The mythical Roman god, Mercury, is associated with speed, proficiency and war. However, he also has a more reflective side to his personality, being equally known as the god of skilled trade and craftsmanship. These more artistic qualities of Mercury continue to resonate with the Minneapolis-based artisan, Mercedes Austin, who lived most of her life in the fast lane, but then decided to change gears, slow down and hit the reset button on life.
She describes her former self as the “stereotypical artist,” the type that is hampered with addiction, self-doubt and with no focused career path. Once she committed to ceramics and mosaic art though, she realized she could transform it into a viable business (as long as she tuned out the naysayers). The necessity for raw materials, as it so happened, became the mother of invention for Mercury Mosaics, a 15-year-old company with 33 employees and $2.2 million in revenue last year, driven by both residential and commercial commissions.
“At some point, I had two options: feed into the stereotype and make all the haters right, or, invest in myself and become the new artist that I want to see in the world.
The company began as a supply chain for her art, Austin explains. “At some point, I had two options: feed into the stereotype and make all the haters right, or, invest in myself and become the new artist that I want to see in the world. I found I could give power to what I didn’t want to hear, or, like a determined athlete, found ways to measure my performance and just get better with each year. Next, I found I was beating my goals. One day, it became less about me making a living as a mosaic artist. I haven’t quite switched back to being a mosaic artist.”
Austin reasoned that if creating art from beautiful material could bring her inner peace and contentment, it could have a similar effect on others when she covered an entire space with it. It could even add value to people’s lives, both in private dwellings and lifestyle-oriented businesses that run the gamut from restaurants and retail spaces to public areas in workplaces. Both design enthusiasts and creators are well aware that it is often the curated details that sets a spaces individuality, whether in the form of statement rugs or textured wallcoverings. In the case of Mercury Mosaics, they use this window of opportunity to enhance the feel of a place by creating multi-dimensional murals, backsplashes and pictorial displays for their clients.
Clients trusting themselves to bring everything they love and enjoy into the design process empowers our custom division to curate designs that fit perfectly in that living space.”
“We’re a collective of a team of craftspeople who put their sweat, genius and hard work into an honest day’s craft,” she says, beaming with pride. “As we design and build things to last several years or decades, it’s hard for me to speak about our work in terms of current trends. However, one major trend that I see with interior home design is the homeowner opting for individualism over what may be popular at any given moment. Clients trusting themselves to bring everything they love and enjoy into the design process empowers our custom division to curate designs that fit perfectly in that living space.”
Austin feels kitchens and bathrooms are the most important rooms of the house, so, for her and her team it is a collective goal to create tile installations that provide balance and support for other design accents in the room. Tile installations have a functional aspect, as a backsplash for a kitchen stove or a bathroom sink, a shower floor or a luminous frame for a fireplace. However, the fact that tiles can be mixed and matched in terms of shape and color means that the finished work can ultimately be a one-of-a-kind artistic statement that fits the homeowner’s lifestyle as well as the residence’s geographic region and architectural style.
“Tile adds warmth to a residential interior design when our hand-made tiles can be assembled in such a way to bring a personal touch to the overall interior design of a room, in contrast to tile companies that install things purely for function and with nobody in particular in mind,” she says. “Wallpaper and mural-inspired designs for back splashes and wall accents have become more popular among clients, and it’s awesome because it helps us adapt styles we promote on the website to the specific preferences of the customer and the specific architecture of the home. Through our online photos, we want to give homeowners the power to explore different ideas that will make sense in their space.”
Austin notes that on the West Coast, especially in places like Seattle and Portland, clients lean toward “more muted, cooler colors that focus on a room’s natural materials enhanced with glazes that add depth to the lighter colors and provide the feel of a maker’s hand.”
In other words, the website’s photo gallery is merely a starting point, where the homeowner’s imagination can begin to flow while the design is informed by where and how they live. Austin notes that on the West Coast, especially in places like Seattle and Portland, clients lean toward “more muted, cooler colors that focus on a room’s natural materials enhanced with glazes that add depth to the lighter colors and provide the feel of a maker’s hand.” In the Southeast, especially in the Carolinas and Florida, “we find a lot of color palettes inspired by water and designs that bring the feel of the outdoors inside. Our Moroccan Fish scales, in particular, remind clients of being out on the water.”
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Austin observes that clients who own original Mid-Century homes in Palm Springs, and elsewhere in the Southwest, are interested in restoring the interior look of their homes to the original aesthetic which often has “a lot of pop, geometry and bold colors.” This was a prominent characteristic in their displays during Palm Springs’ Modernism Week last February. However, tile design can be a fluid process, and she notes that switching out a few colors may give an installation more of an early 20th Century Art Nouveau feeling that could work in both Midwest and New England homes.
Other tile trends she has observed percolating in the U.S. market over the past 15 years are influenced by contemporary design created for hotels and restaurants. She points to backdrops of clean subway tiles with pops of color, and custom-crafted novel lettering to spell out everything from the homeowner’s name to a clever quote that sums up his or her outlook on life. Inspirational reception areas at some businesses integrate small planters that bring the outdoors inside. She explains craftspeople and homeowners can work together to figure out how to “reverse engineer” a design to remove branding and have fewer and more strategically placed planter tiles so it fits into a more intimate home setting.
Austin has also noticed that some of her clients are embracing the visual appeal of mixing textures in flooring. “Hexagon tiles can be arranged so they flow into the hardwood flooring in a more organic way rather than just a straight line separating the two mediums,” she says. “People are really excited about mixing different materials to set a certain mood. However, the main section of flooring should be industrial, simple, durable and focused on performance. Keeping tiles within small areas also creates a burst of color and texture that lights up the room.”
She advises potential clients that before hiring her firm or any other custom tile company, homeowners should have a basic level of organization to their ideas before they approach a professional. They should pull together a profile of what they want the room to be like when the installation is in place, as well as the dimensions of the room and space to be tiled. The physical condition of what’s going to be transformed, whether it’s a new home or an older home undergoing renovation as well as having some idea of the timeline for completion, is crucial knowledge. “You need those basics in place for the professional to give a base quote for pricing and having an understanding of what actually needs to be done is important,” she says. “Doing your homework saves time and money, and you should send that info to a few professionals to compare their ideas.”
While Austin encourages the consumer to know what they are looking for, there is always space for creativity within the process, as she has set out to prove through her vibrant, occasionally whimsical and tiled artwork.