On September 20th, the League will host the 2014 Beaux Arts Ball at Weylin B. Seymour’s, an event venue next to the Williamsburg Bridge that was the former headquarters of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. As part of an ongoing feature in anticipation of the event and in celebration of its theme of Craft, we sat down with Danilo Bonazza, the mosaic artist for the marble tile floor, to discuss mosaic installation, the development of new materials and techniques, and his company Art & Mosaics. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
I’m a mosaic artist, born and raised in Ravenna, Italy. I’ve been doing it for pretty much my whole life. When I was 4 or 5 years old, I would break my father’s bottles of wine and put the pieces of glass together — that would get my parents mad at me. Ravenna is considered the capital of the world for mosaics, so I was surrounded by ancient mosaics growing up and I took inspiration from them. Eventually I started teaching and training other people to be mosaic artists and installers too. When my business started growing, and I started traveling a lot, I wasn’t able to teach anymore. I decided to move to New York after I met the woman who is now my wife. I had been in New York to install the Sicis showroom on Broome Street, which is the biggest showroom for mosaic in the world. We fell in love and decided to get married, and I then established my business, Art & Mosaics, here in 2008.
I didn’t have any formal training; I’m pretty much self-taught. I develop and use new materials, based on history and traditional practices, so there’s really no training for that. I learn the hard way: through experimentation. We have experimented over the years to develop new materials with wide-ranging applications. For instance, we’ve developed specific latex-based mortars and epoxy-based adhesives just for water environments — swimming pools, cascades, steam showers, things like that.
I also create statues, tables, mirrors, and other art pieces. I work about 90 percent of the time in glass, 10 percent in marble. I prefer glass because it gives you a wider range of colors, and it’s a little more modern to me. I’m also creating different kinds of tiles using tempered glass that I’m recycling from different vendors around the New York area. Since you can’t cut tempered glass down to size, when shops or restaurants make a mistake on the size of a window or glass door, they usually throw the glass away. It’s a lot of waste. I can break it apart and put it back together as tiles.
I got involved in the restoration of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank when Carlos Perez San Martin called me after visiting the Sicis showroom and receiving my name as a referral. He wanted the new floor of the Bank building to be as similar to the original as possible. I knew the building just from driving by or passing by — you notice it. When Carlos called and told me about the building, I immediately knew the one he was talking about. I was happy to get involved with the project.
He wasn’t able to buy Sicis products, due to the price, so he bought his product from a company in Lebanon that was a good compromise between price and quality. But I don’t think they had experience with such big projects — when you have a project of that stature, you need to know how to handle it. So there were some problems with the materials and the installation. Some of the issues came from the material production: the cutting, the way the pieces were put together, the way the material was stored in the shipping crates — they took a lot of humidity. Plus, the crates arrived in the wintertime, and they were kept outside, exposed to the weather. When we opened the crates, the mosaic was coming apart and I had to reconstruct it. Also, the dimensions that were provided to them — the map of the room — were wrong in a couple of places, so the pieces didn’t always fit together correctly. I think they might have had different workshops, with somebody working on a piece here, somebody else working on a piece there, and never tried to match the two pieces together. When you see the inside field of color now, it looks patched together when it should be all one flowing pattern. But we did what we could and, considering the material and the special situation, we were pretty happy with the final result.
Three of us worked on this project, myself and two helpers. One I work with regularly, the other was part of Carlos’ crew. In total, it took us about six weeks during the summer of 2013.
First we prepared the surface — the more level, straight, and smooth the better. Then we put down an anti-fracture membrane to prevent cracking later on, whether it’s two or 40 years from now. Before you start installing, you use basic math to plan out exactly where you start and where you’ll finish, and you map out every single sheet to make sure that everything is going to be parallel and perpendicular. Then you pour the bonding material, which is a mortar with latex in this case, and then lay down the first sheet, making sure that every single tile is bonded with the substrate. And then you proceed like that with the second one and third one and so on. Meanwhile, you also install the border, making sure that it flows together. There’s a grouting to fill in all the gaps between one tile and the next. We used two different colors of grout, one for the border pattern and one for the inside field.
We finished the installation and then let it cure for a couple weeks. To create the polished, smooth surface, we called in a floor polisher to grind down the surface of the stones. That process usually takes about four steps, starting with a heavy grit and gradually moving to finer and finer ones until at the end it looks almost like polished glass. That took about ten or twelve days.
I’ve worked on some major mosaics projects around the world, including big hotels, casinos, public squares, churches, and other places. I worked on restorations to a number of the old mosaics in the Vatican. Here in the United States my biggest projects that are open to the public are the Encore Hotel and the Treasure Island Hotel in Las Vegas. I once had to tile a very big swimming pool in Saskatchewan in the middle of winter. It was so cold that we had to build a structure around the swimming pool, warming it up with the best ceramic heater we could find, to maintain a constant 65 degrees, which is the perfect temperature for the materials to set and dry properly.
I have assistants and helpers that I send all over the world for these projects. A number of former students still collaborate with me, some based in Italy and some here in New York. But I’m still the one that takes care of all the details. I still want to touch every single piece of mosaic because I built my name that way. I just love what I do and I’m fortunate enough to be able make a good living out of it.
Born in Ravenna, Italy in 1974, Danilo Bonazza was immediately drawn to and inspired by the art and mosaics for which his city is famous. He founded his company, Art & Mosaics, in 2008. Based out of New York City, he travels extensively throughout the United States and internationally to install mosaics in both residential and commercial spaces.