A talent that's all in bits and pieces

In the Seventies and the Eighties it was murals. Now it's mosaics, says Martin Coen. He should know. He's the mosaicist fashionable London turns to when it needs that fragmented splash of colour or tales told in bits and pieces, as a glance around restaurants like the Dog House, Melange and the Portobello Dining Rooms proves.

Mosaics are in and so is Coen.

Their last big resurgence was at the turn of the century; mosaics elegantly complimented art deco. This time things are different - tactile yet somehow untouchable, shattered yet somehow unified, mosaics reflect the mood of now.

'Today it's all about combining an old art form with modern images. I work very graphically, creating stories,' explained Coen, who cites Andy Warhol's line drawings as a source of inspiration.

Other artistic contributions are more personalised. Clients give a colour brief and Coen does the rest.

'I always base my mosaics around the client. Before I start, I'll look around a client's home: what are their other rooms like, what clothing do they wear, what books do they have? Then I plan the mosaic.

Lisa Lovett-Smith, Paris editor of Spanish Vogue, has a Coen mosiac on her curved bathroom wall. Theme?

Fashion, of course.

'I did a black and white line drawing called 'Skeleton in the Closet',' recalled Coen. 'A skeleton is lying on a top shelf looking down at rows of shoes, hatboxes and perfume bottles.'

For Boy George, Martin created a Moroccan theme using Fatima hands as the main image, a mirrored hand reflecting a multi-coloured one on an opposite wall. The effect is startling.

'I'd seen his stuff in a West End club and heard rumours, then a mutual friend introduced us said Boy.

'I like mosaics, and Martin has an original style - very adventurous. He plans a bit but his mosaics really just seem to happen.

Hardly. 'Although it is not difficult to do, work is slow, said Coen, who can - and does - spend hours on a tiny section. 'I enjoy the solitude of the job, but details are so intricate they make me crazy if I sit there for too long. Also, the fumes are dizzying.

Spanning four years, Coen's career has grown rapidly. The restaurant work that saw him through the early Nineties has been overtaken by private clients: names like PR Matthew Freud, jeweller Dinny Hall and designers Jennifer Jones and Michel Klein, people happy to pay more than pounds 600 for a Coen original.

But the most fascinating aspect of his career is undoubtedly the beginning.

How does a 5ft 8in brown-haired 26-year-old become the hottest mosaic artist in town? By accident, and then by trial and error.

Coen 'pissed about as a waiter before apprenticing with furniture maker Andre Dubreuil, famous for his metalwork.

'I'd just finished with Dubreuil when I found some Moroccan tiles in a skip and was going to make a table top for a friend. I decided they would look better on her fireplace. That was the beginning.

Coen cringes at early mishaps.

'I was doing things like laying all the cement down at once. Everything was wrong but it worked. That fireplace is still my favourite piece, very raw and basic.'

Raw and basic must have done the trick. Work snowballed from there. Until now most of Coen's jobs have been kitchens or bathrooms and he's eager to branch out.

'Those rooms are tiled anyway. What people haven't realised is that mosaics can go elsewhere, though I know it's quite a strong thing to have in your living room.

And difficult to remove if tastes change. But Martin's found a way around the problem with his newest venture: a line of backgammon table-tops due to hit Joseph by mid-summer.

Never seen a mosaic backgammon table? You will.

Martin Coen Mosaics (081-960 7442).

(Photograph omitted)