Travelling Time for Tiles: Mettlachi

We had a little adventure in the land of flooring last month and I’ll take this opportunity to broaden your horizons about 1950s flooring in the Eastern Block, just in case you’re contemplating going on Mastermind or shooting an atmospheric film about the cold war.

To cut to the chase, one of the major decisive factors that made us fall in love with the future Chez Street & River was the fact that it still had all the 1953 floor tiles in surprisingly good condition. These floor tiles used to be pretty much the only thing available for hard floors in the 1950s. Everyone in Hungary (and probably in the rest of the CEE gang) is familiar with the sight of 10x10cm burgundy-and-cream or black-and-mottled cream tiles adorning everything that needs a good wet mopping time to time, from prisons, schools and hospitals, to your grandmother’s kitchen, bathroom and pantry. They usually came in two-tone checks, or when jazzy creativity or necessity struck, in broken-up mosaic form. The ubiquity of the stuff obviously resulted in a whole generation growing up hating it, but younger people begin to look at it with increasing fondness.

The more evolved and poncey cousins of our humble checks, the much-coveted Spanish and Moroccan cement tiles are now in vogue and available in Hungary, and their trendy lack of sheen revived a nostalgic longing for the simpler, utilitarian style of the Eastern European fifties.  The internationally fashionable industrial decor, which normally doesn’t resonate well with average Hungarian tastes, also began to lead some adventurous spirits back into the arms of grandmother’s checkered floors. (Floors, arms, oh it’s late, innit. Sorry.) Although, they are now normally sold at the same vintage stores, the tiles in question are not to be confused with the prohibitively expensive, but stunning cement tiles, which have quickly become the most sought after option among shabby chic aficionados.

The likes of Iamart and  and the wonderful Moza are normally bigger, thicker tiles made of a cement-based material. They have beautiful patterns and a rather porous surface that allows graceful aging. Our modest little two-tone tiles, however, are made of a hard, compressed clay-based material, which is coloured, but never patterned or glazed, and then fired at a high temperature. It is called mettlachi, after the name of the German town of Mettlach (now best known as the proud home of Villeroy & Boch), probably where it was first produced for export in large quantities. As with most German loanwords, the Hungarian language didn’t treat the odd foreign name kindly in the past six decades, and mettlachi  is now affectionately known and spelled in a thousand different ways.  Our contractor, for example, calls it metlahit, but I’ve seen in spelled as metlaki, meklachi, etc., which makes it real hard to find people selling the stuff on the Internet.

But why, oh why would you look for it on the Internet if you have it all covered, you may ask. Well, life is just ne’er that simple. The flat used to have but a tiny tiled entrance hall, originally designed to have a couple of coat hooks on the wall and maybe a small cabinet near the door to put your bakelite phone and a Sokol radio on. This we decided to enlarge to make room for a small table and chairs, with the added bonus of turning a glazed door around to let more light into this windowless room. This decision, however, raised the problem of creating an extra two square meters of floor in the hallway, which we had no tiles for.

The flat, built in 1953 based entirely on a Russian standard building system, has mettlachi tiles throughout, except the two parqueted rooms. We were dead set on preserving the period tiles, so we decided to replace the original tiles in the bathroom and toilet and use the salvaged material for the extension in the hallway. Little did we know that the ghost of Soviet Russia is still out there having a hell of a time laughing at us, long after the cold war. How inconsiderate.

Designed in Soviet Russia, executed in Communist Hungary, one would expect the damn tiles to come off the cement base just by offering it a shot of vodka, but man, they built this flat for eternity and a day. You have to know that mettlachi is not just sitting on some wimpy New Age water-based glue and then asked politely to stay there, like them superlight trendy little ceramic tiles and bamboo boards. It is laid directly into what Hungarian builders call mischung, a thick mixture of cement and sand. Once that sets, it’s there for good. I was nervously looking at our builders trying to delicately peel the tiles off the old mischung, but it held on stronger than Putin’s fists, which are actually known to have killed all the Chuck Norris jokes by themselves, unarmed. The tiles just didn’t come up. Well, they did, but in pieces.

So there we stood with two square meters of untiled hallway, and now an untiled bathroom and toilet too. Awesome. Then we thought, we just won’t get knocked down this easy. After two days of frantic Internet searching and a visit to a place where they sell replica-mettlachi made of cement tiles for heroin prices (£45/sqm), we located 15 square meters of the good stuff in Öttevény.

Öttevény is situated about a lightyear from Budapest and Clayton’s driving licence had expired some time ago. Awesome again. Things were not looking good.

And then along came Lady Luck in the portly form of Attila, our contractor, who is luckily very much like Rabbit from Winnie The Pooh. He’s not very rabbit-like, but he has innumerable friends, relatives and business partners, which was fortunate, because he happened to know a dude who travels to Austria across Öttevény, peddling spectacle frames. What were the odds? One in a million. Anyway, he got it sorted, and all we had to worry about were the tiles being the right shade. What were the odds? One in a million again. As it happens, they were the right shade. The right size. And all. And the 15 square meters, brand new (well, about sixty years old, but never used) cost us less than £40. They were delivered on time in all kinds of fruit crates, margarine boxes and soggy cardboard – in mint condition.  Lucky!

Our tile guy said he was in the last class that was made to learn how to lay tiles directly into mischung. Had he been one year younger he would have been entirely unversed in this lost art. Against all odds, the tiled hallway is now ready and looks fab, and you really can’t tell it’s not the real thing, because it IS the real thing – with a little recent history.

We have now decided that this flat must love us, as everything is going so well; it hasn’t been the decoration hell we were dreading. Next up: the more visible and exciting part of rebuilding our little downtown pied-à-terre: decorating and laying the parquet! Big shout out to Viki Kiss, who supplied a generous helping of real old-fashioned hardwood parquet. Now, similar to our ‘new-old’ tiles, our rooms will be bedecked in oak, which is really old, but never been laid before. It seems what’s bad for humans is good for floors. With this terrible joke, I shall bid you goodnight, because it’s late and I have to force my jetlagging brain to go to sleep on time.

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One Response to “Travelling Time for Tiles: Mettlachi”

  1. encaustic cement tiles Says:

    Do not make unnecessary pencil marks on the tiles as they may be impossible to remove after.

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