Tile Style

Glass mosaic tiles from Bisazza

Think of mosaic tiles and what might come to mind are monotonous bathroom walls or dowdy kitchen countertops. But they are also the medium of Pompeii's vibrant floors, Byzantium's golden naves, Islam's intricate domes. Over the last decade a number of contemporary designers, from architects Gae Aulenti and Michael Graves to fashion arbiters Romeo Gigli and Anna Molinari, have begun creating mosaics that are closer in spirit to those exuberant pinnacles of decorative art than to your humdrum kitchen-sink backsplash. Bisazza, a leading Italian manufacturer of glass mosaic products, has been an enthusiastic collaborator on such projects, with the intention of opening up the design-savvy homeowner's imagination to the material's considerable possibilities. "The mosaic itself is not a finished product," says Piero Bisazza, head of the family-owned company. "You rehandle it, remanipulate it, and in the hands of different clients and designers, you get very different results."

This reevaluation did not, of course, originate with Bisazza. Midcentury modernist architects found mosaic, at least in monochromatic or abstract patterns, an acceptable way to embellish an interior without compromising their aversion to ornament and devotion to a material's integrity. While the ongoing proclivity for that period has brought renewed interest in mosaic, the current trend toward surface decoration and Baroque ebullience has also encouraged more fanciful incarnations, many attributable to Bisazza.

One primary example is the company's new Manhattan showroom, which its designer, Italian architect Fabio Novembre, describes as "taking Palladio to New York and filtering him through a psychedelic New York lens." In recent years, first as an independent designer and, beginning in 2000, also as Bisazza's art director, Novembre has worked with the company in creating a series of stunning showrooms (the one in Milan has a heated swimming pool) and promotional installations, such as an enormous mosaic wave based on the famous Hokusai woodblock. For Bisazza's SoHo quarters, he has bespangled a 3,500-square-foot storefront space with an eruptive frenzy of mosaic tiles and patterns. "I'm trying to reestablish the perfect order and symmetry of Palladio," says Novembre, "and make it explode."

The historical reference isn't arbitrary. While it has offices around the world, Bisazza was established and maintains its headquarters in the northern Italian city of Vicenza, which Palladio also called home. Founded by Piero's father, Renato Bisazza, in 1956—a time when the fortuitous combination of craft tradition with postwar industrialization put Italy at the vanguard of contemporary design—the company developed mass-production processes that moved ancient Venetian glassmaking in the direction of a modern mosaic industry. In addition to classic glass mosaic mounted tesserae-style on paper or mesh, Bisazza produces specialty tiles like Oro, featuring 24-karat gold leaf sandwiched between vitreous layers, and Gemme, which incorporates avventurina, a synthetic stone developed in 17th-century Venice that creates a glittering, jewellike effect.

These products attracted the legendary Milanese design virtuoso Alessandro Mendini, whose wildly original use of mosaic led him to become Bisazza's creative director in the 1990s. "In the early '80s, Mendini started using mosaic in many projects, both interiors and building facades," says Rossella Bisazza, Piero's younger sister, who formally joined the family business last year after a career as a ballerina. (A third sibling, Marco, heads the company's North American subsidiary in Miami.) "Then we met him and started a collaboration. After Mendini, many other designers started using mosaic tiles, which soon became very fashionable."

While stone, ceramic, seashell, potentially any hard material, can be used in mosaic, glass lends it a particularly translucent, scintillating brilliance. "It's like a laboratory of Prometheus," says Novembre, who is himself like a poet with rock-star tendencies. "It comes from fire; fire melts the glass and, with craftsmanship, makes something that is absolutely special and individual."

And dazzling. Bisazza's tesserae have found an astonishing array of applications, on furniture, as jewelry, and, especially, in large-scale installations. On the floor of the American Museum of Natural History's Rose Center for Earth and Space, Bisazza tiles were arranged in swirling constellations of celestial bodies and cosmic dust. Its golden Oro tiles have adorned everything from a domed palace for the Sultan of Brunei to a pair of eight-foot-tall Oscar statues that stood watch over the Governors Ball after the 1998 Academy Awards. And Novembre has produced work that ranges from the compellingly sculptural, such as that giant Hokusai wave, to the unabashedly risqué: In the London store that he designed for Blumarine, customers enter between a pair of nubile, Oro-encased legs.

Not that Bisazza expects its residential customers to emulate this razzle-dazzle—it only wants them to be aware that mosaic has extraordinary decorative and architectural capabilities. "When people realize the potential of glass mosaic, they always seem surprised or put off-balance, because they never expect it," says Piero. "I'm really flattered they're still interested in an ancient product that we're trying to keep contemporary."

Bisazza, 43 Greene Street, New York; 212-463-0624; www.bisazza.com.