Blending art, architecture and design, mosaic tile is one of the oldest forms of wall and floor covering.
Using the tiny squares known as tesserae, Ancient Greeks and Romans created detailed stories and intricate geometric patterns, and mosaic art embellishes ceilings, walls and floors from Byzantium to Barcelona.
Today, artists teach and share their tile-working skills at places like the Chicago Mosaic School and the Institute of Mosaic Art in Berkeley, California.
And mosaic's creative possibilities are popular among interior designers, too.
At Coverings, an industry show in Chicago this past spring, tile-makers' booths were mini art galleries. Designer Alena Capra, for instance, created a peacock feather out of dozens of Ceramics of Italy mosaic tiles to showcase the range of colors and creative possibilities. (www.alenacapradesigns.com)
"Mosaic tile lets you create amazing murals of just about anything. I've always loved doing mosaic murals, because they allow for the most creativity with tile," says Capra, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Murals and feature walls done in mosaic tile can bring a "wow" factor into a space; on a smaller scale, they can add design flair to backsplashes or bathrooms. Because there isn't a lot of acreage to cover there, you can have some fun with colors and patterns, and perhaps splurge a little.
Modern manufacturing techniques mean the range of mosaics is greater than ever. A new type of durable material even lets today's designers put glass mosaics on the floor.
Sara Baldwin, founder of the Virginia-based design studio and manufacturer New Ravenna, notes that mosaics have inherent texture in the way they're hand-crafted, cut and assembled.
"We've now focused on this, combining different materials in one mosaic," she says. "So you can find stone, glass, shell, gold, ceramic and even aluminum together, creating a dynamic textured surface."
Glass or stone cut into intriguing shapes can help walls and floors tell a little story.
Flock, part of New Ravenna's Altimetry collection, places delicate glass "wings" against a creamy Calacatta marble background. Francois Grand, part of the Illusions line, stacks glass and marble shapes into a witty and slightly startling trompe l'oeil, 3-D design. And Demi Lune, a waterjet-cut mosaic crafted in aquamarine glass, has a lovely wave motif. (www.newravenna.com)
Mosaic Décor's Circles design features a cascade of variously sized, small round tiles in blacks and browns, evoking a glass of fizzy cola. (www.mosaicdecor.com)
Kelly Wearstler's Liaison collection for Ann Sacks has mixed stone mosaics in sleek, cool shapes that form geometric kaleidoscopes. (www.annsacks.com)
"One trend I love right now are the Mediterranean blue tiles — especially aqua as an accent color," says Capra.
Spanish maker Alttoglass offers a pretty, blue-and-white mosaic printed with a traditional Portuguese pattern. (www.alttoglass.com)
For Italian tile-maker Brix, Japanese designer Aki Motoyama has created Cloud, a series of five different-size porcelain tiles in soothing neutrals. On the wall, the effect is free-form and relaxing. (www.brixweb.com)
Appiani's Memorie collection revives several centuries-old mosaic patterns in rich colors. They nicely offset contemporary furnishings in a modern space. (www.appiani.it)
Metallic mosaics introduce a dash of drama. Add bling with a few gold, silver or copper tiles; clad a larger area like a backsplash or bath wall, and the effect is spectacular. Tilebar's stainless steel Terrapin, Alchemy and Cirque collections highlight geometric shapes in stainless steel. (www.tilebar.com)