Quick History: Checkerboard Floors

Quick History: Checkerboard Floors

Anna Hoffman
Jan 6, 2011

Black and white checkerboard floors first appear in European paintings in the 15th century, but the pattern's origins lie long before that, in ancient artifacts from Iranian ceramic vessels to Roman paved floors. Here is a quick look at the history of checkerboard floors.

The checkerboard pattern dates back thousands of years. Staggered squares of light and dark was a visual motif on the pottery and textiles of many cultures, as in this Bronze Age ceramic vessel from western Iran that dates to about 1500 B.C. In ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, a checkerboard represented a scribe's tablet. Primitive board games might have used a checkerboard pattern, and it was also the basis of real-life military formations in ancient Rome.

So even though there's not that much remaining evidence, it's safe to say that soon after people started using stone and tiles to make floors, they started tiling those floors in checkerboard patterns. The pavement pictured above was the floor of a villa near Rome more than 2000 years ago. Historians believe it was the birthplace of the Emperor Vespasian, who was born in A.D. 9. More sophisticated and complex than a straightforward checkerboard, this floor was a luxurious variation on an already-familiar floor pattern.

During the Renaissance, artists and designers looked to their classical precedents for inspiration, and the checkerboard floor enjoyed a resurgence of popularity, which we can see in this c. 1450 frontispiece. During this era, artists were exploring mathematical perspective for the first time, and the checkerboard pattern on the floor was a kind of ostentatious display of prowess. But the pattern was not just an artistic convention, as we can see it used in paintings depicting real-life spaces and contemporary events, like the Duke of Joyeuse's 1581 wedding:

In this ballroom, the dandy duke and his bride stand on a checkerboard floor with inlaid red circles. The Duke's wedding was only a few years after the completion of the extraordinary chalk-and-slate-tiled gallery at Chenonceau (image 1 at the top of the post), which was inaugurated in 1577 by Catherine de' Medici.

A hundred years later, Louis XIV's architect Charles Le Brun used black-and-white checkerboard on the ground floor landing of the Queen's Staircase at Versailles in the late 1680's. Louis XIV was trying to evoke the imperial splendors of ancient Rome, so if it was good enough for Vespasian, it was good enough for him. LeBrun used the finest marble, yielding a glossier result than Chenonceau's matte stone.

In the mid-18th century, a more refined and historical Neo-classicism emerged. Nowhere is this more evident than in the work of Robert Adam, an English architect and designer, who used a checkerboard with Greek key overlay in 1761 at Syon Park, his first important commission.

But checkerboard floors were not only found in palaces and estates. In this c. 1661-63 painting by Pieter de Hoogh, you can see a black-and-white checkerboard pattern in one room and a more natural-colored terra cotta checkerboard in the entry hall.

However, while painters like Vermeer and de Hooch depicted many Dutch interiors with marble floors in black-and-white checkerboard, historians insist that this was indeed painterly convention, and not a reflection of reality. Scholars like C. Wilemijn Fock argue that the class of houses painted by these artists would rarely have had costly marble floors, and if they did, they would be in hallways instead of reception rooms. One question is whether the painters were simply using the checkerboard to emphasize perspective, or whether they were also elevating the interiors depicted, with the marble checkerboard floor standing as a symbol of luxury.

The checkerboard floor has also been an important symbol in Masonic iconography. To the Masons, the mixture of equal parts black and white in the pattern represents the duality of human life, a balance of good and evil. It also supposedly represents the floor of King Solomon's Temple, though there is no archaeological evidence of what that actually looked like. Commentators have compared the Masonic checkerboard floor to the yin-yang of Chinese philosophy, a symbol of balance and harmony.

In the 20th century, the checkerboard floor could be found in modest domestic spaces, with linoleum and other plasticine floor coverings providing inexpensive and easy-to-clean decoration. Most often associated with kitchens from the '20s and '30s, checkerboard-patterned linoleum tiles could also be found in other rooms, like this 1930s living room in a linoleum ad.

Still, checkerboard floors have retained their sense of grandeur in less modest settings, like the famous Greenbrier Hotel, designed by Dorothy Draper in the late 1940s. Draper's hotel is one of the landmarks of Hollywood Regency design, and that elegant marble checkerboard in the lobby gives it a graphic punch as well as some historical resonance.

1 The Gallery at Chenonceau (1577) via Nelson Minar on flickr; 2 Bronze Age ceramic footed vessel from western Iran, c. 1500 B.C., in the British Museum; 3 2000-year-old pavement of a Roman villa, probably Vespasian's birthplace, via artistsurvivalskills.com; 4 Frontispiece from the Chroniques de Hainaut showing Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, receiving the Chroniques, probably Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1448-52, via oneonta.edu; 5 The Wedding of the Duc de Joyeuse and Marguerite de Vaudemont, 24 September, 1581, by a painter of the French School (1581-2), via Wikimedia Commons; 6 The Queen's staircase at Versailles, designed by Charles Le Brun in the 1680s via squidoo; 7 The Great Hall at Syon Park, England, designed in 1761 by Robert Adam; 8 Pieter de Hoogh, Woman Lacing Her Bodice Beside a Cradle, c.1661-63, via kitchenclarity; 9 Armstrong linoleum ad c. 1930s via Peak of Chic; 10 The Greenbrier, designed by Dorothy Draper in the late-1940s, via theregencyfurniture.com.

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