Mosaics: Putting the Pieces Together
October 2nd, 2009

Fourth Quarter, 2009

By Zoe Voigt

Mosaics offer consumers style and a custom look at the same time they offer dealers opportunity for new profits.

For millennia, mosaics have been used to decorate surfaces. Today they continue to evolve into more interesting and beautiful designs. Mosaics were common in Pompeii and in Libya over 2,000 years ago. Throughout the Renaissance mosaics were used in religious settings. Today, artists and designers use mosaics as art, public art projects and in residences as a functional design element.

Both an art form and a science, the emphasis depends on the mosaic’s creator and their intent. Some fabricators use elaborate computations to achieve precise measurements and tessellations. Other mosaics have a more organic, handmade look that is artistic. Of course, many mosaicists span both interpretations, creating designs and patterns that are both creative and meticulously configured to produce the desired result.

(Photo courtesy of Ilana Shafir)


Tesserae: tiny uniform cubes of stone or other hard surface like tile or glass.

Sectile: cut and inlaid larger pieces

Cosmatesque: irregular shapes to create ornate geometric decoration

In general, mosaic is defined as an artistic creation made with an assemblage of small pieces of rock, shell, tile, or glass (tesserae) to create a pattern or image, which may be abstract or representational.

Matteo Valcavi, vice-president, Mosaico Italiano in Pompano Beach, Florida, learned all about stone, tile and mosaics in Italy, where he trained. “The technical definition of mosaics is 2″ or smaller tesserae and sectile of marble, stone, any hard solid surface cut stone, porcelain tile or engineered stone. That is the industry standard,” says Valcavi.

Sara Baldwin, a classically trained artist, is founder and creative director of New Ravenna Mosaics and Stone. “Officially, the definition of mosaic refers to cut pieces under 2″ square, but I use the term to cover any sort of pattern made up of smaller pieces that have been specially cut in some fashion. Some of our water jet patterns combine larger pieces, but we would still refer to them as mosaics. For us it is a fuzzy term, when we cut something 3″ x 3″ or smaller, we call that a mosaic,” says Baldwin.

Mosaic Artist Ilana Shafir’s works have been placed in museums and galleries. Her work is very large and is suitable for installation in residential and public buildings. Her technique is something she calls “spontaneous mosaics” which uses a combination of found objects and small ceramic pieces that she makes.

Hakatai Tile’s designers and mosaic artists can turn any drawing or design into a hand-cut, hand-aligned, fine art mosaic mural using the company’s unlimited palette of mosaic colors and tile types to choose from, including Venetian glass, Smalti, gold leaf, marble and stone. Idea for a wide range of commercial and residential applications. Photos courtesy Hakatai.

Binnie Fry, president of Specialty Tiles, won three spectrum awards for her collaboration with artists in public art projects involving mosaics. “I work with artists and I figure out what materials will be appropriate for the project they are doing, and I help supply those projects and also provide technical assistance. I’m an implementer, a broker, the person who makes these things happen, but I am not the artist and not the fabricator.” Specialty Tile has been incorporated since 2000, and Fry has been in the tile business for 34 years.

“Public art is involved with really talking to a local community about their community and their heritage. Public art projects are very often narratives, and straight tile doesn’t do that, but you can do murals with references to what is going on in a community, and the history of that community,” explains Fry. “The mosaics medium is more suited to that because you can get more detail than you can get from other tile. For a mural, mosaic is the better medium, paint just doesn’t hold up the way tile does.”

This mosaic is a custom blend by Hakati designed for this kitchen. Backsplashes are an ideal residential mosaic installation, allowing homeowners the option for a custom design in a limited space. Photo courtesy Hakatai.



Despite the fact that mosaics have been around for thousands of years, mosaics have undergone considerable changes in the past few years.

Explains Fry, “What’s happening nowadays is that there are lots of ways of fabricating mosaic projects. An individual artist can do them; also, a fabricator can do them, and the fabricator can do them several different ways. They can do them using a computer-generated image and then setting the tile in their studio in a pixilated way.

