Contemporary Italian mosaics

Long regarded as merely functional in bathrooms and swimming pools, Italian mosaics are being reinterpreted as contemporary works of art that make desirable decor for any room.

Bisazza's Bonaparte wall pattern.
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At Index 2010, the region's leading interiors show held this month, one of the big crowd-pullers was a bath. But not just any bath. "Audrey", made by the Italian company Sicis, is modelled in the shape of a giant stiletto party shoe, its shimmering exterior constructed entirely from glass mosaic.

Audrey's usual home is in the window of Sicis's Dubai store, a space that seems more art gallery than commercial showroom, its interiors a glittering testament to the 21st-century revolution in mosaic art, which is being led by Italian companies such as Sicis and Bisazza.

The store - in a white, modernist villa - took several painstaking months to renovate, with features including funky gold mosaic ceilings, floors inlaid with platinum-imbued glass tiles and flamboyant wall panels, all showcasing what can be achieved with several hundred thousand pieces of chippings (or tesserae to give them their correct name) and a considerable amount of artistic talent.

"Mosaic art has come a long way in the past 20 years," confirms Tareq AbuRoza, the managing director of Sicis Middle East. "We have taken this ancient method of decoration and turned it into something with a real wow factor. "

Audrey aside, mosaic has been liberated from its normal role in the home's wet areas. Rather than function as a durable but dull surfacing material on splash-backs and swimming pools, there's nowhere it can't now be used, says AbuRoza. "It's all about putting a personal stamp on your home. Whether you are using mosaic as a statement lamp, a door handle, a piece of art, or to surface a whole wall or floor, its possibilities are endless."

Undoubtedly the very first example of recyclable art, mosaics are as old as civilisation itself. Evidence of mosaics used as decoration more than 5,000 years ago has been discovered in Mesopotamia (now Iraq.) The fashion for mosaic in that era was copied and refined through many centuries and cultures, including the Roman Empire and Islamic architecture. In the latter case it was translated into the intricately patterned marble mosaics that cover the majority of the world's great mosques and Islamic-influenced buildings, including Spain's Great Mosque of Cordoba and Alhambra Palace.

According to AbuRoza, some UAE clients enjoy the link between mosaic's past and present but, he says, "what they are really interested in is individuality. The first question a client wants [answered] is, 'Does anyone else have this?' And, of course, the best thing about mosaic art is that it is always unique. Yes, they can use our catalogues and the examples in the showroom as a guide but, since every piece is constructed chip by chip and glued by hand, each is unique - and actually, the real beauty is in the imperfections".

Since Sicis set up business here six years ago, its core clients have been from the commercial and contract sector. (Sicis mosaic adorns the bathrooms in Burj Al Arab, acres of walls in Emirates Palace and the spa in the One & Only on Palm Jumeirah.) However, in recent years, a growing number of individual clients have also been seeking out the company's services.

"They come to us knowing exactly what they want and, since they can have a several-square-metre piece of unique mosaic art installed in their house within 10 days of ordering it, it appeals to the immediacy of the local market," explains AbuRoza. Costs range from about Dh60,000 for a sizeable panel - not cheap but certainly within the range of moderately sought-after artists in the wider art scene.

The finest mosaic companies are based in north-eastern Italy, as they have been for centuries, creating a concentration of skills and quality that is unmatched anywhere else in the world.

Sicis, in the coastal town of Ravenna, employs more than 300 artisans, with no shortage of youngsters keen to take up the craft. Bisazza is further north, in Vicenza, on the edge of the Po River basin. Both towns have, on their doorsteps, large deposits of the fine sand required for making mosaic glass. The concentration of craft skills followed naturally.

"Italians are creative. They have excellent taste and they have been willing to invest in mosaics when others have not," says AbuRoza. "They have found ways of producing glass tiles with hundreds of colours, with precious and semi-precious materials. In terms of product and design, the Italians are streets ahead."

Undoubtedly, a move by the leading contemporary mosaic companies to work with high-profile designers - Italian and otherwise - has played its part in resurrecting the allure of mosaic.

Bisazza has enjoyed a surge of global recognition since it started collaborating with such globally recognised talents as Marcel Wanders, Patricia Urquiola, Studio Job and Tord Boontje. Their creative input has produced furniture, lighting and accessories - as prototypes, production models or installations at design fairs and galleries around the globe - to help reveal the potential of mosaic to the wider consumer market.

