Forensic Finishes, Part the First / by Helen Zouvelekis

Do old school finishes make sense in an era of install-it-then-rip-it-out in three years?

No. They are too labor intensive to install and to demolish if they are even still legal at all.

But if you have a client that needs to spread out its investment over decades and if the finish can withstand the wear and tear of heavy use and abuse, yes. Think of that incredible shrinking carbon footprint
over time.

 

But enough of the preaching. See if you don't swoon even a little over...

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Well, maybe not this one. It takes a certain kinky sensibility, shall we say, to appreciate. This is the two-tone quarry tile floor at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Everyone hates it but those colors and the rounded corner detail evoke that woeful design era, the 70s, like nothing else could. An important chapter never to be forgotten, if cringeworthy. Millions of people have stomped all over these tiles without effect. Quarry tile has almost completely been supplanted by porcelain tile.


Wired fire glass has been mostly banished but this example in Macy's will remain until the twelfth of never or a major renovation, whichever comes first. It protects the treads of the famous wooden escalator which have a very charming sound.


Safety glass now is concocted of ceramic glass or sandwiches of fire-resistant materials. Escalators of course have metal treads.


Who can resist "Boomerang" Formica from the 50s era? Oh, you can? Come on! This is hardly scratched after at least fifty years of use in a family kitchen in the Bronx. Think twice, please, before replacing with granite. Everyone has granite.


Ah, here's the queen of floor finishes, terrazzo. Not only does it use leftover scraps of stone, mostly marble, it will hold up under centuries of use. This happens to be the floor of the Lincoln Center building formerly known as the New York State Theater. Philip Johnson spec'ed the hunks of travertine (the cladding on all the LC temples of culture) to be smoothed into this Veneziana form of terrazzo with smaller chips mixed into the background matrix. It glows. Terrazzo is used in high-traffic areas but resins now are the "glue" rather than portland cements.


Local NYC schist was used to clad the exterior of this diner in Riverdale. Not sure if anyone would go out of the way to quarry the bedrock of our fair city to do this anymore but the silvery gleam of the split face was enough to convince someone years ago. Panelized brick or pseudo-stone would be used nowadays.


Back on the soapbox: even designers can do their bit to save the earth one finish at a time if the finish can outlast a few renovations. Embodied energy remains locked up and landfills are a little emptier. The initial cost to the client is the sticking point. Good luck!

 

All the best,

Elizabeth Frenchman

New York City