Is this the right floor?

by Gautam Raja

When I was very young, my parents were given an ornate chess set in which each piece was a miniature of a famous sculpture. I remember the kings were Michelangelo’s David, and the rooks were Rodin’s The Thinker. I thought it magnificent. I couldn’t understand why it made my parents giggle, and say how awful they thought it. I was too young to understand my dad’s explanation that this was the worst form of imitation.

The other day, I stood in front of a porcelain tile, and remembered that chess set. The tile was shaped, textured, and coloured to look exactly like a plank of wood. You could actually reach out and feel the grain and knot holes. In a photograph of the tiles installed in a fashionable home, it seemed that no two pieces were alike, giving the impression of a full-grained hardwood floor. There were many such wood-look options, ranging from regular oak or maple, to weathered barn wood, to distressed, reclaimed wood complete with water stains and faded paint remnants.

They were all extremely realistic, and yet, I thought of magnificent Italian statues reduced to plaster of Paris playthings. Why didn’t I have a similar problem with porcelain or ceramic tiles made to look like travertine, or quartz, or brick? Why was litho-mimicry okay, but biomimicry somehow… well, nouveau riche? Even stone-imitation needs a lot of artifice, especially if you’re trying to recreate the veining and lacunae of sedimentary limestones.

Our final choice for our home was a porcelain tile made to look like ashy brick. So why not wood-imitation porcelain? I love the look of hardwood floors, and there’s nothing infra-dig about choosing to not cut down trees. Sure, a tile can never feel like wood, but a brick-like tile doesn’t feel like brick. It’s too cold, too hard. It won’t acquire a patina. And while the tile we chose beautifully mimicked the subtle differences from one brick to another, it would never recreate that porous, earthy look that makes brick floors so inviting.

Maybe it’s the Rexine effect. You know, the fake leather material that was used in horribly cheap-looking furniture in the 1980s. Rexine cried out that here was someone who wanted the aura of leather, but did not want to pay for it either in expense or care. Wood-look tiles are still in that zone, especially on the west coast of America, where using actual wood as a building material is not as loaded a choice as it may be elsewhere.

When I start tile-gazing, I could barely tell one type from another, but once you’ve spent a few afternoons doing this, perception sharpens. I started to notice how the texture and veining of a true natural stone seems to lie under the surface, and also started seeing digital image artifacts on the cheaper imitation products.

When synthetic products imitate natural ones for purely cosmetic purposes, is it the same as that chess set imitating great art? Often, the imitation is for functional purposes too. If you’re making a synthetic fabric to keep people warm, sure, it needs to be woolly because that’s what traps air for insulation. By stepping away from trying to recreate nature, they came up with fabric with little silver dots that keeps wearers warm like nothing in nature, by reflecting body heat back at them. What if we’d done the same thing with flooring 10 or 20 years ago? That instead of focusing so much on imitating stone and wood, we’d developed floors that generated heat or electricity. Or how about this one: a “flooring system” that keeps itself clean?

First published in Gulf News, January 3, 2017