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Decorating With Mosaics

Find out the real story behind the mosaic artform -- and how today's trendsetters use them at home.

It’s true that taking the subway is bound to leave some kind of impression on you — and not always positive. Yet I’ve always been stimulated by the music, the fashions, the posters, the life on the subway, but — after more than a decade away — I’d forgotten all about the art, from ceramic plaques and impressive tile work to massive mosaics.

Since its inception more than a century ago the mandate for the subway system was "that it be designed, constructed and maintained with a view to the beauty of its appearance as well as its efficiency." Since 1986, the beauty quotient has been upped as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has commissioned more than 170 works for its stations, among them many mosaics including Transitions by Louis Delsarte, which first caught my eye.

The fact that the subway was, literally, like a mosaic museum got me interested all over again in the artform. Like many people, I have a box full of broken dishes (alas, some of my favorite Fiestaware that didn’t survive an earthquake) that I have vowed — someday — to turn into a backsplash, patio table or other decorative item for my home. Part of the fascination with the artform is its age, of course. When something has endured from 800 B.C. when the Greeks were making patterns with pebbles, and includes religious iconography that takes your breath away, it’s got some artistic clout. The biggest part of mosaics’ appeal, though, is its ability to tell stories. Here’s a look at how modern-day mosaics are telling tales from train stations to kitchen counters.

A Designer's Dream
How are designers using mosaics in homes today? Let us count the ways, says Mark McCauley, ASID. "Mosaics can have a significant effect on interior design," says the Chicago designer, who is the author of Interior Design for Idiots. For starters, they can be the jumping-off point for the whole design and color scheme of a space. "Design your mosaic first — say it’s of palm trees — then pull the greens from the fronds and the neutrals from the trunk of the tree into the decor," he says.

But, best of all, he says, mosaics offer you an opportunity to let your creativity soar. "You can insert yourself, your likes and dislikes, into the art form, as opposed to buying a work of art that is already painted," he says. "Tell your own story with mosaics and they will repay you with many years of fond memories or fantastic pattern."

Artist Gerry Lavery of Aquilo Mosaics (www.AquiloMosaics.com) has had the opportunity to help his clients’ tell such stories in tessarae (the little pieces of stone, glass, mirror, ceramic used in mosaic work). One couple, world travelers, commissioned a map of the world in their kitchen. "These people have been everywhere and when they have little dinner parties they use this mosaic map as a sort of prompt for discussions," he says. "They’ll point at New Zealand and recall when they climbed a mountain there." Another passionate pair of clients hired Lavery to create a "permanent" aquarium in their home. "They wanted a mosaic that told a life story about their interests — their passion for tropical fish." He spent 200 hours creating that masterpiece.

An Artist's Inspiration
Artists love creating mosaics as much as designers love using them. As Gerry Lavery says, "I love the ability to create soft corners and round curves and make volume out of not only a flat medium, but a very hard medium." Inspired by the mosaics of ancient Greece and Rome, Lavery creates custom tables, house numbers and other pieces, in addition to his in-home work for clients. Every piece requires a different touch, a different look, he says, which is what art is all about — and why each of the artists I mention here has a little different take on this mosaic madness.

They say an artist can see beauty in the most unusual of places. That is certainly true of Diana Krause-Oliver, who painstakingly re-created several of the mosaic tile subway signs in New York City, from Wall Street to Penn Station, block by block with crayon and paper in 1990. "I was fascinated with the use of colored tiles that square by square create pictures," she says on her site, dianakoliver.com. "These pictures held stories of traditions and history." See her re-creations, from the art nouveau Christopher Street to the humble Wall Street, in posters and on T-shirts at www.CafePress.com.

Want a mosaic of your cat — or your kid sister? Indianapolis mosaic artist Courtney Seghetti is cashing in on the custom trend with her Tuscan Mosaics Inc. (www.TuscanMosaics.com). She works with clients on pieces that make a small personal statement all the way up to massive custom-built in-home projects. Inspired by a trip to visit family in Italy, the artist (who has been featured on HGTV’s That’s Clever!) loves mosaics for their sense of permanence and timelessness.

"When I create a mosaic, I feel it embraces my family’s heritage and transports me to a different time," she says. We love her re-creations of vintage posters and her funky takes on Tuscan saints.

Mosaic artist Laurel True really left her heart in San Francisco when she created a sculptural mosaic heart for a citywide project that benefited the San Francisco General Hospital. True’s heart, sponsored by congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and her husband, was made from cut mirror strips and tessarae made from cut glass mosaics. See more of True’s work at turemosaics.com. And to see the 129 other hearts in the San Francisco project, visit www.HeartsinSF.com.

The Revival
Mosaics haven’t always been the most appreciated of art. Like other ancient art forms they’ve been destroyed and/or covered up. But there are happy tales of mosaic discoveries and recoveries. Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria hotel is home to one such story. For years, visitors walked over a carpeted lobby floor never knowing that a large Art Deco mosaic by Louis Rigal was underneath. The 148,000-piece Wheel of Life is now fully revealed in all its glory. Likewise, in the Museum of Nature in Ottowa, floors of mosaics were reconditioned and revealed after decades of being hidden. (The mosaic moose in the lobby was first put under cover when a nun leading a visiting church group objected to the animal’s mosaic testicles.)

Everywhere a Mosaic
Once you start thinking about mosaics, you’ll find them everywhere. Not the mass-produced stuff you can buy in some retail chains but the real thing — works of art. For those who can’t get enough, there are a variety of interesting guides, books and opportunities. Here are some inspiring options:

A Guide to Mosaic Sites in San Francisco by Lillian Sizemore. This full color guide with maps leads you to the amazing wealth of public mosaic art in the Bay area. Order it at www.SFMosaic.com.

Philadelphia Magic Gardens: The Art of Isaiah Zagar This book shares the stories behind master mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar’s Philadelphia work. Order from www.IsiahZagar.org.

The Institute of Mosaic Art This Berkeley center for the arts offers all levels of mosaic workshops and a resource library. Visit at www.InstituteofMosaicArt.com.

Mosaic Art Tours Yes, you can take a creative journey through Italy and Spain looking at mosaic art. The guide is Christina Macaulay, an Australian mosaic artist.

Along the Way: M.T.A. Arts for Transit by Sandra Bloodworth and William Ayres. If you’re as crazy about public art in the subways as I am, check out this coffee-table guide to the permanent art in the underground.

Art En Route Tuck this one into your pocket the next time you’re in New York and you’ll know exactly where to stop to see the mass transit systems most interesting mosaics. Find it at www.mta.info.

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Anne Krueger is HGTV.com’s design scout, always on the lookout for what’s in, what’s up and what’s out there.

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