“Or if you have more money and are willing to pay for hand-cut work, you can get incredibly detailed mosaics with either hand-cut bigger pieces of glass or with smalti, which are the smaller pieces of glass. This allows you incredible detail. So I think what you can now do with mosaics is create much larger, much more dynamic, much more challenging and interesting images and designs than you could do before, because the technology is there to implement it,” says Fry.

“Also the materials have evolved as well. Over the last 15 years or so with the new glasses, with the new outdoor tiles in bright colors, there’s lots more you can do.”

One of the reasons that mosaics are more popular than ever is that, “There’s more awareness, and more mosaics are being done in general,” says Fry. “A lot of people who want mosaic work can now get it. It used to be cost prohibitive; now, it is much more accessible.”

Hirsch Glass Corporation introduced a distinct new tessera glass shape named Silhouette. Designer Michael Golden was seeking a new, organic chip form that utilized Hirsch’s casting process, as well as their incredibly rich glass color mixing process. The new Silhouette chip is intended for residential and commercial usage. Hirsch Glass uses an artisan process to blend multiple colors of glass creating a natural dimensional “swirl” inside every chip. This method is shown in their other glass collections that range from mosaics to solid decorative glass blocks and large format Architectural panels. Silhouette is available in 26 colorations. The recycled content of Silhouette ranges from 30% to 100% depending on the coloration. All colorations are stocked in their New Jersey distribution center, and sold through a network of 200+ dealers nationally.

The two biggest names in Italian mosaics are Sicis and Bisazza. These companies are known for their beautiful, artistic designs and high quality work.

Sicis began focusing on mosaics in 1987 and now has showrooms all over the world. Using avant-garde technology, along with skilled mosaic masters, the company is known for its use of mixed materials such as glass, marble, steel and others.

Bisazza was established in 1956 in northern Italy. The company has 12 flagship stores and seven thousand local retailers. The company has incorporated Swarovski crystals in a huge mosaic in Milan; they’ve decked out tables, Arne Jacobsen chairs and even MINI/BMW cars in their tile in order to showcase the brand.

With production facilities in Florida, Mosaico Italiano is an American company that has over 100 dealers in North America. Says Valcavi, “In the mosaic industry, there are the usual suspects at the forefront. We each have a core competency and are unique at certain things. The way we stand out, in addition to strong customer service, is our emphasis on mosaic patterns; we’re strong artistically as well, but we approach mosaic as a science. We’re more scientists than artists.

“We can manufacture 50 to 5000 square feet in two to three weeks, 1,700 to 1,800 square feet per day, which is the fastest in the industry. We offer turnkey solutions, complete lines. Everything matches—borders, medallions. From the designer’s point of view, this is a dream come true,” says Valcavi.

“When you have clients paying $40 to $60 a square foot, you shouldn’t compromise on quality at all. We select grade A stone. When our buyers go to Italy, the quarry owners get upset when they are told that the stone is for mosaics. It costs more, but you can see the difference. Each tessera is exactly the same size. Our grouted matrix boards are precise,” explains Valcavi.

“The mosaic market is an extreme product niche compared to the overall flooring segment,” says Valcavi. “It is important to have a great display program, and strong brand identity, because luxury mosaics have to be presented a certain way.”

Cinca USA is a Portugal-based ceramic tile manufacturer that is owned by the Italian group Ceramiche Ricchetti. They manufacture over 100 million sq. ft. of tile per year. Their 1 x 1 inch ceramics are used by many mosaic artists because they come in 24 colors, have no bevel, and are thinner material, and therefore easier to work with and to cut. They are dense and frost resistant, and therefore appropriate for wet environments and high traffic areas, making them suitable for exterior use anywhere in the US. They also manufacture unglazed tiles in larger sizes that are popular with mosaic artists who cut them into smaller pieces. The metallic line comes in copper and rust.


Sara Baldwin is a fine artist who moved from painting into mosaics. Her business, New Ravenna, employs over 100 workers in the poorest area of Virginia.

