourage artisanal work and promote a fragment of Lebanese contemporary heritage.