"Bisazza is about reinterpreting such a traditional art in an extremely contemporary way," says a spokesman from the company's Italian headquarters. "In each product, the designer's creativity expresses itself and brings many aesthetic and functional qualities to the objects that are produced."

One example is the Summer Trees console that Boontje created for Milan Design Week in 2009: by maximising the pixelated effect possible with mosaic, he created a poetically evocative image of the patterns made when sunlight is filtered through trees, covering all four sides of a beautifully crafted cabinet with it.

According to the Bisazza spokesman, having the designer name associated with a product gives it additional value: "It becomes instantly inimitable."

Another favourite of Bisazza is the young Spanish designer Jaime Hayón. For the 2007 Salone del Mobile in Milan, Italy, his use of mosaic along with other materials - ceramic, lacquered wood, even old car parts - in the installation Pixel Ballet firmly placed the craft in the arena of the crazily avant garde. Hayón's dazzling set the following year saw him conceive a fantasy jet plane and matching "hangar" laden in silver mosaic as an alternative living room furniture set-up. During last year's London Design Festival, Hayón's giant-sized chess game in Trafalgar Square - the "board" made of black and white Bisazza mosaic - was a hit with design critics and public alike.

Pixel Ballet and many other Bisazza pieces that have become darlings of edgy design blogs over the past five years are now resident at its Vicenza headquarters, where, under the direction of the architect Carlo Dal Bianco, the current director of the Bisazza Design Studio, a permanent gallery has been created.

"In the Middle East, I feel we are still in a process of education about the versatility of mosaic in the home," says Tomassian Ohannas, the area manager for Bisazza Middle East. However, the company installed a large mosaic portrait of Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, in an Abu Dhabi palace - a work of art that Ohannas describes as "spectacular". His company also completed a similar one for Sultan Qaboos in Oman, so in royal circles at least, the allure of contemporary mosaic art appears to be catching on.

However, those in the region who are aware of Bisazza's cachet are passionate about it. So much so that they often request to install their chosen piece themselves, says Ohannas: "People get real satisfaction from creating their own art and, since the hard work has been done for them in Italy, it is simply a matter of following the instructions when the numbered sheets arrive."

Nevertheless, since Bisazza mosaics start from Dh4,000 per square metre (Dh6,000 if it includes gold leaf) it isn't a DIY project that many could afford to botch.

The art pieces from Sicis are all installed by the company, says AbuRoza, having been made to measure at its Italian headquarters.

Increasingly, such pieces are treated like other art: something that the owner can take away when he moves house. "They can easily be fitted onto an aluminum frame and hung on a wall or installed on a floor, like a rug," AbuRoza explains.

Hot on the heels of the portable mosaic phenomenon comes a mosaic carpet by the designers Ellia Nattel and Tel Margalit. "What happens when the floor and carpet meet" was the starting point for their project, which had the pair searching for a way to make mosaic more modern and accessible. The result was a rug built out of 10,000 tesserae attached to a flexible felted carpet net. To give the mosaic the soft look of a textile rug, they also wove in carpet twine by hand.

Although the resurgence of mosaic art is undoubtedly positive for interior designers and architects constantly seeking new ways to individualise living space, there's a downside for the manufacturers: "Fake products are becoming a real problem for the Italian mosaic companies," admits Ohannas. "It is quite easy for anyone to get hold of a catalogue or go onto a website then send it to China and have whatever they want copied."

Bisazza is tackling the problem by putting a verification of authenticity code on every product that leaves the factory. "Then, even if the mosaic has been bought from a [third-party] distributor, the client can easily verify the product by entering a code number via a secure website."

Meanwhile, Sicis is focusing on the fun side of mosaic art. With his store located on a prime corner of Beach Road in Umm Suqeim, AbuRoza is determined that Sicis is as visible to as many people as possible: "We have a great outdoor space so our next plans are to decorate the walls outside," he says. He's starting with 15 jewel-hued butterflies set into the exterior wall, for which he needed special planning permission: "It's unusual ... but we just want to give [people] a greater idea of the versatility of mosaic - and the crazy things you can do with it."