Mosaics: Making the Most of Small Format Tiles
November 2nd, 2008

November – December 2008
by Kathleen Furore

Think about your business and what comes to mind? Tile, grout and accessories are the most likely responses. But fashion? That’s what Barbara Briskin of Emenee Tile in Bronx, NY thought of when asked about trends in today’s tile industry.

“It’s amazing how quickly trends change with regards to tile,” Briskin says. “We’ve learned that the tile business is actually a ‘fashion’ business. It changes as often as hemlines!” And mosaic tiles, she says, are among the most fashionable items on the market today. “Mosaics are everywhere,” Briskin reports. “They run the gamut from glass, to stone to ceramic.”

Not only are mosaics everywhere; they also give dealers who merchandise the small tiles a leg up in a very competitive market, industry experts agree.

“From whole fields of mosaics to small accent areas, mosaics—especially glass mosaics—offer exciting options for dealers to get creative with their customers,” Jim Fry, president of Ohio-based Seneca Tiles in Seneca and Epro Tile in nearby Bloomville, says.

Helen Zhao of Hirsch Glass Group in Dayton, NJ notes that mosaics—with margins “relatively more than those of common field tile”—give tile dealers a competitive advantage over those who offer commodity tile alone.

Simply put, Briskin says there is one key reason tile dealers should inventory mosaic tile: “They should consider it because it’s in demand.”

Mosaics defined
The dictionary definition of mosaic is “a picture or decoration made of small, usually colored pieces of inlaid stone, glass, or other materials.”

Designer Jamie Gibbs of New York City’s Jamie Gibbs and Associates takes it one step further. “The specific detail that sets a mosaic aside from other tile is that it is purchased as a pattern in full repeats instead of by the tile or square foot,” she explains. “For example, you would buy a circular 36-inch mosaic floor insert as a unit. You would then calculate the remaining floor surface and order field tile to fill this area.”

According to professional designer Sarah Boyer Jenkins of Chevy Chase, MD, mosaics initially were used in Italy, Spain and other areas surrounding the Mediterranean, with a heavy emphasis on religious patterns used on floors or wall decorations.

Today, mosaics are used in myriad spaces, and can be made of glass, ceramic, porcelain, natural stone (including travertine, marble, granite, and slate), stainless steel and other metals, Portland, OR interior designer Marlene Buckner says. “In contemporary design, I see them used for the entire tile installation or as borders in the floor or backsplashes in bathrooms behind sinks,” she adds.

Design Trends
Several factors are fueling the popularity of mosaic tiles—price, flexibility, ease of installation and greater selection among them, tile professionals say. Understanding what is driving the market and exploring current design trends are steps dealers must take to make the most of mosaics.

“Many more patterns and materials are cost-effective thanks to laser cutting,” explains Gibbs. “Netted mosaic patterns are easy to install; mosaic borders and plaques make a great upscale statement; some mosaic patterns have texture and 3D qualities; and many netted mosaic patterns have very tight grout lines which make maintenance in a bath or kitchen easier.”

The entry of new, eco-friendly materials into the market is another plus—something all dealers should consider when choosing the kinds of mosaic products to purvey.

“One major trend is using any and all available materials to make the tile, many of which are sustainable materials. Porcelain, ceramic, natural stone, and glass can all be recycled and are environmentally friendly or ‘green,’” Buckner says. “Many of the glass mosaics available for sale are manufactured out of recycled glass material.”

Glass, in fact, is driving mosaic demand in most markets thanks to its design flexibility, Zhao reports. “Glass seems to be the most popular right now,” Fry concurs. “The colors that are available in glass seem to be almost unlimited, thus there is something for every application.”

Size, shape and installation trends, too, have evolved as mosaics have come into their own. “A couple of years ago, 1-inch by 1-inch mosaic tiles were everywhere. Now we see a trend toward more brick patterns—1-inch by 2-inch, for example—and irregular patterns where each individual tile is a different size and shape,” Bucker says.

“Most of the time when I see them emphasized in magazines or articles, it’s using them for the whole design—an entire wall, for example,” she adds. “I find subtly blending them with other materials creates value for the consumer. On a per-square-foot basis, mosaics can be reasonable in price, but have a very large impact on the overall look of the installation. There is a lot of value added by incorporating them into the design process.”

The custom market, too, offers profit potential—but that profit won’t come without a serious commitment from tile dealers. As Zhao notes, it is a “design-oriented, time-consuming and costly process”—all reasons she says she hasn’t seen a lot of dealers jumping onto the custom mosaic bandwagon.

Briskin, however, says custom mosaics are “particularly hot in commercial installations” right now. And Fry believes custom mosaics “are the logical next step for the marketplace and design community to trend toward.”

“As the mosaic offerings get more and more high-end, customers strive for their own unique look,” Fry continues. “Whether it’s for a certain color to match something they already have, a special size needed for a personal design, or an intricate mural maybe no one else will have, the custom customer has the means to afford it.”

Marketing Mosaics
However extensive a program they offer, the way tile dealers showcase mosaic offerings will strongly impact how successful sales will be. The biggest challenge: to carve out enough space to adequately show samples.
“The best ways for tile dealers to promote mosaic tiles is by devoting as much space as possible to actual samples and concepts,” Fry notes. “But this is a never-ending issue that they have to deal with, because as more and more creative ideas are developed, they need more and more space to effectively convey the message.”

It’s a hurdle, but not an impossible one to jump, the pros report. The ideal, of course, is a real installation. “This way the customer can actually picture the tile as it was meant to be shown,” Briskin explains. “Once a mosaic has been grouted it takes on a completely different look—it’s like night and day.”

In-store installations should clearly show how mosaics can overcome architectural difficulties like curved walls, angles, dormers, curved counters, and recessed niches, Gibbs adds.

Other options, however, do exist when “real world” installations aren’t possible. Briskin says grouted boards work well, while Gibbs suggests using “great photography” in small showrooms. “Since showroom space is at a premium, professional photography of quality, real-life installations will help explain the product,” Gibbs says. “The photography needs to be large and well-mounted, not pictures in a scrapbook taken with a digital camera.”

However you market them, mosaic tiles are here to stay. And consumers and design professionals alike are looking for new materials and design ideas that can ultimately drive new business to your showroom floor.
“From a design standpoint, we like to see new things added throughout the year,” Buckner concludes. “None of us like using the same product over and over. Being in the industry, there are a lot of fantastic products that the consumer finds interesting and unique that we’ve seen or used enough times in one format or another that we desire to see something fresh. Mosaics are limitless, so the combinations and options don’t tire as quickly as some other products do.”

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