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You Too Can Make Mosaics in the Midcentury or Craftsman Style

One of the great pleasures of life in Berkeley is the quality of its architecture and the care residents take to preserve it. To go for a walk in many neighborhoods is to be immersed in a sturdy but elegant aesthetic known as “Craftsman style,” which unpretentiously marries the natural and the human-made. Think Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan, brown-shingled bungalows with casement windows and exposed rafters,  and you’ll recognize that “look” so identified with beautiful Berkeley.

Craftsman style is an extension of the Arts and Crafts movement in Europe (mostly England and Scotland), that was popularized by William Morris and was much in vogue from about 1880 to 1910. Gustav Stickley is credited with bringing it to the United States, where it was popular from about 1910 to 1925. Maybeck’s First Church of Christ, Scientist on Dwight is the grandest example - it is a designated National Landmark -- but one sees elements of this style on many humbler Berkeley homes.

The First Church of Christ, Scientist by Bernard Maybeck is a National Landmark.

The First Church of Christ, Scientist by Bernard Maybeck is a National Landmark.

"Simplicity is one of its hallmarks -- the lines are bold and generally unadorned,” says East Bay mosaic and textile artist Deborah Block, who has studied the movement and its impact on multiple arts and crafts. “I think of them as being heavy and masculine also, although I read that many of the Craftsman artisans were women. At the first Arts and Crafts exhibition in the U.S., in 1897, half of the people who exhibited were women.”

Ceramics and mosaics also had a place in this movement, and can be found in many exterior and interior details. Now Debbie has found a way to help people replicate elements of the aesthetic in a simple project: making mosaic address plaques for their home.

“Because the Craftsman style in architecture is so closely identified with Berkeley, I thought that making mosaic numbers and letters in a Craftsman font would be a good idea for a class. Signs and house numbers would be simple projects, even for beginning students,” she says.
A Craftsman-style mosaic plaque by instructor Deborah Block. It just happens to be the address of the Institute of Mosaic Art!

A Craftsman-style mosaic plaque by instructor Deborah Block. It just happens to be the address of the Institute of Mosaic Art!

Debbie will teach  teach the one-day workshop on “Craftsman Letters and Numbers” at the Institute of Mosaic Art on April 9, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. She’ll provide students with 6-inch high templates of letters and numbers in a Craftsman-style public-domain font, and teach them how to navigate the curves and angles using the vitreous glass and some ceramic tiles that were characteristic of the period. They’ll also have iconic Craftsman designs and borders to work on. At the end of the day, they’ll go home with the skills to make a custom mosaic address plaque, sign or a design to hang. No previous experience is needed.

On the prior Saturday, April 2, Block will teach a different mosaic workshop that relates to another design style favored all around the Bay Area and currently enjoying a revival craze: mid-century modern.

Both as an art form and hobby, mosaics had a renaissance in midcentury America, especially in California, where some of the most famous American artists, architects, and designers made their home. Debbie’s class, “Mid-Century Madness: Vitreous Glass Mosaics in the Atomic Age,” begins with a slideshow of mosaics from the late '40s to the early '60s; students will then create their own mosaics based on mid-century designs. They will learn how to cut, shape and effectively work with vitreous glass tiles -- the material of choice of many mid-century mosaicists -- and will use the direct method to set the tiles onto an 8-inch square substrate, “the perfect size for a trivet for those pot roasts. meatloaves, or other hearty midcentury meals,” Again, no previous mosaic skills are necessary.

Debbie likes the Craftsman aesthatic but says that it’s the mid-century style that really speaks to her.

“I hated the politics, but I love the style. There is something clean, simple, and light to it. Somehow, it is both forward-looking and nostalgic. Where I see Craftsman as heavy, dark, and masculine, I see Mid-Century as feminine and a little kooky. When I think of the Jetsons, I smile.”
A whimsical midcentury bird in vitreous tile by Debbie Block.

A whimsical midcentury bird in vitreous tile by Debbie Block.

Debbie’s first exposure to mosaics was a trip to Italy with the American Institute for Foreign Study in high school. The love of color and design she developed there stayed with her. After a pre-kids career as a buyer for department stores in California and Texas and a post-kids career as a technical writer in Silicon Valley, she is happy to be reunited with mosaics, and textiles - two art forms that she explores concurrently. Some six years ago she discovered the Institute of Mosaic Art when it was still in Fruitvale, and spent many happy hours there in classes and in mosaic lab. She came with us to Berkeley and you can find her here most Fridays working in the IMA supply store.

In the upcoming classes “I want the students to increase their skill levels and their confidence and have fun,” she says, “but I also want to teach them something about each of these artistic movements that continue to be so popular in Berkeley and the Bay Area in general.”

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