Mosaics Choices in stone & ceramic
March 1st, 2006


By Jeffrey Steele

March-April 2006

How long have mosaics been around? The simplest answer would be just about forever. Pieces of colored stone, glass and enamel decorated furniture and architectural detailing in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Small pebbles were used as mosaics in Greece as early as the fourth century. And columns and fountains amid the ruins of Pompeii are adorned with glass mosaics.

As the saying goes, everything old is new again, and that’s particularly true of mosaics. Today mosaic tile is as big—or bigger—than ever. Ceramic, natural stone and particularly glass mosaic tiles are increasingly favored as ways to provide fresh and vibrant looks throughout residential and commercial settings. They are used as accents to other tile and hard surfaces, in kitchens, exterior walls, in landscape design and particularly throughout upscale bathrooms.

Mosaic tiles refer to a tile product 3-by-3 inches or smaller, says Donato Pompo, owner of San Diego’s Ceramic Tile and Stone Consultants. Pompo’s firm provides the tile industry with consulting services that include forensic investigations of ceramic tile and stone failures, installation specifications and qualifying suitability of products for applications, and live training, marketing and business planning through its University of Ceramic Tile and Stone.

For years, the most popular mosaic tiles were glazed porcelain or vitreous mosaics, which were and still are used as water line features in swimming pools, Pompo says. These products are less often seen in residential settings today due to glass mosaics’ increasing popularity. Glass mosaics come in a variety of colors, textures and shapes ranging from square or rectangular to those with radius or curved edges. They are chiefly imported, but some are made domestically.

“The originals were the Venetian glass mosaics that have been around for centuries,” Pompo says. “About 10 years ago we started seeing glass liners, used as accents within ceramic tile installations. As the popularity of accents in installations grew, the glass offerings became broader, and glass tiles were offered for the whole installation. They started off with relatively small sizes, and today have glass tiles that go up to a square foot in size.”

By contrast, unglazed mosaics are familiar to anyone who has ever entered a gymnasium, YMCA or fitness club shower, locker room, bathroom or similar wet room, Pompo says. Frequently, custom designs incorporating logos or accents are created using these mosaics. Because it’s an unglazed product surrounded by grout joints, it’s not only durable and wears well, but offers the kind of slip resistance a commercial pool or fitness center demands, he adds.

Wall and floor patterns and full-sized murals depicting an image or logo can be created using mosaics. And unlike the dots of old dot-matrix printers, which earned the disdain of early computer users because of their poor reproduction, tiny mosaics can be blended to create a representation of an image that closely resembles the original from a distance, Pompo says. “You can do logos, geometric-type designs, and that takes it into the realm of artwork,” he notes. Glass mosaics are best suited to this use, because they provide a full spectrum of colors.

Labor-intensive installation

Because of their small size, mosaics would demand a cost-prohibitive amount of labor if they were mounted one at a time. That’s particularly true of mosaics being woven into special patterns or accents. Instead of being mounted individually, they are mounted sheets at a time.

The mounting is undertaken using one of three popular methods:

• Face mounting. In this technique, paper is glued to the front of the tile with a water soluble glue. That leaves the back exposed for full contact with the setting bed, Pompo explains.

• Back mounting. Here, webbing material is glued to the back of the tile, leaving voids within the webbing that allow the tile to attach to the setting bed. “The back mounted means can be problematic, because the backing or glue can act as a barrier, not allowing the tile to properly attach to the setting bed,” Pompo reports. “Also, some of these backings can be water sensitive, resulting in them not being recommended for wet areas.”

• Side mounting. Also known as dot mounting, this method attaches glue to the four corners of the tile intersection. These dots keep the tiles in place, allowing them to be installed in large sheets to increase the productivity of the mosaic setter.

Of the three ways of mounting mosaics, the back mounting method is the most commonly used but also the most prone to problems, Pompo says. However, its popularity continues, largely because the technique makes mosaics easier to install and provides more adjustability.

Glass mosaics that create images are installed using sheets of numbered tile corresponding to numbers on the artist’s rendering of the image. Installers set in place that numbered pattern in accordance with the artist’s determination of where those colors and shapes should be.

The Stone Age

In the last 5 or 10 years, stone has become available in mosaic form. “You can create custom patterns using different colors and types of stone,” Pompo says. “They’re actually being provided in historic patterns taken from the ancient Greeks and Romans. They replicate them, create liners, and these liners tend to be more geometric combinations of shapes and colors. They’re back mounted on sheets and installed as liners to accent ceramic tile and stone installations. That’s become very popular, and it’s a more expensive option.”

This, he notes, is another indication of just how far technological advancements in stone cutting have come. Sizes vary from square to rectangle, and can be as small as half-inch square to 3-by-3-inches in size.

Some stone mosaics are offered in polished form and used as accents, while others feature honed surfaces, allowing them to be utilized in shower floors for slip resistance. Honed stone mosaics are also used in areas requiring more durable surfaces. In such areas, some polished mosaic tiles can wear down and reveal traffic patterns, Pompo says.

As for the types of stone used in mosaics, low-priced and readily available travertine is particularly popular. “But all kinds of marble is being provided in mosaics as well,” Pompo says. “You don’t see as much granite, partly because granite is much more expensive to cut and tends to chip. So the stones that are softer than granite tend to be more suitable for mosaics.”

