Photo: Sharon Risedorph

Old-world embellishments Art Tiles

Take your pick from decorative art tiles: faithful period pieces or bold, modern designs » Read It

Ceramic mosaics are among the most colorful and versatile materials in the tile family. Mosaic tiles look striking on floors and walls, and the smaller ones can wrap around columns or follow the contours of garden walls and swimming pools.

Mosaics come either as premounted, factory-made patterns or as one-of-a-kind, free-form artworks designed and built from scratch.

Manufactured mosaics

When it comes to commercial products, the term "mosaic" means any very small tile from 3/4 by 3/4 inch up to about 2 by 2 inches. Shapes include squares, rectangles, octagons, hexagons, and special designs.

These small tiles are mounted together on a common backing in larger sections -- typically 12 by 12 inches or 12 by 24 inches -- and in numerous patterns and grids (grout spacings are included). Backings may be nylon, plastic, or paper; several are shown at right. Most mosaics are meant to be aligned with adjacent panels, then simply pressed into adhesive and grouted when dry. Some, however, are front-mounted: the paper is sponged or peeled away once the adhesive sets.

Mosaics can be of natural clay tile or hard porcelain and are available both glazed and unglazed. Scratch-resistant, unglazed versions are best for floors and countertops; in these, the color is integrated with the wet bisque. Most mosaics are either impervious or vitreous. This, plus the natural slip resistance provided by myriad grout joints, makes them excellent choices for water-susceptible locations in bathrooms and kitchens and outdoors. Some mosaics contain a nonslip additive for additional safety.

Because of the new-found popularity of free-form or "art" mosaics, you can often order custom designs and decorations premounted at the factory. You may also wish to take a look at mosaics made from stone and glass.

Art mosaics

The one-of-a-kind look of free-form design is partly responsible for the current enthusiasm for mosaics and for art tiles in general. Some mosaic works are collages of found materials that might blend bits of smashed tile, shards of pottery or table china, broken glass, pebbles, even marbles.

The look can be representational or gleefully abstract.

Most art mosaics are very labor-intensive, so they tend to be expensive. Some are first laid out in factory or studio, mounted on backing sections, moved to the site, and installed. Others are done completely on-site. Dissimilar materials are "floated" to varying depths in a thick layer of "mud" (mortar); the mortar becomes an integral part of the design.

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