“Do you like your coffee with or without sugar?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’m not a fan of Turkish coffee. It reminded me of how my teta still asks if I want chai with my eggs on the morning of every Eid even though she knows I don’t like tea. I was never good at being a hardcore Arab. How do you say “no, thanks” to a man who is the embodiment of the Lebanese jiddo? Although my jiddo was more of a Paul Sorvino kind of grandpa, Mr. Edgard Chaya is the man I would imagine when I hear about an artisanal craft that requires patience and pride but has long been locked away in a drawer. He smokes a pipe, wears suspenders with his suit, and tucks a handkerchief in his jacket lapel. He is the essence of Blatt Chaya because he has an old-school aura, as if he is from the time of the tiles that bear his name: a time when elegance was done for one’s self not for everyone else, when it was effortlessly debonair and respected. I wanted to learn about the process that created these tiles that I’d seen in various places around town. So after shooting an email and making a few calls, there I was, not entirely awake at the Blatt Chaya factory in the industrial quarter of Dekwaneh, meeting with Mr. Chaya for very dark coffee on a very early random Saturday morning. Blatt Chaya has been operating for fifteen years but it took Mr. Chaya four to perfect the technique of producing terrazzo tiles like his great-grandfather. It wasn’t just a matter of finding the old molds but also figuring out how to keep the colors from mixing when removing the metal stencil. Not that he wanted impeccable tiles – Mr. Chaya prefers the ones with mistakes because it makes them human. “Every tile is unique,” he says, because the dyes are mixed each time so the color isn’t always the exact same hue, the molds are manually set, and even the sand used is sifted and laid out to dry by hand. The imperfections that result from this process are evidence that these pieces were made by a person, not a plugged-in machine. “Finish your coffee and then I’ll walk you through the whole process.” I kept drinking until I tasted the coffee grinds. I realized I’d gone too far to prove I’d finished my cup but it was my initiation into the fraternity of Blatt Chaya: it had to be done if I wanted to make it into the factory. With a small team of 12, the sand is first sifted through a netted strainer to remove all dust and impurities then washed with water five times. The wet sand is set out on fabric in gray cottage cheese-like mounds until it dries, resulting in a fine clean powder. Using the molds within a framing, naturally-colored or dyed cement is poured into the stencil and sealed. The frame is pressed at 130 psi to solidify the tile. After being dried and sanded down to a smooth finish, the environmentally friendly ingredients have become immortalized works of art. Because terrazzo tiles have color within the cement mix, it withstands weathering and deterioration. Unlike painted tiles, the design and color remain as the tile is worn down over time.
Because you can choose the colors you want for each part of the mold, every tile has a different outcome. Once laid together to create the final pattern, it’s a whole new canvas. Even the simplest mold can make an intricate geometric motif once multiplied on a larger scale. On the Blatt Chaya website, you can simulate how your desired pattern will turn out based on the mold and colors you want. I told him I wanted to recreate the tiles of my jiddo’s house in the South and asked him if he would name it after our day3a because each mold is named after an area or village in Lebanon. When I asked Mr. Chaya which mold was his favorite, he told me “I don’t have a favorite, they’re my children.” That’s not far from the truth; one 20 x 20 cm tile is named Macanaka, an amalgam of the names of his children: Maxime, Caline, Nabil, and Karim. He says it takes passion. He says you need to love it for the process because it’s not easy or rewarding. He says that crafts like his family’s are dying out because the number of people who appreciate the art are outnumbered by the number of people who want to make a profit that is easier to get from mass production high-tech factories. He knows that his work is being recognized though. Blatt Chaya has become its own class of tiles in the same way that Kleenex is tissue paper. They’re not interchangeable but they are their own category; when choosing tiles for a home, architects and designers have marble tiles, ceramic tiles, or Blatt Chaya. When asked about expanding, Mr. Chaya is not interested. He wants to preserve the artisanal expertise and you can’t do that if you take on more than you can handle. Will it stay in the family? Fortunately enough, his children, Karim and Caline, are his biggest supporters and the ones who want to continue the Chaya legacy. Karim is a prominent industrial designer who works on new molds and tile designs for the company. Caline’s daughter, Youmna, also has a knack for the business. Besides working with her jiddo, Youmna dabbles in cuisine and recently designed the menu of new Mar Mikhael deli, The Food Dealer, also home to blue Bhorsaf Blatt Chaya. She’s even painted the portrait of her jiddo that hangs in his office, a room appropriately adorned with flawed mismatched tiles.
Although I was like a clueless American on a Double Decker tour bus, he was patient with me. When Mr. Chaya was done walking me through the factory and answering all my amateur questions, he left me to take all the photos I want. “Wait no, don’t take photos.” He hosed down all the tiles: “you have to see them the way they truly are, haram not to get the colors.” Perhaps this newfound need it is just part of the vintage trend that is infecting people worldwide. Regardless, I’m all for it if it creates support for an art form that keeps some of our architectural heritage alive. Trendy or not, you won’t be changing your floor tiles ever time the tide shifts. Those cement tiles don’t change with the season, they’re going to grow old with you…but you know they’re going to look damn good doing it. Blatt Chaya Dekwaneh +961 1 695 222