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Brand to Know: An East London Studio Reinventing the Terrazzo, Sustainably

By Bianca Husodo

 
Maxwell Anderson
 

One day, Robin Grasby found himself behoved by a mother lode of beautiful waste. It was towards the end of 2017, in the midst of a project designing bespoke furniture pieces, that the London-based industrial designer experimented with casting marble in concrete finishes. While sourcing for marbles, Grasby encountered the baffling sheer volume of stones that the marble industry would cast aside as unusable offcuts.

Over the course of a year, the 31-year-old studied and weighed plausible avenues of rerouting the wastage. Drawn towards the disorder of terrazzo tiles, Grasby connected the dots and sourced English terrazzo suppliers only to learn that there weren’t many. The number of terrazzo producers was, and still is, dwindling. And among the handful left, they were dead set in their antiquated ways.

“I found that the flexibility of process and eye for trending aesthetics was not there, so I started developing a casting process myself,” said Grasby.

Maxwell AndersonBehind Altrock is Robin Grasby, an industrial designer-turned-bespoke terrazzo entrepreneur.
Behind Altrock is Robin Grasby, an industrial designer-turned-bespoke terrazzo entrepreneur.

Enter, Altrock. Formulating his own casting process took months. Grasby hatched a handmade process which ensures casting with next to no machining and wastage. It niftily taps into the waste stream of local marble manufacturers: 87 percent of Altrock’s terrazzo slabs are made of reclaimed materials, taking marble flour, which is the byproduct powder of cutting through marble, along with marble chips, chunks of offcuts and broken slabs. Together, they’re bound with the adhesive nip of epoxy resin.

Although the earliest traces of terrazzo can be traced as far back as 2,000 years ago, the modern terrazzo only made its reappearance some 500 years ago as inexpensive DIY flooring. In search of an ersatz material to surface their homes and patios with, Venetian construction workers threw in pebble-like scraps from their upscale jobs into clay, grounding them down to impeccable smoothness with stones. Hence its moniker, of which is an Italian word for “terrace”.

Never fully regarded as a luxe finish, terrazzo fell out of favour by the ’80s — remaining only as a staple of shopping centre floors, Grasby noted, which led to the diminishing market for custom terrazzos. The typical notion of terrazzo is synonymous to an era long forgone. Its torrent of telltale ultra-tiny chips, dispersed in the matrix, scattered as floorings of grand neoclassical buildings; of archaic public transportation hubs; of a grandparent’s colonial-inflected kitchen. Its coalition of ingredients proliferating in muted, dull colours.

Maxwell AndersonOne of Altrock’s first large eight-seater dining tabletops.
One of Altrock’s first large eight-seater dining tabletops.

Grasby’s Altrock terrazzos are a far cry from that. At an East London workshop, Grasby and his team of terrazzo fabricators hand-cast variegated monoliths, tailored to the specific preferences of their clients. Describing them as “beautifully chaotic”, Altrock’s terrazzos pair the salvaged stone marbles with zesty contemporary colourways. Rather than microscopic pieces of chips, substantial chunks of black, white-veined Nero Marquina marbles, for example, are cheekily juxtaposed with a salmon pink plaster base. Grey Calacatta Oro bits, speckled with gold thread-like streaks, are offset with a modern grainy black base.

“I like surfaces to feel like they designed themselves, rather than imposing rigid patterns or geometry onto the arrangement of the stone fragments. I choose to let the arrangement of the pieces reflect the natural randomness of their colour and shape,” Grasby explained.

The dissimilarity doesn’t stop there. “Our recipe, casting and finishing processes have been refined extensively to allow us to achieve a much faster turnaround than traditional terrazzo production. We produce slabs of up to 3x1.5m in a couple of days,” he said.

The casting procedure starts with the smashing of reclaimed marbles. The resulting fragments, along with reclaimed broken bits of the same kind, are laid out within a designated frame. In order to achieve the natural look of well-balanced disarray, this stage, said Grasby, tolls on patience and practice, requiring deft eyes and visual judgement. The base mix is then poured in, bonding and freezing the constellation of jagged discards in place.

“Marble slabs have a very traditional often ostentatious aesthetic, inextricably tied to luxury and extravagance. Large-scale terrazzos like ours, in contrast, showcases the raw beauty of natural stone in a fresh and very graphic way that is semantically very different to traditional marble or granite surfaces,” said Grasby.

Maxwell AndersonIn the studio, marble stones are hammered into smaller broken bits.
In the studio, marble stones are hammered into smaller broken bits.
Maxwell AndersonMarble stone bits are arranged by discerning hands before the terrazzo base mix is poured in.
Marble stone bits are arranged by discerning hands before the terrazzo base mix is poured in.

The result? Polished with wax oil, the final product sheens a smooth, matte surface where the veining of the marble stones is considerably deepened and edges are perfectly bevelled. Water- and stain-proof, they make for tabletops, wall and floor tiles that are at once hardwearing and pretty. From what was piled up rejects, rise a frozen and functional thing of beauty.

Grasby noted that the shifting trends of recent decades pushed solid marble to eclipse terrazzo as the decorative building material of choice, yet the past two years have seen its revival gaining momentum. As trends go, the proverbial wheel of design incessantly turns. What once was old could be the new and vice versa in a short time.

Still, with a conscious sensibility tightly intertwined at the crux of its creation, Altrock may perhaps be the sustainable alternative the design world needs. Grasby agreed, “Trends like these are transient, of course, but terrazzo’s popularity is still growing fast in all corners of the interior design industry. It’s a material that’s built to last.”