“We make bespoke mosaics. We can make any pattern in stone or glass, in any color, and in any finish. Sometimes it’s a problem with so many choices; it’s easy for people to be overwhelmed. Even designers can become paralyzed by the possibilities. So we’ve narrowed the choices down for them first.” New Ravenna has many lines and color options, but the programs are a starting point. “We have amazing sales reps who can explain all of this to the client and help them narrow down the choices. It satisfies the clients’ creative sides.

“I revel in the collaboration and synergy,” says Baldwin. She subconsciously created a theme in her work, which illustrates this concept. Several of her lines include links, stitching, rings, sewing and rivets. She explains the connection, “I realized that I was drawn to that imagery that was a physical manifestation of how we’re all connected. This linking theme satisfied a personal expression. I can’t just look at the surface of something and think that’s all there is. There’s a meaning to symbols.

“Most of our larger patterns are made up of water jet pieces. This water jet technology is just incredible, it has afforded me so much design flexibility and we’re just starting to scratch the surface of what’s available,” says Baldwin.

Mosaic Artist Shafir explains her designing technique, “I never plan my mosaics ahead or make preliminary sketches. Instead, I let the materials dictate the work and give it direction. I begin a new mosaic with a long search for a unique combination and play with endless possibilities until I finally arrive at what seems to be the best solution.”

At Hakatai, in addition to many standard lines and customizable patterns, you can design your own image and have them produce it as a custom mosaic mural. These will be either mesh-back mounted or paper-face mounted. The artists have an unlimited palette of mosaic colors and tile types to choose from, including Venetian glass, Smalti, gold leaf and stone. This allows for various textures, colors and detailed shadings to reproduce the original artwork.

Murals can be installed directly onto a wall substrate or can first be installed on a horizontally positioned backer board (or other approved substrate), which is then lifted and attached to the vertical wall surface.


According to Fry, “It used to be in the early days of submitting projects, somebody would submit a wall in their garden, or around a pool. Now people are submitting enormous projects. It can be the entire wall of multi-story buildings, they can be outdoor sculptures, and they can be 100-plus feet tall. Much, much more complicated than before. We have a whole new level of complexity; we have a new area of technical capacity, and as a result of that, a whole new level of design. It is amazing, it is just amazing.

“The future of mosaic, I don’t know. Technology just keeps barreling along. Every year, the kinds and number of materials that are available to mosaic artists are more prevalent. The things you see are absolutely beautiful, the glass with the iridescence, the tiles have texture and there are wonderful things you can use. So the materials range gets better and better every year. Can it continue? Maybe, it’s hard to say. You’re always surprised every year when you see that it has continued and it probably will keep improving.”


Mosaic projects involve not just the choice of materials, but also, “a complex set of decisions that have to be made which may involve many more people and entities than an individual artist with a brilliant idea or a superb design,” says Fry. The artist may not be the installer, and might not even be able to fabricate the mosaic. With very large designs, it takes a team effort.

“How can dealers be involved in a sale? Basically, by understanding and appreciating mosaics. They are in a position to help find materials that are suitable. Many of the companies supply small unit materials. They’ve gotten into fabrication with the companies that are supplying them,” explains Fry.

“If a client comes into a showroom and wants to have a mosaic mural, a lot of that can be supplied through a regular commercial dealer. It is possible to be creative and work within the standard dealer network. Because some people will see Sicis for example, they’ll go to a dealer and they’ll say, ‘Can you do this for me?’ and the answer is that a regular commercial tile dealer can.”

“The projects that Sicis does are very dramatic and large, but even a small dealer can be set-up to have contact with largescale commercial manufacturers and to be able to do large-scale commercial projects,” says Fry.

For a material that has been around for thousands of years, mosaics have certainly held their popularity.


Bisazza Mosaico

Cinca USA




Mosaico Italiano

Matteo Valcavi

Pompano Beach, FL

New Ravenna

Sara Baldwin



(760) 929-4000



Ilana Shafir


Specialty Tiles, LLC

Binnie Fry


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