About three summers ago we did some remodeling in our kitchen. Off went the old linoleum counters and matching backsplash. We replaced the counters with beautiful granite. We thought about using the granite for the backsplash but it would cost another arm and leg. My husband decided that the best thing would be to put my talent to work and so he suggested mosaic art. Up to that point my only work with tile was small mirrors, frames and plaques.
The thought of undertaking such a huge project seemed overwhelming since we weren’t talking inches but about twenty linear feet. After a couple of days of thinking about it (my normal approach to most new ideas), I agreed to the challenge. I researched countless kitchen magazines and websites trying to get inspiration on what to do. After about a month, I still couldn’t come up with anything. I wanted it to be simple but unique. The kitchen is the heart of the house so I didn’t want to get sick of it or have regrets. Once it’s done there’s no going back. I also didn’t want it to be so bizarre or strange that if we ever decided to sell our house it could be a deal killer.
Earlier that spring, I’d spent about nine days in Barcelona, Spain. As a tourist one of the musts to see are the works of the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi.
Gaudi’s most popular work is the temple Sagrada Familia, visited by 2.5 million people every year. Still under construction, the cathedral is expected to be completed in 2026 on the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. Other amazing buildings of his include Casa Batllo and Casa Mila.
One of my favorites of Gaudi’s many works was Parc Guell. A garden complex built with architectural elements, it’s situated on a hill above the city. Constructed between 1900 and 1914, Parc Guell was originally intended as a market place for the residents near the park. Inside the park, the plaza is bordered by the colorful ceramic serpentine bench. The view from the plaza is spectacular and when it’s clear you can see as far as the Mediterranean Sea.
Gaudi collaborated with another spanish architect by the name of Josep Jujol. Jujol took responsibility for the mosaics of the serpentine bench using an established practice known as trencadis or pique assiette. It’s the style of mosaic using broken, waste tiles as a cladding to a building. Jujol, however, took this to another level. He broke whole tiles and fitted them to the curves of the structures and also used tiles he had fired and inscribed himself. In another bold statement, he incorporated broken colored bottles, fragments of a broken china doll and broken plates from his own dinner service. He created a collage of personal items in a style that has inspired and excited millions of people since then, including me.
Later that summer, with still no ideas on what to mosaic on our backsplash and while thinking about my trip to Barcelona, the inspiration came suddenly: I’d make the backsplash inspired by the tile work on the serpentine bench. While visiting Spain, I had purchased a book of photographs of Parc Guell. After carefully examining the photos from the book and my own photos from that trip, I decided on six designs from the bench that would be set into a nice creamy white background.
Next step: where to purchase the tile? I would need a lot of tile for the job. I decided on handmade mexican talavera tile since it was relatively inexpensive and it most closely matched the tile that Jujol used on the serpentine bench that I could find. Locally, the kind of talavera tile that I needed wasn’t available. I found a company on the internet based out of San Diego called Tierra Y Fuego. Talavera tiles are made from clay dug out of the ground and fired to a temperature at which the clay undergoes chemical changes and becomes permanently hard. Then the tile is glazed and decorated by hand, and fired once again to give it its final and lively finish. Its physical characteristics make Mexican tiles particularly attractive and distinctive. Mexican tiles are concave (not perfectly flat). The spanish tiles used in Barcelona and those made in Mexico were quite similar.
Initially I ordered just a few pieces. I wanted to check out colors since it’s hard to match colors on-line and also I wanted to check out their customer service before placing a big order. After about a week of mulling over the samples I placed a large order for more of the solid color white tile, border tiles, and various other designed tiles. I had no idea how much I’d need, so I just guessed. The tile arrived quickly, and I quickly learned that Tierra Y Fuego was an excellent company to work with.
Let the work begin. I made stencils of the designs, then traced them onto the backsplash. Using tile nippers, I carefully nipped the tile into the pieces I needed to fill in the designs. Then I glued the border pieces into place. Next was to fill in the white tile. Cutting each piece to fit into the border and around the designs was like putting together a puzzle. Each piece was hand nipped to fit exactly. I wasted a lot of tile during the process because sometimes the glaze broke off incorrectly while nipping my pieces and I had to make another piece. I regularly struggled with bouts of anger toward myself for choosing such a difficult tile to work with on such a big job. I ran out of tile so I needed to order more.
I worked on the backsplash whenever I could on my days off from my full time job. Finally, after 3 months, I glued the last piece of tile. Grouting was the easy part, like the proverbial icing on the cake. Sealing it was next. Whew! A lot of work but well worth it. A labor of love. It turned out beautifully. We get lots of nice compliments. The uneven surface makes it unique, just like the real thing.
Everyday, I have my very own Parc Guell.