Making beautiful mosaic

Bejewel your floors and ceilings with the artistry of the ancient world. Report by Cayte Williams
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There's a scary rumour going round fashionable circles. The Eighties, decade of bold statements and conspicuous consumption, are back (already!). Gone are the days of washed-out walls and washed-out faces. Colour and vibrancy are now all the rage. In fashion this means jewellery and spandex dresses. In interiors, it means mosiacs.

A symbol of opulence throughout the ages, mosaics adorn some of the grandest buildings in Britain, from the National Gallery's entrance floor to the Criterion's Edwardian ceiling in Piccadilly. They last came into their own in the late Eighties with the extravagant Versace shop in Bond St. Even London Underground jumped on the bandwagon with Eduardo Paolozzi's mosaic walls at Tottenham Court Road tube station.

This time the emphasis is on private rather than public work. Joseph Shaw, the co-owner of Galleria Ceramics, set up shop in North London two months ago, specialising in mosaics. Here you'll get everything from exclusive Morano tiles from Italy to tumbled Venetian marbles. The shop itself is a delight. A copy of a Victorian geometric mosaic leads you to the door, while a green and gold mosaic sign hangs above the door. There's even an Italian-style, open-air courtyard where you can browse around tiles from all over the world.

"Mosaics are definitely getting more popular," says Shaw. "We've only been open for six weeks and the shop's always busy. You just won't believe the amount of people that come here every day. And I get at least two students a week coming in showing me their work."

If you want to commission a mural you can chose from three books of mosaic designs. They'll make them for pounds 800 upwards. The less extravagant can get a 14in mosaic picture frame for around pounds 75. "If someone comes in with a photograph, we can make it up into a mosaic for around pounds 200, depending on the size and the materials we use," says Shaw. "We don't do repeats, everything's a one-off unless someone sees it in the shop before it's sold and wants a copy."

Private commissions of mosaics are increasing, with bathrooms and kitchens getting a new lease of life after wiped-clean minimalism. "After gardening and cooking, making mosaics could be the next British summer occupation," says Tessa Hunkin of Mosaic Workshop, which was commissioned to make the bathroom mosaic pictured above. Tessa is an architect, which is a very useful profession when it comes to private commissions. She has a sense of space and a knowledge of building construction while her business partner Emma Biggs has a fine art degree and an eye for finer detail. Between them they come up with some of the best mosaic designs in London.

But mosaic-making is not an easy thing to crack. Good designs are essential of course, but practical considerations are as high a priority. "You have to be careful about adhesives," explains Tessa. "Tiling adhesive is perfect for bathrooms when you're working in glass, marble and ceramics. For exterior work you need materials that can withstand frost, so you should avoid Mexican tiles which are porous and go for vitrious glass, unglazed ceramics or marble. I suppose we are mixing traditional techniques with modern products."

For Greg Williams at Mosaic Arts, whose 15-year-old company has designed and installed mosaics for The Dorchester, it is a skill that only few can aquire. "Good mosaic art should be designed to co-ordinate and suit its surroundings," he explains. "For example, if you are working in a domestic bathroom you have to know what type of wall surface it has. If you're working on a floor mosaic, you have to know if there is a suspended wooden floor and make sure the work has an anti slip-effect."

Williams has rolled all his experience into "Mosart" carpets. Pre-set mosaic designs made from high-fired, earthernware tiles are peeled off a facing sheet which is removed after installation. Each carpet is tailored to fit its location and prices start at pounds 300 for a small bathroom-floor rug.

However, if you want to make your own, help is at hand. The number of mosaic kits and courses are growing fast. Mosaic Workshop kits are a good starting point. "They are designed for beginners," says Hunkin, "and you get tiles and cutters with instructions so you don't need to worry about the shapes of the pieces. Once you've mastered the essential technique you can do anything."

Paint Magic, Jocasta Innes's chain of home decorating shops, sell and make to order mosaic table-tops and frames. They'll also sell you all the components to make your own and offer one-day residential courses throughout the country for pounds 89, where you can make a basic mosaic in a day.

Mosaic Workshop also offers weekend courses over two days, where students learn the skill of choosing the right materials as well as make their own mosaic. "You're taught how to use materials that withstand frost for an exterior work," explains Tessa. "You should avoid highly fired tiles like Mexican tiles. Vitrious glass, unglazed ceramic and marble are practical." The course costs pounds 100 and the next beginners course is at Missenden Abbey in Buckinghamshire on 31 May.

Galleria Ceramics, 77 Essex Road, Islington, London N1, Monday to Saturday, 10am to 6pm, Sunday 10am to 3pm (0171 226 2010). Mosaic Workshop, Unit b, 443-449 Holloway Road, London N7 (0171 263 2997). Mosaic Arts, tel 0171 722 1505. For your nearest Paint Magic shop and enquiries about courses, call 0171 354 9696.

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