- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Marina Agostinho of Mount Airy, Md., could have designed an ordinary entryway to her home, but she wanted to bring part of her Portuguese heritage into the house.

Now when visitors walk through her front door, they are greeted by a 42-inch flower medallion made from stone mosaic embedded in the floor. It is surrounded by Botticino marble tiles with a black granite border. The round shape accents the circular staircase in the area.

“Mosaic is special because it reminds me of an Old World feeling,” she says. “It’s the feature in my house that makes me feel at home.”

The art of mosaic has been used in various forms for thousands of years, starting with the Greeks and Romans. Today, it can be featured throughout the house, including in bathrooms, kitchens, foyers, fireplaces and outdoor patios.

Designs or patterns are created using small pieces of glass, stone, porcelain or ceramic, says Betty Sullivan, owner of Architectural Ceramics, which has offices in Rockville and the Washington Design Center in Southwest. Mrs. Agostinho works as a designer for the company.

Pieces for mosaic projects usually range in size from a half-inch across to 2 inches. Because the size of the material allows the medium to be used almost anywhere, it can fit the contours of most walls or curved surfaces.

In the past, clients hired artisans to create works by hand. Ancient mosaics, chiefly from Mesopotamia, were made of clay. After being baked and painted, the pieces were pushed into mud walls.

Today, handmade work is still done in places such as Italy, China and India. Although orders for the craft can be made from the United States, it is the most expensive option available.

Computers also can design and cut contemporary mosaics, considerably lowering the price of finished products. For instance, a computer can slice pieces for a pattern so closely that they won’t need to be grouted upon installation.

“Before, only the rich and famous had mosaics, like Versace,” Ms. Sullivan says. “With technology, it’s been made more affordable.”

After clients decide what medium of mosaic they want and what technique will be used in the project, Ms. Sullivan says, either a pre-existing design is applied to the room or an original one is created.

When the artisans are finished cutting the material for the pattern, it is mounted on a mesh sheet for installation. The work is grouted, and sealers are applied. Even though homeowners might be able to install their own mosaic, the highest-quality work will be done by a professional.

The durability of the finished product is one of its most valuable qualities, says Rachel Toft of Frederick, Md. Mosaics withstand water and dirt and are easily cleaned.

Mrs. Toft hired Architectural Ceramics to oversee the redesign of her first-floor bathroom in stone mosaic. The floor features a basket-weave pattern in brown limestone. The walls also have a border with an intricate pattern of shapes in neutral shades.

“It’s not what most people have,” she says. “It’s very unusual. If you’re looking for something upscale and different from the norm, it’s perfect.”

The cost of tile varies widely, from $4 to $50 per square foot, says Alan Field, designer at Wentworth-Levine Architect-Builder in Silver Spring.

“It depends on the details of your tile work,” Mr. Field says. “It’s simpler to install on three flat walls than if you’re wrapping around a lot of corners. Also, if you have a lot of pattern work, it costs more.”

Mr. Field is remodeling a bathroom for Ane Powers of Northwest. When it’s finished, the area will be covered with three-quarter-inch blue glass mosaic tile. It will be used on the walls and the walk-in shower, which is a cylinder.

“I wanted to use mosaic to make a statement, not just cover the walls,” Ms. Power says. “I’ve seen it in decorating magazines. … I’ve been clipping pictures of bathrooms I liked.”

Because sometimes less is more, Teresa Duncan of Great Falls decided to use mosaic as an accent in her bathroom. Inside her marble-and-stone shower, a mosaic border runs at chest height.

“It contributes texture and pattern to the bathroom,” she says. “It adds a lot of flavor. Otherwise, it would be plain stone walls. I always appreciate architectural interest in any part of the house. I always look at design elements.”

With its rich history, mosaic adds depth to any contemporary setting, says Barbara Sallick, founder of Waterworks, which has 35 shops across the country, including one in Georgetown.

“So long ago, artisans understood how amazing it would be if they took little chips of stone and imbedded them in a surface and they became works of art,” she says. “If you think of all the marble and stone in Turkey and Italy, it’s an incredible look. … They just grow more beautiful over time.”

Many of the patterns offered by Waterworks have been adapted from ancient church mosaics. They are put into a modern context by changing the color schemes. Waterworks also offers mosaic adaptations of patterns used on fabric in the 1940s and 1950s.

“It’s whatever pleases you,” Mrs. Sallick says. “You need to find your personal style and express that.”

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