Cementing France and Sri Lanka with Artisanal Tiles – Laura Gueguen and Kasun Amarawardana; Co-Founders of îlot Colombo

Laura Gueguen and Kasun Amarawardana; the Co-Founders of îlot Colombo met as undergraduates in Sydney. Laura studied business and communications, Kasun studied engineering; upon graduation, they both found work in their respective fields, and worked for over a decade in Australia, enjoying the Australian way of life. Throughout their stay in Australia, they would make regular trips to Sri Lanka on vacation to visit Kasun’s family. It was during these trips that they realized Sri Lanka was abundant with exciting opportunities and prospects, and the idea of starting a business of their own was something both Laura and Kasun fancied. Finally, they decided to settle down in Colombo to pursue their goal as young entrepreneurs, and thus, îlot was born.

A few years ago, while brainstorming different business ideas, Kasun’s younger brother and his wife were renovating their family house – A project that had them looking for decorative cement tiles; it was a quick realization that there was a very poor choice of patterns for decorative tiles, and the prices were exorbitant to boot. Their quest for decorative cement tiles planted the seed in their head to start handcrafting a collection of their own. This idea germinated in the year they spent researching about the product; the couple traveled to meet artisans in Vietnam, Lebanon, Turkey, Italy, and France to learn the tricks and trade secrets of this elusive craft. Encounters on their travels convinced them that this was the business idea they were looking for, and before they knew it, they were producing their tiles under the name ‘îlot Colombo’.

Îlot means island in French, a nod to Laura’s French heritage, and a referral to the island of Sri Lanka; the perfect name for a company that offers tiles invented in France and produced in Sri Lanka. Laura and Kasun also wanted the company name to represent its roots in Colombo, hence the name îlot Colombo; a name that intrigues the Sri Lankan market while simultaneously appealing to French and European customers.

It is also noteworthy that îlot Colombo is a Good Market certified company for producing greener products, and being socially and ecologically responsible is a dominant focus for the founding couple. Cement tiles, also called encaustic tiles, are made using cement, minerals, and pigments. The Îlot Colombo cement tiles are made using high-quality materials and are individually handcrafted in small batches inside a workshop in Colombo by a team of skilled artisans who follow a centuries-old French manufacturing process. Îlot Colombo cement tiles and cement tiles, in general, are more durable and resistant to wear and tear as well as physical impacts, compared to their porcelain and ceramic counterparts. Cement tiles last decades and in some instances, centuries, while aging beautifully, acquiring an exquisite patina over the years. Laura and Kasun went on to say that, the ecological impact or footprint of products is also an increasing concern for some customers, so it’s noteworthy that on top of being more durable over time, cement tiles are a greener alternative to porcelain and ceramic tiles, as they are not fired at any stage of the manufacturing process.

The aesthetic appeal of îlot Colombo tiles is undeniable; They are an attractive flooring option with the added ability to integrate custom patterns and colors to suit a specific project or client requirements. In recent times, there has been a growing trend for authentic artisan and handmade products around the world. The handmade element of cement tiles makes them unique, and each tile is a statement made by the artisans themselves. Unlike mass-produced tiles, cement tiles bear not only the touch and taste of their owners but also of the artisan who handcrafted them, thus adding character and charm to living spaces. Laura and Kasun added, another key element that differentiates cement tiles from other types of tiles is the salvage or antique value they gain as they age. In cities like Barcelona and Paris, the old salvaged tiles are sold three or four times the value of brand new tiles.

When asked about their favorite projects with îlot Colombo, Laura and Kasun said that they enjoyed working on the Dendrobium House – a boutique hotel project in Hanthana, led by acclaimed architect Channa Daswatte, and his team of Architects Sumedha Kelegama, and Valli Chidambaram. They manufactured and supplied custom-made floor tiles designed by Sumedha Kelegama and colors chosen fluently by Channa Daswatta for the majority of the floor areas spanning three floors. This was the first time we were producing a custom-made design for a large-scale project.

Most of the materials, furniture, and decoration for the hotel were sourced or custom-made by local craftsmen or artists and they consider it a great privilege to have îlot Colombo tiles featured alongside exceptional Sri Lankan art and craft pieces. The restoration of the outdoor walkway of the Grand Oriental Hotel was also a rewarding project for Laura and Kasun. They were truly honored to participate in bringing back the splendor and majesty of the iconic building and relished the opportunity to work on a heritage site. In collaboration with the architects Nuwan Dias and Dayantha Siriwardene from Nu Studio, îlot Colombo recreated and replicated the original floor pattern that dated from the British colonial era.

Cement tiles have been around for centuries. Therefore, some designs have become classics. îlot Colombo initially started replicating the traditional Victorian and floral Moroccan patterns that were abundantly used on floors of old buildings, churches, restaurants, and cafés in Europe. They have also commenced designing exclusive patterns of their own, which they draw themselves or in collaboration with designers and architects. For their exclusive patterns, they draw inspiration from Sri Lanka’s lush scenery, culture, and artisan heritage. For instance, the Embekka temple carvings and art from the Kandyan era inspired their intricately designed Peradeniya tile. Young Spanish designers Alicia Balbàs Gonzalo and Xiao Pujol have imagined their minimalistic Mirissa pattern that represents coconut trees and evokes Sri Lanka’s tropical landscape and coastline.

Laura and Kasun also mentioned that clients sometimes come with a specific design in mind. In these instances, they are happy to replicate the pattern and work with them on the design and color combinations. They frequently make bespoke tiles for their clients, which Laura and Kasun feel is probably one of the most enjoyable aspects of their work. More recently, the architect Sumedha Kelegama contacted them with a vision to incorporate a natural element into the interiors of a house and sent a picture of a fishtail palm (kithul) flower and a preliminary sketch for a tile which was finalized and produced by îlot Colombo.

Talking about the pandemic, Laura and Kasun said that it affected them in several ways, as it has many other organizations. They consider their team to be their biggest asset and their first concern was their team’s wellbeing – both physical and mental. Therefore the first step was to ensure that the workplace was safe for the team to continue working with an absolute peace of mind. The material shortage prompted them to purchase and secure enough raw material as they needed to continue production to supply the demand both here in Sri Lanka and overseas. They believe these key decisions have helped them stay ahead of the curve so far.

“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value” – Albert Einstein

From the very beginning, Laura and Kasun’s main aspiration was to create unique, high-quality products. They consider it rewarding to see their team of artisans advancing as proud owners of their craft – personally growing along with the venture. It was clear that îlot Colombo was a venture birthed with passion, and interacting with interesting clients, artists and craftsmen have made this journey unexpectedly fulfilling and gratifying for its founders – Laura and Kasun.

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