A toast to tiles

  • People
  • Saturday, 05 Apr 2014

A school of whimsical ceramic fish swimming through a ‘river’ of tiles.

A mosaic-loving family’s journey of many tiles.

THE transformation started simply enough, with a moulded ceramic tile of a flower framed by Celtic tracery.

Neither Aziz nor Louise Farnam can recall now where they found the periwinkle square, but, at their son Amiel’s urging, they glued it to the upper-left corner of a low concrete retaining wall in front of their 1930s bungalow in Santa Monica, California.

Both had seen the elaborately tiled mosques and mausoleums in Isfahan, in their native Iran. It didn’t take long before they were scrounging in Southland secondhand stores, Catalina boutiques and Las Vegas casino shops for more tiles, plates and figurines. They collected pieces of cobalt blue, aqua, plum and yellows from pale to sunny. They broke or cut them with special nippers into irregular shapes and applied those to the wall, letting them radiate in no particular pattern from the original piece.

They finished that wall, then tiled the walkway to the front door.

From there, things escalated – to a traffic-stopping degree. Motorists routinely slam on their brakes to marvel at the eccentric artistry. “Everyone knows my house,” Louise said. “Just say ‘mosaic tile house in Santa Monica.’”

About 13 years have passed since the couple set that first tile, and now the entire house on California Avenue at 26th Street is a shimmering montage that beckons the curious.

The Iran-born couple have given a new twist to the ancient tilework of their birthplace.

“Most of my family and friends, especially my father-in-law, say, ‘You’re crazy, you’re stupid’,” Aziz said. “But people stop and say, ‘I love it’.”

There has been no grand scheme, and Aziz’s style and tastes have evolved. “Every hour you change the mind,” he said. “There’s always a new idea.”

One of their sons, Amiel, now 28, acknowledged that the visual stimulation can sometimes overwhelm. But he said he has enjoyed seeing his parents “work together and design something that everyone seems to love and adore”.

The Farnams’ madcap affair with mosaics began as an inside job. When another son, Ryan, was in primary school, Louise volunteered to help make mosaic items to sell at the school’s Halloween carnival and fundraiser. She learned the basics of making pictures or designs by arranging small bits of coloured stone, tile or glass.

Then, on her own, she bought plates at a secondhand store and covered a table lamp with pieces featuring miniature roses. She expanded to floor lamps, coffee and dining tables, vases, plates, bowls, mirror frames and chairs, many of which fill the living and dining room of the four-bedroom house where she and her husband have brought up six children. The bedazzling centrepiece is the fireplace, covered floor to ceiling with pieces of mirror in all shapes and sizes.

Aziz at first was not happy with his wife’s newfound passion. “He called it psychobabble, breaking dishes,” Amiel said.

At some point, Amiel talked his parents into turning the low retaining wall in front of their garden into a mosaic. Once that project was completed, he suggested they remove some faded Mexican tiles from the front of the house. With the tiles gone, the exterior urgently needed patching and painting. “Why bother?” Amiel recalled telling his parents. “Just cover it with mosaic.”

A school of whimsical ceramic fish swimming through a ‘river’ of tiles.

In 2005, Louise started a business to make custom mosaic items. By that time, she had turned over the exterior to Aziz, who had put aside all of his reservations. On weekends, Amiel recalled, Aziz would eat breakfast and then create mosaics until the sun went down, stopping only for lunch. The work became therapeutic as the recession tamped down his import business.

Before she fled Iran in 1981, two years after the Islamic revolution, Louise had been a midwife. She escaped by horseback and bus to Turkey. She made her way to Israel and, finally, Northern California. Aziz had escaped Iran earlier, leaving substantial family assets behind. A friend introduced them. They married and moved to Santa Monica. Louise, 58, has become a US citizen. Aziz retains his Iranian citizenship, in the hope of one day reclaiming the family wealth.

Along a narrow walkway at the side of the house, Aziz lifts a curtain to show shelves stacked with plates and cups and yogurt containers filled with beads and broken pottery.

Might they tile some more? “I don’t think so,” Louise says quickly. “There’s no more wall.”

Aziz’s offhanded response: “Only the roof.” – Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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A toast to tiles


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