Mosaics Today

When Ashland, Oregon-based Hakatai Enterprises began importing glass mosaic tiles in 1997, they were sold mainly for use in kitchen backsplashes, tub surrounds and bathroom floors, says company sales and marketing manager Ann-Britt Malden. In commercial settings, glass mosaic tiles were added to shower walls as well as restaurant accent walls.

But as designers and architects embraced the glass mosaic tile trend, residential and commercial applications grew almost exponentially. “Today, glass tile is used residentially to tile entire bathrooms, including showers, spas, walls, floors and vanity tops, as well as larger portions of the kitchen,” Malden notes. “As our glass tile lines continue to expand, with colors ranging from bold citruses and striking iridescents to natural hues and minimalist whites, glass tile becomes more and more versatile to design with.”

For instance, architects and designers are utilizing Hakatai’s online design tools to create and order their own unique mosaic blends and gradients, which bring distinctive style to such commercial settings as clothing stories, supermarkets, casinos and hotels. Custom blends and gradients are particularly popular for use in restaurant walls and bathrooms, Malden adds.

Hakatai offers a wide variety of sheet-mounted glass mosaic tile ranging from 9/16-inch square to 2-inches square. The company also makes loose tile available to mosaic artists. Newer products include the iridescent Fantastix Series of 9/16-by-9/16-inch mosaic tile in 42 colors, and the Aventurine glass tile series of ¾-by-¾-inch mosaics in 25 transparent, gold-laced colors and blends introduced at the 2006 Surfaces show. In addition, Hakatai’s Ashland Series of 1-by-1-inch tile has been expanded to include an array of iridescent colors and standard blends.

“Finally, we continue to add new Custom Design Tools to the Web site so anyone from a homeowner to an architect can create, price and order their own designs online,” Malden reports.

By accessing custom blend and gradient tools, customers can select desired colors and create personalized designs. The lead time for custom work is two to four weeks from the time Hakatai receives a 50 percent deposit. Prices for in-house custom designs are slightly higher.

Asked what popular trends she’s seeing, Malden lists custom blends, glass tile gradients in showers, iridescent tile, organic hues, bold and vibrant hues, and glass tile accenting wood, steel and stone. In addition, she says, abstract murals on commercial exterior walls, glass tile in landscape design and glass tile in salons and spas are all widely-popular trends.

A favorite provider of mosaic tiles is Valencia, Spain-based Vetro Mosaico, which manufacturers glass mosaics and tile. Its Los Angeles office is an importer of stainless steel mosaics, glass tile and glass mosaics, says manager Marcel Wilhelm. The company offers mosaic tiles in three sizes: 3/8-by-3/8-inch, ¾-by-¾-inch and 1-by-1-inch.

Among the most important trends he’s witnessing is the move toward brick pattern or multi-colored sheets, Wilhelm says. “People are getting away from the one-color wall and going to multi-colored mosaics,” he says. “They’re going into miniature subway brick. Subway tunnel platform areas once had subway brick, and that’s where that term came from. Now the new style is the 1-by-2-inch, staggered pattern. They also come on sheets of 12-by-12-inch.”

Like Hakatai, Vetro Mosaico prides itself on its ability to handle custom blends. Customers can indicate desired percentages of colors—for example, 20 percent white, 10 percent black and 50 percent purple—and Vetro Mosaico can create the color in its warehouse.

“Custom blends can be turned around fairly quickly,” Wilhelm adds. “It’s done in-house here in Los Angeles. It’s not a matter of waiting six to eight weeks to import. Most of the colors are in stock right here in Los Angeles.”

Though mosaic tile comprises a comparatively small percentage of its sales, mosaics are still a key part of the product mix at Lakeland, Florida-based Florida Tile (, says vice-president of marketing Jim Cuthbertson.

“It’s a very important design element,” he reports, noting Florida Tile offers 2-by-2-inch rhomboids, 1-by-1-inch rhomboids and square mosaics in standard sizes.

Florida Tile offers glass mosaics under its VitraArt Series, as well as a wide assortment of natural stone mosaic tiles under its PietraArt Series, which includes mosaics of various sizes and shapes in travertine, limestone and slate. The latter series represents Florida Tile’s effort to capture the growing market for natural stone mosaic tile, which Cuthbertson says is expanding.

Because they are so adaptable to so many uses, Cuthbertson isn’t surprised by the growth of mosaic tiles. “They’re very versatile; you can do a lot with them,” he says. “They can be used on bathroom floors, kitchen backsplashes, in the dining room, living room and kitchen floors. Any area of the house where natural stone or tile products are used, a complementary decorative mosaic can also be part of that installation.”



Jim Cuthbertson
Vice-President of Marketing
Florida Tile, Lakeland , FL
863-284-4049, ext.5049

Ann-Britt Malden
Director of Marketing and Sales
Hakatai Enterprises, Ashland , OR

Donato Pompo
Ceramic Tile and Stone Consultants,
San Diego

Marcel Wilhelm
Vetro Mosaico, Los Angeles

Information on history of mosaics:

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