• Words Baya Simons
  • Photography Marina Denisova

Tile Making
in Mallorca.

Issue 41

,

Arts & Culture, Design

  • Words Baya Simons
  • Photography Marina Denisova

Mass tourism remains a concern in Mallorca. In 2017, planes passed through Palma de Mallorca airport at a rate of one every 90 seconds; in 2019, 11.8 million visitors flooded the island, dwarfing the local population of under a million and skyrocketing the cost of living.

It was the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona that changed the fate of Mallorca, the Balearic island off the coast of Spain. In the decades leading up to the Olympics, the once sleepy island—a midpoint between Europe and North Africa—had been shocked awake by a mass influx of British vacationers in search of cheap sunshine. The surge of tourism had led to the destruction of traditional Mallorcan architecture to make way for modern hotels and holiday homes.1 

But Barcelona’s Olympic tourists were different, keen to discover the cultural charms of Catalonia: its Moorish architecture, distinctive cuisine and the fantastical, omnipresent influence of Gaudí. All these interests eventually pointed visitors toward Mallorca, the nearest island to the city. “They wanted a kind of Tuscany,” recalls Biel Huguet, director of tile manufacturer Huguet. “They said, ‘I want a house, but I don’t want this rubbish you built in the ’80s or ’90s. I want traditional materials. I want a Mediterranean house.’” 

The rise and fall and rise again of Huguet follows the island’s wider trajectory. The company was founded by Biel’s grandfather in 1933, producing cement tiles using the traditional hydraulic method, in which colored liquid cement is extruded into a mold. Huguet was part of a lineage of Catalan craftspeople who have made tiling using this technique—favored for its ability to hold intricate patterns while remaining durable—since the 1850s. The history actually extends back thousands of years to the hot climes of ancient Egypt, where the material first became popular for interior surfaces (rather than roofs) due to its cooling effect. “There was a big tradition of producing this kind of architecture, or the elements of architecture, in Mallorca. We have very deep roots that go back to the Romans, to Arabic culture and to Catalan,” says Biel. Tile making, he believes, is quintessentially Mediterranean. “The weather, the sun, the light, the colors, the materials and the lifestyle have adapted, over years, to all these issues.”

In the 1960s, the craft came under threat. Biel’s father, a well-known Catalan poet who was running the business at the time, stopped producing traditional tiles and pivoted the business toward the cement beams and blocks that were in high demand for the hotels and villas popping up all over the island. “There were around 100 factories like ours,” Biel says of the years before the tourism boom. “Each village was producing their own tiles because there were no roads between most of the villages in Mallorca. And from the ’60s to the ’80s, all of them disappeared or changed. Just a single man in a little village was producing tiles in the ’90s. Nothing had changed in 700 years, and then it changed in 20.” When Biel took over the company in 1997, he set out to recover its traditional origins. “I thought, I will focus on traditional architecture and on a local market,” he says. 

He began to see the possibilities of applying the traditional technique of tile making to contemporary design. Now, the company is the go-to for cement tiles, in demand for both their contemporary designs—milky pastel tones, chunky geometric patterns—and traditional tiling in bolder colors and intricate patterns. Huguet has cleverly tapped into the Instagram-led appetite for behind-the-scenes videos of satisfying production processes; the clips posted to its account of creamy lemon-colored cement being poured into sharp geometric molds rack up tens of thousands of views.

It has also become the collaborator of choice for some of the biggest architects working today. Pritzker Prize–winning Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron often use Huguet’s triangular tiles to give floors and walls the simultaneously otherworldly and ancient appearance of cracked earth, while English architect David Chipperfield commissioned the company to make bespoke terrazzo column plinths and wall claddings for his redesign of Selfridges, London’s iconic department store. Architects and designers come to Huguet, Biel says, because they have continued using their storied traditional technique while keeping the designs fresh. “People are not interested in my grandmother’s style,” he says. “The technique is very interesting, the roots, the background, the history, the craft, that’s very important. But we need to update it technically and aesthetically.”

For Huguet, the challenge is to continue innovating and adapting their aesthetic, in order to keep the craft alive, but more importantly, as a way of defining what it means to be Mallorcan in the 21st century. “Otherwise, everything is Ikea. We have something that has roots and identity. So we have to share it with the world. I think that this is a way for us to survive. And also for the world to be a little bit richer, culturally and architecturally.”

Mass tourism remains a concern in Mallorca. In 2017, planes passed through Palma de Mallorca airport at a rate of one every 90 seconds; in 2019, 11.8 million visitors flooded the island, dwarfing the local population of under a million and skyrocketing the cost of living.

Biel Huguet is part of the third generation running the Huguet family business.

An assortment of colorful tiles from Huguet's collaboration with Spanish architect Carme Pinós.

The Huguet factory has been based in the small rural town of Campos in the southeast of Mallorca since 1933.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 41

Want to enjoy full access? Subscribe Now

Subscribe Discover unlimited access to Kinfolk

  • Four print issues of Kinfolk magazine per year, delivered to your door, with twelve-months’ access to the entire Kinfolk.com archive and all web exclusives.

  • Receive twelve-months of all access to the entire Kinfolk.com archive and all web exclusives.

Learn More

Already a Subscriber? Login

Your cart is empty

Your Cart (0)