When Penny Bovell moved into a new artist studio in 2000, she unknowingly started a lifelong passion project. The floors of the studio were made of intricate and ornate terrazzo flooring, which she discovered had been handmade by a post-war Italian immigrant named Giuseppe Scolaro – who had moved to Fremantle with his young family from Capo d’Orlando and established the Universal Tile Factory in the city in 1950.
Penny became obsessed, and a few years later bought a house with Scolaro flooring. This set into motion a quest to find as many residences and civic buildings with Scolaro’s bespoke, patterned flooring as possible. Soon, Penny’s daughter Gabrielle joined her, and together, the pair launched a public campaign of social media callouts and real estate website trawls to find as many houses and civic buildings with Scolaro flooring as possible. (And they’re not the only ones enamoured with the Scolaro story! The city recently named a road after Giuseppe’s craftsmanship, dubbing a new local street ‘Terrazzo Close’.)
Penny and Gabrielle’s discoveries have been compiled into an exhibition as part of Fremantle’s winter festival. Underneath/Overlooked – Bonded & Resilient is an art installation and community exhibition that documents their findings, and displays recreations of Scolaro’s tile designs onto printed silk, which has been used to form a 50% scale model of the family’s cottage. It will be accompanied by a free ‘terrazzo talk’ and three terrazzo workshops!
Hear about their incredible project below.
How did you first become interested in uncovering the treasure chest that is Perth’s hidden terrazzo floors?
PENNY: You could say, terrazzo has followed me throughout my working and home life in Fremantle. I used terrazzo for the first public art commission I was awarded in 1998. Since then, I have completed several other projects in collaboration with Margaret Dillon and Simon Gauntlett from Concreto who have built their art practice around working with concrete and terrazzo. I had a studio with the Scolaro floors in 2000 and then years later I jumped at the opportunity to purchase a house with the original floors. That is when I really started exploring the social history of the tiles and searching for information about Giuseppe and Anna Scolaro.
GABBY: I have always loved terrazzo. I remember when we first visited the house, there was no doubt when we walked through the doors that mum was going to have to do whatever she needed to, to buy this house and live with the tiles. When mum started researching the tiles for a public art commission, we would talk about her findings or lack thereof. We started discussing the need and potential for such a project that would uncover the flooring and the stories and it all sort of grew from there. It felt like a great opportunity for mum and I to work together on something we both loved, whilst bringing very different skills to the project.
Who are the family behind Universal Tile Factory, and what have you learned about them?
P: Giuseppe and Anna Scolaro migrated from Capo d’Orlando, Sicily in 1948 to the port city of Fremantle. They brought their three children in search of a better life for their young family and their fourth child was born in Australia. In Sicily, Giuseppe had a small mechanical business maintaining machinery for the olive oil industry. In Fremantle he took a variety of jobs but as a creative entrepreneur, he saw an opportunity in the postwar boom in the building industry. He started out making cement bricks but turned to making terrazzo tiles, born from both his and his wife Anna’s imaginations. They designed and built all the equipment for making the tiles. Ultimately, they revolutionised the use of terrazzo, bringing the colour and design from utility rooms into living spaces in and around Fremantle. Giuseppe died in 1962, just shy of his 52nd birthday but Anna carried on the business for nearly ten years.
G: Working with Armando Scolaro (Giuseppe and Anna’s fourth child) for the 10 Nights in Port project has been a real highlight of the last couple of years. Armando is a trained engineer and an academic, not only has he provided all the background information about his mum and dad, but he’s also brought vital technical information about how the tiles would have been made and the processes involved in working with terrazzo.
How did you go about uncovering other homes that also featured terrazzo flooring? And how many have you found so far?
G: Mum initially put the feelers out in 2017 with a social media callout and found 30 homes. In 2019, when we started this project for 10 Nights in Port we did a second callout on a local Facebook group, which got an overwhelming response. I spent a good number of hours trawling sold houses on real estate websites and through those first few months of research and responses, we found around 80 homes. When we picked the project up again earlier this year, we did another callout and had another amazing response. Suddenly we had people emailing us, messaging us, and stopping us in the street which has taken us up to around 110 houses still with the tiles, plus several stories about houses that have been demolished or had the tiles pulled up.
What makes these terrazzo tiles so special?
G: We know that Giuseppe designed many of the tiles himself, which means they are nowhere else in the world. As a post-war immigrant in a new country, it is incredible to think that he taught himself a new trade, engineered all the equipment and refined the process to influence the design of local houses with such an impact. It shows an amazing level of skill, innovation and entrepreneurship. And when you start to look at the colours and the patterns they created, you see how much of an artisan he was. Giuseppe died at age 51 so he produced an extensive “body of work” in his short working life.
P: Scolaro’s bespoke tiles appeal to the senses because they are overtly handmade and decorative. One can sense the spent labour of the production line. Repeat patterns, contrasting colours, textural aggregates and aged patinas become an intensely expressive language. They are a valuable reminder of the cultural and aesthetic influence of Mediterranean immigration in Fremantle and beyond.
Why is this exhibition important?
P: This exhibition is important for two reasons. The first being that we are raising awareness about the tiles and sharing them with the public en masse for the first time ever. To be able to create an archive a visual documentation that starts to show all the different tile designs and colours and flips the story from the floor to the walls, means that the tiles are no longer underneath or overlooked.
G: The second reason this exhibition is so important is because we are introducing the people who are living with the tiles to the people who made them. We are sharing the story of how they were made and inviting them to celebrate how incredible it is to live with such a beautiful piece of Western Australian history. This exhibition is to mark the legacy of Giuseppe and Anna, it is to acknowledge a true artisan, and to revel in the colour and pattern they created for us.
How has it been working on this project together?
G: It has been special being able to do such an important project with my mum. She has worked as an artist and in arts advocacy roles my whole life. Working with her, I have been able to really see how she works and her processes as an artist. I know I’m biased but she’s such a great artist, and she goes deep into the social history. Watching her interpret the tiles for this project has been inspiring. Having such a creative, talented mother makes me think I can do anything!
Underneath/Overlooked is on from Friday July 16th – Sunday July 25th. Click here to book free exhibition tickets, a spot at the terrazzo workshops, or a seat at the free terrazzo talk on Saturday July 24th.
’10 Nights in Port’ is Fremantle’s annual winter festival. Learn more about the program here.