The inside and outside: Two architectural installation projects 

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Pictured above: The completed kitchen

Connecticut-based Debora Aldo writes about two of her projects, providing insights into what’s involved in creating site-specific, architectural mosaics.


Listen to Debora narrate her article:

What’s the difference between a regular mosaic and an architectural mosaic? The answer is that an architectural mosaic is used as ornamentation on a floor, a wall, the ceiling, or a niche or inset. This type of mosaic was created to be part of a building from its inception. Often this type of work is meant to be seen by many people and adorns buildings used by the public. 

The earliest form of mosaic dates back about 5,000 years. Temples and public buildings were adorned with clay cones of different colors, most commonly a neutral tan, red and black in Mesopotamia. These cones were embedded into a mortar that dried around the cones and kept them stable and attached to the outside walls of the buildings they enhanced. Mosaics were very popular in Greece and, later, Rome. From Roman palazzos to Byzantine churches, architectural mosaics have adorned many grand homes and buildings for centuries. They are still used to create color and glamour in homes and public spaces to this day.  

Practice and planning are key ingredients 

When you first start working on making mosaics for installations, the best thing to do is to start indoors and work small. Try a backsplash for the kitchen or bath. A good size is about 6-feet tall by several feet wide. This is a manageable size for a beginner. Small, vertical installations are often easier to install than horizontal works such as pebble paving that I often work on. The process for both vertical and horizontal work begins by developing imagery and planning the design of the mosaic for the chosen site.  

It’s essential to be able to work to scale. The easiest way is to use a common ruler in inches or centimeters, and pick a scale that represents one foot or one meter. You should draw the whole design in a far smaller size than the actual size. So if you have a work that is 2’ or 60 cm long, you could use a scale of ½” or 1 cm to represent 1’ or 30 cm.  The scale drawing is a place to work out details such as andamento, elements of style and colors. A scale drawing is an accurate representation but at a smaller size. There is a great video, several most likely, on YouTube if you look up: how to read and draw to scale.   

The scaled drawing, full-size template and material selections

Prepare for the unexpected 

I had the scaled drawings enlarged at a print shop and used them to create the mosaic at full size. The majority of the wall was done in a blue marble called Azul Macaubas. It was cut on a large tile saw and laid down, with edges taped so that it could be pulled off the table in sections and adhered to the wall in a manageable size. The installation went smoothly, except for one thing. And you can bet that there is ALWAYS one thing or more. It’s not unusual and you need to be prepared to think on your feet and stay calm and install on. This issue was that the marble was thicker than the tile that was on the wall when the outlets were installed so I had to reset the electrical boxes. That was both an unplanned and unwelcome expense in time and money.  

“When you first start working on making mosaics for installations, the best thing to do is to start indoors and work small.”

The second project is an exterior pebble mosaic paving project. This was considerably more complicated. It took place over a four-year period in Hollywood, Florida. It included 14 street signs and several mosaics over a span of 12 city blocks.  

Working on a public art project 

This was a public project so I needed to bid on the job, put a proposal together and present my qualifications. I then needed to provide the architect and the city with samples. A lot of people were involved with many opinions, which meant that things were started and had to be dropped, or the designs needed to be revised. This is part of working on public projects. It requires patience and the city architect had to deal with a lot of moving parts to make this project happen.

Working on the molds for McKinley Street

So if you are considering this type of work, start small with single slabs and work up to something larger with multiple slabs, so that you are qualified and understand the process of making and installing at an increase in scale. 

Debora Aldo explains how she cleans the molds.

The mosaics on McKinley Street were the largest of all installs on this project. There are 53 sections, each weighing 100-150 lbs per slab. It is a pre-cast pebble mosaic that spanned 265’ /80.770m long and 40’ /12.192m wide. I had molds created by a water jet cutting company. It took six months to build and used thousands of pounds of pebbles in many colors. Once completed, it was shipped to Florida on a semi-truck.  

The newly installed McKinley project pictured at sunrise

I flew down and meet the delivery truck on site and it took several days and a half-dozen people to install it. The installation crew was wonderful and I was fortunate to have them work with me on most of the installations. There were multiple issues that needed to be addressed and as a team we were able to do that. This is not a solitary endeavor. I had studio assistants, packers, and a team at the other end. I hope this is helpful to all those who aspire to work on a larger scale and on a professional level. 

Debora Aldo pictured with the installation foreman at the McKinley Street project

Key takeaways 

  • Good planning is crucial. 
  • It’s essential to be able to work to scale. 
  • Start small and practice before you scale up to larger projects. 
  • Expected the unexpected and be ready to react to issues. 
  • Build a good team around you. 

Instagram: @deb.pietredure