One question we often hear at Make it Mid-Century is about flooring; especially, "What flooring should I choose?" We're going to give you a little food for thought right now about what materials are appropriate for your mid-century home with more examples than you can shake a stick at. Ready for our second option?
Terrazzo is an ancient material that was first found in Egyptian mosaics and even neolithic buildings in Asia. The name, however, is Italian, and original terrazzo can be found today in the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The word actually means "terrace" in Italian, but the Latin root of the word comes from Terra or ground.
Terrazzo is an amalgam of stone chips, often marble or granite, historically in a cementitious matrix. The stone chips could be of many different colors, and the cement could also be dyed with natural plant extracts. Once the mixture was applied and dried, the material was ground down to a flat surface and often polished to enhance the colors in the terrazzo. One early finish to keep a polish on the stone was goat's milk from local herders.
Terrazzo flooring (and the assumed craftsmen) were first imported to the United States in the 17th century. Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate, has original terrazzo flooring throughout the first floor. Likely because of cost and the craftsmanship and manual labor required to install early terrazzo, the material was not terribly popular until the late 1800s, with a high point during the Art Deco and Art Moderne styles of the early 20th century and again at mid-century. The largest improvement to terrazzo design and manufacturing were two items introduced in the 1920s - the electric grinding machine and the manufacture of metal strips to break up large swaths of terrazzo to protect it from cracking.
When the 1950s and 1960s hit, terrazzo became a go-to flooring option, particularly in the south and west and specifically in mid-century modern homes. The sleek, understated look did not complete but instead complimented the angles of mid-century modern while the cool and clean material was perfect for hot areas or areas near the beach.
Type of Terrazzo
Terrazzo today comes in two main varieties: monolithic (also called poured-in-place) or tile. As the names imply, one is a product that is poured wet in large areas subdivided by metal strips, while the other is factory-made tiles in varying sizes that are installed much like a ceramic or porcelain floor tile. Another difference is in the component materials of terrazzo. Again, there are two main types - a cementitious (or concrete) matrix, or a resin binder, most often epoxy. Some will say that epoxy-based terrazzo is not terrazzo and that only products made with cement are true terrazzo. (We'll leave that up to the reader to decide.) There are also "terrazzo look" tiles which are actually porcelain tiles, or vinyl tiles printed or manufactured to look like terrazzo. These would definitely fall on the "not real terrazzo" scale, but you should know that these exist as they may be more budget-friendly for your project.
Cementitious terrazzo is a much thicker application and is best planned for during the design process. Because of the thickness, the floor slab may need to be lower than normal to account for the 1"+/- thickness of the final flooring. While the cement matrix can be dyed to create a more colorful terrazzo, it will never be as vivid as epoxy terrazzo. This material also takes much longer to cure and finish. Cementitious terrazzo may also be installed outside, depending on your climate.
Epoxy-based terrazzo is often called "thin-set" terrazzo. The polymer basis of this style of terrazzo was invented in the 1970s as plastics were taking off. Epoxy terrazzo has several benefits over its cementitious counterpart: it tends to have a bit more flex and is more forgiving over larger areas, it has a much faster dry (and thus finishing time) and as the thin-set name implies, it is a much thinner (and lighter) product than original terrazzo making it easier to install in existing homes. Additionally, the epoxy matric can be tinted in a myriad of colors and because of the smoother grinding surface, the colors are much bolder than that in cementitious terrazzo. One major drawback is the inability to install epoxy terrazzo in outdoor use situations.
Unlike the original terrazzo, more aggregate materials are available for modern terrazzo applications; both for cementitious and epoxy types. Besides granite and marble, recycled glass pieces are a popular and colorful addition along with more unusual items such as quartz or shell. Some manufacturers have specific color lines of terrazzo, while others produce custom blends based on the aggregate you choose for your design.
Installation of terrazzo is one product where it might not always be best for a DIY installation. Monolithic terrazzo is definitely best installed by a contractor. Most homeowners would not have the skills or access to the specialty equipment needed to create poured terrazzo. Poured terrazzo requires the ability to install metal divider strips, the knowledge of mixing colorants into the epoxy matrix, and the expertise to create a specific ratio of aggregate to the matrix. Because it is poured in place, this type of terrazzo should be contracted locally, which is why we do not list terrazzo contractors for monolithic terrazzo in our "Where to Buy" section below. However, if you are interested in any intricate designs or curved areas, poured terrazzo may be the best option for you.
Tile terrazzo, on the other hand, might be a DIY adventure, provided the DIYer already has sufficient tiling skills and the knowledge of how to prep the floor for the tile. Know that you may also have to level your floor - terrazzo tile must be installed on a level substrate. Pouring leveling material is much easier in theory than in practice. (Ask us how we know.)
Tile terrazzo is installed much like other floor tiles using a mastic for adhesion to the subfloor along with grout for the areas between the tiles. Various manufacturers may require specific mastic and grout options. Some colored grouts can wick into the tile matrix and permanently stain the tile. Make sure to check with the manufacturer about acceptable products. Some terrazzo tiles (particularly large-format tiles) may need a final grinding to create an even surface which may put terrazzo tile back into the contracted versus DIY category. These are all things to ask when considering terrazzo for your floors.
You might also want to check out the National Terrazzo & Mosaic Associations, Inc. for additional information and suggestions.
Where to Buy
Note: Since poured-in-place terrazzo requires local specialty contractors, we will not list them here, as they will be specific to each part of the country. Terrazzo tile flooring comes in all sorts of textures and colors. Where do you buy terrazzo tile? There are a number of manufacturers to check out. We've listed several of them here, showing a range of various styles.
Do you have original terrazzo floors? In the market for terrazzo floors? Hopefully, this helped you understand a little more about what to look for in terrazzo flooring for mid-century homes. Stay tuned: part 3 will cover tile flooring.
Terrazzo-floor in a house at ancient Herculaneum in Campania in Italy. By AllMare. CC BY-SA 2.5 Generic.
Terrazzo um 1900. By Roll-Stone. CC0 Public Domain.
Sol en terrazzo se trouvant à l'aéroport de Los Angeles (LAX) Californie, USA. By Bpierreb. CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported.
Poured epoxy terrazzo. By Augsburg University. Fair use.
Tile terrazzo installation. By Wausau Tile. Fair Use.
Terrazo flooring images by their respective manufacturers. See listing for more information. Fair use.