As passengers disembark at Gatwick’s South Terminal and make their way down ramps to the luggage carousel, they’re met by two giant portraits of the Queen. In one, piercing blue eyes stare out of a youthful, newly-coronated face, while the other is of a plumper, cheerier disposition. Everyone fixates on them, tourists and homecomers alike, as they realize they’re not simply blown-up photographs but a photomosaic, a composite picture where every pixel is another picture; in this case, more than 5,000 members of the British public. The form, chosen by artist Helen Marshall who was commissioned to create the piece for the Diamond Jubilee, suits her inclusive interpretation of monarchy, but it’s also part of a modern tradition of using digital technology to re-invent one of the world’s oldest artforms.
The oldest mosaics in existence date back to 4th century Mesopotamia and Greece. After the Romans invaded the latter, they took the form back to Italy and used it to create some of the Catholic church’s oldest and most revered buildings including St Mark’s Basilica; the Venetians are still seen as the masters of mosaic to this day. But the simplicity and versatility of mosaic has seen its popularity bridge all three major Abrahamic religions, playing just as fundamental a role in Israeli temples as it does in Middle Eastern mosques, where it provides an attractive alternative to literal depictions of sacred figures. There’s undoubtedly something mesmeric about the shimmering light effect of these hand-crafted designs. But if you want to see some impressive modern examples without booking a longhaul flight, you could do worse than seeking out Bisazza’s showroom in Kensington.
The company was founded 60 years ago by Renato Bisazza and it’s still family-run in northern Italy. He profited from the post-war scramble to find overlooked materials with which to re-build bombed out houses and, in the process, turned a traditional craft into a fashionable luxury. The heritage firm has attracted a number of high profile commissions over the years from Sydney Opera House to Toledo Metro Station (pictured on previous page), from Cher’s swimming pool in LA to Jonathan Ross’s house in London. It’s certainly earned a glamorous reputation for a tiling company.
Staying relevant is about picking up on consumer behaviour, says Renatto’s daughter, Rossella Bisazza. “It’s a very flexible medium and it’s been interesting to see how our clients have been using mosaic differently over the last few years; moving away from limiting their use to traditional wet spaces such as showers and pools, to working with our team to create stunning feature walls in dining and living rooms, using beautiful patterns on the ceiling and even in the garden.”
Bisazza’s showroom in Kensington displays the scope of mosaic in creative ways, including a walk-in model bathroom that’s tiled from top-to-bottom, a glittering staircase, artfully-placed furniture covered in mosaic and shelves upon shelves of smaller swatches for customers to take home and “live with for a while”. Donna Podger, UK national sales manager, says there was a time when she hardly met her clients, dealing exclusively with interior designers and architects, but now she estimates 60 to 70 per cent of all commissions are bespoke, client-designed creations.
“There’s been a big change in the last 10 years, with people giving us far more specific ideas about what they want. People have the confidence to get involved these days. My job is to give them as much information as I can so they can make an informed choice, because most of them don’t know anything about grouting, and why should they?”
Whether it’s a splashback for your kitchen or a hotel spa, the process is the same; a specialist consultation is required to discuss what patterns, materials and designs would work best, then the installation team can begin the painstaking process of preparing the surfaces before laying each tile by hand.
Creations have included mosaics of people’s children or dogs and a portrait of Marilyn Monroe at the bottom of a swimming pool, both created using digital imaging similar to the Queen’s photomosaic. But many equally impressive designs are still hand-made; Podger says she’s particularly fond of a star constellation Bisazza arranged on a ceiling with glass tiles that have sparkling fibre optics in their centres. Colour blends can be completely customised, too, to make installations as individual or extravagant as you like – Bisazza created a unique blue, green and gold blend for a swimming pool with a 24-karat gold-tiled jacuzzi for London’s Bulgari Hotel. The most interesting colour creations are often conceived in the UK, says Podger. Swimming pools in sunny countries are tiled blue to reflect the sky, but when you’re building in basements, there’s room to be creative. Usually, tiles are made from Venetian glass, but they vary in durability and price, ranging from £93psqm to £4,200psqm.
A number of big names in design have joined forces with Bisazza to dabble in mosaics, including Marcel Wanders, Andrée Putman and India Mahdavi. The latter invented a whole new approach to flooring called Cementiles, made by pouring cement into intricate moulds to create tessellating patterns. This season’s catwalk trend for florals has also inspired a collection of designs by Carlo Dal Bianco, as well as a botanical capsule collection released next month to coincide with the Chelsea Flower Show. And if you’re impressed by Toledo Metro Station, the London Underground is set to get a Bisazza mosaic of its own along the Northern Line platforms at Tottenham Court Road when it re-opens as a Crossrail hub at the end of 2016.