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The Make-Do Joys of Terrazzo

For the Queens-based duo Raphael Martinez Cohen, 34, and Ryan Bush, 32, terrazzo is a way to repurpose the detritus of daily life. The two artists founded their joint sculptural practice, Ficus Interfaith, nine years ago. Since then, they have added peach stones, oyster shells, the royal blue glass of Saratoga water bottles, petrified wood and deer bones — discovered on Martinez Cohen’s parents’ property in upstate New York — to the mix of marble chips, other stone fragments and cement that is traditionally ground up to make terrazzo, the speckled composite material that has become the pair’s primary medium. Martinez Cohen and Bush combine their unconventional rock substitutes with colored cement or epoxy, forming a slurry that they pour into zinc and brass outlines to create kitschy, expressionistic tableaus. The results suggest Roman mosaics by way of Brooklyn: “Date Palm Tree (Tree of Paradise)” (2018), a 6-by-2-foot composition in a pine frame, depicts a palm tree with a wiggly trunk and faux-naïve fronds from which hang fruits inlaid with sections of real date pits.

Terrazzo has always been an improvisational material: It’s thought to have originated when 16th-century Venetian artisans salvaged unusable chunks of marble from their building projects, setting them into the floors of their own homes. Affordable and durable but polished to a luxurious sheen, the compound has become a commonplace of modern architecture, found everywhere from subway stairwells to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In one of many revivals, it became a mainstay of millennial interiors in the 2010s, thanks partly to the popularity of the British designer Max Lamb’s innovative large-aggregate Marmoreal version, developed in 2014. Because of this ubiquity — Bush characterizes terrazzo’s two dominant presentations in contemporary design as “Urban Outfitters” and “beige county clerk building” — artists have often overlooked it. But a generation of makers are now reimagining the craft, challenging conventions of scale and value by experimenting with everything from whole rocks to precious gems. And in contrast to the neutral uniformity of past eras, these artists are imbuing their work with personal narratives and an enduring sense of place.

In the Norwegian port town of Asgardstrand, the artist Tron Meyer, 39, scours the beach for large sea-smoothed pebbles and moraine rocks left behind by glaciers. Cast in concrete in hulking wooden molds, these stones disclose their vibrant striations only when Meyer shapes his functional sculptures — including a series of blocky, prehistoric-looking earth-tone tables and stools — using a diamond saw blade or a tool akin to a giant wire cheese slicer. The process “is like building a secret,” says Meyer, who once happened upon a gold nugget when cutting a piece. Sometimes weighing over a quarter of a ton, his sculptures pay homage to both his country’s geology and its design history, including the Brutalist architect Erling Viksjo’s dramatically variegated Conglo concrete, slabs of which cover buildings in Oslo’s government quarter district.

An assortment of terrazzo works, clockwise from top left: a Strata Cube by Tron Meyer, Totem objects by Suzuki (inside stool, to the right of the stool and at bottom right); and “Bird Dump” (2020) and “Oyster Flowers in Red” (2022) by Ficus Interfaith.Credit…Photograph by David Chow. Set design by Victoria Petro-Conroy

For his home in Vienna, the Austrian designer Felix Muhrhofer, 48, made a kitchen table with a vivid pea green resin top inset with stones gathered on his family’s trips to places such as the Croatian island of Cres and Italy’s Tagliamento River; his recent furniture collaboration with the California-based designer Kelly Wearstler features specimens — mottled burgundy granite, jagged green serpentine — she found in Malibu. Muhrhofer’s technique involves sawing apart and crushing pieces of marble, limestone and other stones, anchoring them in hand-welded corroded iron table frames with geometric midcentury-inflected shapes. Many of his aggregates conjure faraway landscapes: He has incorporated metallic flecks from a meteorite collected in Argentina and shimmering Murano glass castoffs sourced from an Italian master mosaicist. But “the beautiful metaphor about terrazzo is that you don’t have to go far to find something beautiful,” says the designer, who first collected pebbles for his craft on the banks of the Danube at a popular swimming spot just outside of Vienna.

Freed from the constraints of frames and flat surfaces, terrazzo can be as versatile as clay. In the London-based sound artist and designer Yuri Suzuki’s Totem collection of miniature linking toys, the compound forms stackable palm-size trinkets: pancake-like disks, conical towers, off-kilter spheres and wobbly calisson-shaped boats. Produced by the Majorcan cement and tile manufacturer Huguet as part of a collaboration with the design agency Pentagram, where Suzuki is a partner, the series invites both adults and children to “play and find a composition that they like,” says Suzuki, 42. The whimsically shaped objects recall one of the few pre-existing examples of fine-art terrazzo: the kaleidoscopic, glass-specked furniture by the Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata, a member of the freewheeling ’80s-era Milan-based Memphis Group, which has long inspired Suzuki. “Growing up in Japan, everything was minimalist,” Suzuki recalls, but “the Italian movement was bright.”

Usually, “all we see of rocks is their dusty exterior,” says David Wiseman, 42, a Los Angeles-based artist known for his ornate light fixtures and furniture resembling flora and fauna. But he has similarly relied on terrazzo — which he makes using minerals such as emeralds, opals and jasper — for over a decade as a source of color in his otherwise restrained palette of bronze and porcelain. At his studio in Frogtown, shaping the material into complex organic forms — for example, the negative space in an undulating biomorphic stool’s bronze latticework seat — is one of his most labor-intensive tasks. “I can only do one little angle at a time,” Wiseman says. His precise compositions reveal each gem’s deep jewel tones and delicate veining, offering a glimpse into what he calls the “interior world of rocks.”

Other makers, however, are forgoing rocks altogether. The 38-year-old British Chinese designer Elaine Yan Ling Ng’s dappled, terrazzoesque rectangular Carrelé tiles, which come in zellige-like shades such as blush and jade green, are made from crushed eggshells discarded by bakeries and restaurant kitchens. And the French designer Anna Saint Pierre, 32, creates her speckled Granito flooring surface by setting chunks of construction debris in limestone, terra cotta and black-tinted concrete, working on site during renovation projects to repurpose scraps in situ. It’s a method that recalls the make-do spirit from which terrazzo arose — but also one that underscores its potential in an era that calls for more sustainable materials and less expected quarries. “Stones,” and possible stand-ins, says Saint Pierre, “are lying all over the place.”

Photo assistant: Timothy Mulcare

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