Mosaics, some with 24-karat gold accents or hand-crafted patterns, prove an antidote to silent white walls.

Share story

“If I could, I would tile the world,” Gerry Eisenberg says. “Because I think it is the most wonderful medium.”

Eisenberg has not yet paved the streets in 1-inch-by-1-inch squares. But last summer, she did install a large mosaic in her master bathroom. Spidery tree branches rendered in stone tile are accented with 24-karat gold glass pieces incorporated in the form of delicate leaves. The mosaic design, executed by the company New Ravenna, takes up the entire shower wall, with a unifying ribbon of leaves encircling the room.

After renovating her historic 1920 house in Aiken, South Carolina, Eisenberg saved the bath project to do in a special way. “What is more wonderful than mosaic? What is more traditional?” she asks. “But mosaic with gold glass to give it that modern zip.”

Tile mosaics, often associated with churches and the Roman Empire, are hardly modern. But with the current maximalist insurgency in the design world, with the entirely welcome return of color and pattern and idiosyncratic interiors, elaborate tile installations may soon follow wallpaper as an old-fashioned adornment updated and rediscovered.

“In these handcrafted mosaics, you get pattern on pattern on pattern,” says Cean Irminger, creative director for the Virginia-based New Ravenna, which recently unveiled a new collection of designs, including “Mod Palm,” a tropical motif that blends glossy and matte glass. “It can be super-intricate and detailed.”

Kim Wozniak, who runs WitsEnd Mosaic, an online tile store that sells to both artists and homeowners, says glass tile is surprisingly adaptable. “Everybody thinks of this old Byzantine style,” she says. “But it can really be anything you want it to be” — or go anywhere, not just in bathrooms and kitchens. “Foyers, for example. You can do it like a rug, but it’s inlaid in the floor.”

Eran Chen, founder and executive director of the architectural firm ODA New York, is a fan of glass tile because it is “a true material.”

He explains: “It has a combination of playfulness, color, light, but it’s still a natural material. That’s rare.”

The tile installer lived in Gerry Eisenberg’s guesthouse for seven weeks while the mosaic was being done. (Kate Thornton for The New York Times)
The tile installer lived in Gerry Eisenberg’s guesthouse for seven weeks while the mosaic was being done. (Kate Thornton for The New York Times)

More affordable — and creative

In the last decade, Chen says, glass tile has become more affordable and also more creative, with computer programs that allow for the transfer of an image — a favorite postcard, a painting, a photo of your cat — into a custom mosaic.

“It’s personalizing your space in a daring way,” says Chen, who thinks that aspect will appeal especially to millennials for whom individuality is everything. “Minimalism sometimes makes it more difficult to tell personal stories.”

One daring personalization through glass can be found in the New York apartment of Babak Hakakian, a partner in Ddc, the high-end contemporary furniture company. Hakakian hired Chen to design the loft space, and together they covered the walls of a powder room in bright red glass — “Massimo Vignelli red,” as Hakakian called it.

Hakakian selected glass from the venerable Italian company Bisazza because, he says, it’s harder to achieve real true colors with stone tile, and because he knew the firm’s high-end, artisanal tile would wow guests.

The project wasn’t cheap. Though Hakakian received a trade discount, the glass tile he used costs $84 per square foot, far more than the $5 to $15 price of more basic stone tile. (Bisazza’s glass mosaics, meanwhile, can cost from $20 to $550 per square foot, before installation). But describing the effect, Hakakian says: “It’s all the things red is — it’s energizing, vital, fun, lively. It’s really sexy.”

A representative of New Ravenna says homeowners who use the company’s tiles can expect to spend from $300 to more than $1,000 per square foot for a patterned installation, depending on the intricacy of the design and the specific tiles selected. As one might expect, 24-karat gold glass will send a budget skyward.

Glass mosaics certainly have the power to stun, especially after two decades of shelter magazine spreads of spare, midcentury modern interiors. To walk into Bisazza’s Manhattan showroom is to feel like a visually starved person being treated to a banquet. There are kaleidoscopic mosaics of Renaissance-esque floral bouquets, geometric patterns, the giant face of young Napoleon Bonaparte.

Flower power is strong

Piero Bisazza, the chief executive, says the 62-year-old company has never wavered in its love of color and pattern. “You do not change your identity because fashion goes one direction or another,” he says. “We enjoy decoration, there’s no denying it.”

Nevertheless, he is finding that fashion is coming to them. “Flower power is very, very strong,” Bisazza says when asked about his most popular designs. “The pendulum is swinging back to rich — not opulent — but rich interiors.”

Gerry Eisenberg
Gerry Eisenberg

Bisazza can refer clients to recommended installers, as will most tile showrooms. And a word of warning: for large-scale, intricate mosaics, it isn’t a weekend job.

Eisenberg’s tile installer lived in her guesthouse for seven weeks. Together, they laid out the large wall mosaic tiles on the floor like an interlocking puzzle, so she could see the full-scale design and make any changes (she added more gold leaves and some highlights). But like many homeowners who take the risk and pay the cost for a glass-tile mosaic, Eisenberg is beyond thrilled with the way the bathroom mosaic brings color and light and a sense of artistry into her home.

“Every time I go in there,” she says, “it’s enchanting.”