Dressing up the floors of some of city's most famous landmarks and establishments from the Bombay High Court to Pali Village Cafe and Bombay Gymkhana to Phillip's Antiques, you’re bound to have noticed and admired Bharat Flooring and Tiles iconic designs. (If not, see here.)
A few weeks ago my friend Sian, the architect and designer behind Abode Boutique Hotel who I interviewed earlier posted some work-in-progress images hinting at a collection for Bharat Tiles. I was intrigued but also surprised because to me Bharat Tiles had always been synonymous with heritage floorings.
One thing led to another and I recently found myself in their Fort-based showroom and office to meet with Firdaus Variava, whose grandfather established the company in Mumbai in 1922. Firdaus is vice chairman at Bharat Flooring and Tiles and quite evidently the driving force for product development and innovation at the company. In my short time at their office, his team were experimenting with finishes, revealing new concrete products and demonstrating the use of fibre optics with flooring. We talked about the tile making process, their new design collection BFT+ and the meaning of future heritage. We were also joined Komal Gilder who looks after marketing and branding. Read on for some excerpts of our chat.
I KNOW ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ABOUT TILEMAKING. HOW ARE YOUR TILES MADE?
Our tiles are made of cement. It’s one of those lost or dying arts because a lot of tile companies are now shut. The process itself is about seven steps long and it’s a pretty interesting process.
Every design has a handmade metal stencil which takes us around two or three weeks to make. The stencil is only made once. Then there’s a metal mould, which is a steel container which has what we call a bangdi or an edge, and also a base plate. What we do is put the stencil inside the mould. Then there are these masking plates which go on top and allow the colour which is quite powdery to go into the right compartment of the stencil so the front of the tile won’t have any bleed.
The number of holes depends on the complexity of the design. Some of the designs are simple. For example, Sian’s, which my factory guy thought were the best in the world. He was like 'Saab aisa design milega toh hum bahut khush rahega.' (Sir, if we get designs like this, we’ll be very happy.)
We remove the stencil from inside, the colour is about 10 to 12 mm thick and then we add a packing layer of cement, and push it into a press and a guy pulls a lever which compresses and stamps it. The press makes the cement stick together otherwise it would obviously crumble but because it’s under a lot of pressure we can take it off, stack it up and dry it for a day. Then we place it in a pond of water for seven days to start hardening the cement and then we take it out and pack it in boxes to send to clients.
(Here is a brilliant visual guide to the manufacturing process.)
YOU LAUNCHED A DESIGN COLLECTION CALLED BFT+ EARLIER THIS MONTH AND IT'S QUITE A DEPARTURE FROM THE HANDCRAFTED HERITAGE TILES YOU ARE KNOWN FOR. HOW DID THIS COME ABOUT?
An issue that we faced was that people came up to us and said 'We want new designs!' and they were giving us their own contemporary designs but we couldn’t keep using them because they were all exclusive to that particular project. Obviously they would get quite miffed if we used them somewhere else so we started thinking about how to make the range more contemporary without making it exclusive to any one person.
Instead of having other people make us just the fabricator so to speak, we decided we would go into the design space. Otherwise they would design it and there were piles of stencils in the factory we just couldn’t use.
So we started looking around. The first collaboration we did was with Le Mill. From that we learnt some really valuable lessons about how to go about the process.
YOU COLLABORATED WITH MULTIPLE DESIGNERS FOR THIS COLLECTION. HOW DID THESE PARTICULAR COLLABORATIONS COME ABOUT?
The first one I thought about was Alice Von Baum, she’s based in Goa. She had designed these very, very high end villas called Isprava. Alice herself was a textile designer who somehow got into interiors and she was the first logical choice for us. We had already been working together on projects and she had already come up with designs. So we said 'We can use your existing range of designs and we can also add to that. You proactively design it.'
We sent our in-house designer, one of our girls from here to translate her ideas into reality. She was doing more villas and she said she would use them in the future anyway so have the designs made and keep them ready for use. Her line is called AVB Bespoke.
The second person I got in touch with was Sian. Sian’s Abode Boutique Hotel became so popular and so liked by everybody that she was logical too. She gave me two options. She said what’s really popular right now are motifs and objects, and the other thing she thought would be really cool were Japanese and oriental lines and things. I told her to go for the second option as Alice was already doing quite graphic things and she came up with this whole Japanese line. She gave us seven or eight designs but then there are so many variations.
I talked to Ayaz and Sian almost at the same time. Ayaz has been doing a lot of work with us in terms of spaces like Pizza Express, Shroom, and various other places. We’d been talking about doing something for a couple of years. He said I like origami, I like 3D and finally he got down to doing it. His range is called Origametes.
Sameer Kulavoor was a happy coincidence. I met Sameer a long time ago, and I told him 'If you’re a graphic designer I’d rather do something based on letters and writing' because I think that’s a need and that it’s a nice thing to have. He went off, and a few months ago he came back like 'Here, I’ve designed something for you'. He brought these four square letters [cardboard tiles] with him in a little box. That’s how we works apparently.
It reads ARMS, and I said, 'Why?' and he said, 'It’s also my name'. I said, 'People are going to say what about my letter?' and he said, 'We’ll develop them when they’re required'. Sameer's was the last one so we’re still working on it.
WHAT SORT OF SPACES DO YOU SEE THESE COLLECTIONS FIT INTO?
Frankly Ayaz’s would fit into commercial projects - restaurants and hospitality, maybe a high end residence while Alice’s is for residential mainly. Even maybe children’s rooms. Sameer’s would be a statement piece, perhaps commercial spaces, even houses with subtle colour choice or a patti or a strip in the middle. Sian’s I think could go either way, it’s very multifunctional.
TELL ME ABOUT THE COLLABORATIVE PROCESS. HOW LONG DID IT TAKE AND WHAT DID YOU ASK THE DESIGNERS FOR?
The collaborative process started at the beginning of the year. We didn’t give them a brief as such because we didn’t want to interfere with their ideas. We started the process in about April 2014 and it took about six months. We asked the designers for artwork, that was one thing and also colourways that they would like to use.
Sian was really sweet. When she came down to India, she came to the factory and she sat with the press guys and made them try different colour combinations which was really cool.
For others like Alice, we showed her some colourways and she said ‘these work, these don’t work’. When you first work with the colours of cement it’s hard to figure out what really matches. There are 27 colours which we can use and there are some combinations that go together better than others.
DO YOU VIEW THIS AS SOMETHING THAT TIES INTO YOUR HERITAGE COLLECTION?
One would hope this would become the heritage of the future right. That would be the goal, these tiles last 60-70 years so hopefully these ranges will be the heritage of the future.
When the first tiles came from Italy, the original heritage tiles were all Italian, they were viewed as being cutting edge and now they’re heritage.
I NOTICED THE LE MILL RANGE WHEN IT FIRST RELEASED AND NOW THERE’S THIS. IS WORKING WITH DESIGNERS NOW A PATTERN THAT WE CAN EXPECT TO KEEP SEEING FROM YOU?
I think so. It’s been a real pleasure and quite exciting to do something so new. In fact, I’m already mentally compiling a list of our next designers.
Above: Just a few of the patterns possible with Kulavoor's designs.
Thank you Firdaus and Komal. All images in this post courtesy Bharat Flooring and Tiles.