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This Old House

Untitled
This Old House, April 1999

Designs can be as simple as the classic key border that reflects mosaics’ Greek roots. Other motifs are perfectly literal: a leaping fish or dolphin to adorn a pool bottom, an art deco portrait of a woman with roses in her hair, urns bedecked with flowers, ropy vines sprouting grape leaves, the family crest. Golden recalls one pair of clients who wanted images of potted lemon trees installed in their bath. He improvised a single lemon falling from a tree; the clients loved it.

Golden’s final designs, including specs for the approximate color scheme and the stone, glass or tile to be used, are sent to a fabricator. The Alberts’ design went to Virginia-based New Ravenna, a company founded by artist Sara Baldwin. Each day for a month, Greg Lee, one of Baldwin’s 45 mosaicists, knelt over the growing Tuscan scene spread out on the floor. One by one, he selected precut, one-centimeter-square tesserae and pressed them onto the tacky tape backing, sometimes using nippers to shape them into slender slivers, ovals or trapezoids to more precisely suggest the forms of a curling wrought-iron pergola, or the shadows created when light falls upon climbing wisteria. Like any artist, he stopped often to assess and alter his work. A mountain fashioned of a single shade of green stone looks dull and unrealistic; Lee knows that flecks of a different shade will suggest rolling hills and make it come alive. An oil painter can build up paint on his canvas or mix a new batch of color to his liking. But Lee, constrained by this medium, must blend colors by subtractions, plucking out each offending pixel and replacing it with a new one.

Color is always a big challenge with mosaics. Finished mosaics may not match the hues on the original illustration precisely. Glass and tile, man-made products, are easier to color-match. But every stone tessera differs, however infinitesimally, from the next or it wouldn’t be natural stone. A good mosaicist keeps variations to an acceptable minimum, but home owners must expect deviations – and, in fact, should cherish them. “You’re always going to get a one-of-a-kind piece,” points out Adele McIntyre, New Ravenna’s sales manager. “We didn’t make the stone, God did.”

Finished mosaics are covered with plastic tape, front and back, cut into easily handled sections and shipped to the site. Installers usually lay out the sheets first to make sure they’re got the pattern arranged correctly and that the client approves. If the mosaic is going on a floor, installers use chalk snaplines as guides. Working outward from the room’s center, they peel off the backing tape, apply thin-set to both tile and floor, then set the tile. Wall mosaics are affixed using mastic. Grout is added only later, when the adhesive has cured. “It’s definitely harder work than installing regular tile,” says New Ravenna’s Baldwin. “The installer needs to be very thoughtful. You don’t want someone who wants to get in and out quickly.” End of Article

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