Turning into Chestnut Road, just past the fruit and veg stall, our Intrepid FEAST reporter found Harry Day Mews. This handsome former furniture warehouse built in 1922 is now flats. Once you’ve buzzed the intercom, metal gates glide open and the Mosaic Workshop, London’s only specialist mosaic shop, is across the courtyard.
If making is your thing, a visit here is like being a five-year-old in a sweet shop, drawn to an array of baskets and inviting jars full of coloured tiles. Noticeable are the edible-looking millifiori, glass with a patterned interior, reminiscent of seaside rock. Then there are the packets of handmade smalti, traditional, richly coloured mosaic glass imported by owner James from the same Italian family for 20 years.
Here also are ‘the treats’ as James calls them – bronze, copper, silver and gold leaf tiles that an artist uses sparingly to embellish a piece. They shimmer when sunlight passes across them. The urge to touch is strong.
The shop is a large space with shelves containing all the workaday tools to make a mosaic: tile cutters, grouts, tiler sponges, adhesives and wood bases in various shapes and sizes, mirrors and table tops. But it is the unglazed ceramic and vitrified glass tiles sourced from Mexico, China, India, France, Portugal and Italy in every colour imaginable that leave a lasting impression.
So why is Mosaic Workshop in West Norwood? The business was launched in Holloway by mosaic artist Emma Biggs in 1987. Back then the focus was on mosaic commissions. Selling mosaic materials evolved into an additional income later. James joined in the early 90s, eventually taking on the shop side of the business. Being local to West Norwood, he set up in the current premises nine years ago. He recalls some of the commissions they did in those early days – mosaic pieces for Sir Terence Conran’s flagship restaurants Quaglinos and Mezzo, restoration work at the National Portrait Gallery, and a pair of boxing gloves for the bottom of Frank Bruno’s swimming pool! One of the highlights has been fixing a mosaic in a 13-storey cruise liner in Germany. James describes it as a floating tower block – from the top the people working below looked like ants. The mosaic was 20 square metres and took a week to install.
Who frequents the shop? About 10 per cent of customers are in the building trade. And, of course, Mosaic Workshop has artist regulars professionally working on commissions, community projects or running courses. Tessa Hunkin, a trained architect, also part of the original Mosaic Workshop team and responsible for some large-scale mosaics in Westminster Cathedral, now runs Hackney Mosaic Project. This group has created some of London’s finest community mosaics, often working therapeutically with people in the process of making. Examples of their work can be seen at London Zoo.
But the majority of customers are people undertaking decorative projects for their home – a hearth for a fireplace, garden paving slabs, bird baths, feature mirrors, and splashbacks for kitchens and bathrooms. Because it’s important to see the colours in person, makers will often visit deepest West Norwood, despite the mail-order service. What James enjoys most is meeting his customers, hearing about their projects and sharing ideas. It’s a bonus when they send in photos of the completed project. James comments that there has been a resurgence of interest in mosaics as an art form. Maybe this is due to the fact people are enhancing their homes rather than moving house. He ponders, “but also making requires concentration – it’s a good way of blocking stress, it’s a moment of peace”.
That sums up the experience of Mosaic Workshop. There is a kind of serenity in the space and …something oh-so-deeply attractive about those colourful tiles.
Unit 2 Harry Day Mews
1 Chestnut Rd
Tue to Fri 10 to 5.30pm
Sat 10 to 4pm
Monthly Late Night until 8pm (1st Wednesday of every month)