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Industry interview: London Mosaic

Julian Hill began working in the tiling industry almost a quarter of a century ago, starting his career as a self-employed tiler and restorer of Victorian floors around London. Today, Hill runs a medium-sized business, with 25 employees across four divisions and a robust list of clients that sees the company supplying its sheet-fitted reproduction Victorian mosaic tiles across the country and beyond. This month, TSJ spoke with Hill about his company’s niche within the market and how it has helped to make these historical styles easier to achieve in modern interiors.

The idea for London Mosaic originated during Hill’s days as a fixer and restorer. While working on Victorian floors, he would always have to work piece by piece, and given the intricate nature of the designs, this meant an enormous amount of work – with very low margin for error. “As time went on,” he recalls, “I did more and more of these projects, and I started to develop a few techniques whereby I could assemble some of these tiles onto panels in order to speed things up.” Particularly on projects with limited time on-site, Hill says he would find himself templating areas, building the panels off-site, then taking them with him to the job. “That then eventually led to me developing a system whereby we could apply that same method to new reproduction Victorian tiles,” he explains.

The basic principle is far from novel – in fact, as Hill points out, Roman mosaics would have been predominantly built onto sheets. Today most mosaic installations will be carried out this way, but the same is not true of Victorian tiles. These tiles occupy something of a middle-ground between the miniature format of mosaics and the more manageable size of standard tiles, however their non-standard shapes and dimensions mean that even small miscalculations when laying them can result in obvious misalignment across repeated patterns. It was this challenge that led Hill to develop the system offered by London Mosaic today: “It’s nothing new, the principle of sheeting tiles, but we developed a system that made it effective and efficient for us to assemble them onto sheets for other fixers and our clients.”

Interestingly, then, despite starting his career as a fitter, today Hill employs no tile fitter and restorer directly. The company shifted its focus over time, carrying out installation and restoration work while the design consultation and supply arm of the company developed. Quickly, however, it found the design and supply side of the business was becoming more popular and generating more business, so naturally it pivoted in that direction. The decision was made easier by the fact that contracting in this particular market segment meant “quite a lot of competition already,” not to mention the cost and logistical challenges associated with running teams, vehicles and equipment in and out of sites in London. With all of that in mind, London Mosaic eventually transitioned entirely to – in Hill’s words: “focusing all our energy and skillset on supplying products in a specialist format for tilers and tradespeople”.

The company does still manage projects occasionally, he says, however this means working with subcontractors, and typically only on specific projects. “Because we’re quite specialist and we’re operating in quite a specialist field, a client may come to us when they want some restoration done. We have good connections with restorers because of our years in the business, so we’re able to offer our clients that service, rather than just saying sorry, go elsewhere,” Hill says. In this way, that foundational work the business started doing over 20 years ago still benefits its customers today, even if London Mosaic isn’t laying any tiles itself.

As it lays
For tilers, London Mosaic’s products can involve something of a learning curve, but once they get to grips with the system, it offers some significant benefits. “It’s new, it’s different, so it poses some challenges,” Hill admits, “but nearly all tilers we speak to say they really like it because it’s quick, and it speeds the process up.” Where usually a fitter would be fixing one tile, they’re able to lay multiple at once, assembled onto a sheet. On top of that, the product ensures accuracy, helping to eliminate the human error factor. The geometric designs used in Victorian tiling are particularly susceptible here, with repetitive patterns that are likely to make any variations obvious, Hill explains.

The traditional way of laying Victorian tiles is very challenging, he says. “You have to be very skillful to lay tiles one by one, especially when you’re dealing with different shapes, different colours, different sizes, and you’re formulating patterns with thousands of tiles to fix. If you’re filing that style of floor using sheeted components, it reduces time on site, it reduces the amount of time the tiler spends on their knees, it makes the process more efficient.”

At this point, in fact, London Mosaic sells
a lot of its product direct to tiling specialists. For contractors who want to incorporate Victorian tiling into their portfolio, Hill explains, the company’s products make the highly technical, challenging style much easier to accomplish. “We’ve made it a little bit more accessible for good, qualified tilers to take it on and offer that to their clients.”

Unchanging times
Like any other building material, and indeed most other facets of life in general, tile designs are subject to unpredictable and often dramatic trends. Many of the products one can see in tile showrooms right now will be considered hopelessly outdated in 18 months time. Fortunately for London Mosaic – despite the relatively niche design style its products cater to – trends hold little sway and exert little influence over the company’s particular clientele. “I’d definitely say it’s a timeless design aesthetic,” Hill says – although he notes that, amusingly, when he first started his career as a fixer, he found himself pulling up lino and carpet off of authentic Victorian floors! (“I think that was a little hangover from the 70s and 80s,” he says.)

For London Mosaic, the architectural tradition of London – in particular its Victorian period homes – mean the company’s offering can never really go out of style. Hill gives special credit to the quality of the craftsmanship in ensuring the longevity of this design lineage: “It was quite high level in its day. There were a lot of artisans involved in Victorian construction, so most of these buildings are still standing, and people do fall in love with that style of architecture.” While the company does work with a spectrum of clients, then, Hill explains that these homeowners make up the bread and butter of it’s work.

And of course, while London is a hub for that style of architecture, the company does send its products elsewhere in the country, and indeed all over the globe. From the North of England to Europe and even America, there’s no shortage of homeowners who appreciate the Victorian aesthetic, which means there’s no shortage of potential customers for London Mosaic, no matter where you go.

In fact, far from fading in relevance, Hill says, historic reproduction has only become more fashionable over the last several decades. “As people became a little more affluent in London and there was a little more money, around the beginning of the millennium, people began investing more into preserving and reinstating the period features of their homes. So, for a hallway these days, carpet is a no-no.” Perhaps a result of the information age, people are generally more cognizant of higher quality materials and choose to utilise them where possible. For example, Hill suggests, a house may have an old pathway which adds to the charm of the property, and this is an ideal area for a buyer to renovate in order to connect with the past and reinstate something original in the home.

Testament to this philosophy, London Mosaic was involved in a TTA Award nominated project earlier this year. Using photos of designs that no longer exist, the company worked with Craven Dunnill to create and supply recreation tiles for a period house. “It was a very authentic reproduction of an historic floor,” Hill says.

But while the company’s work is particularly well suited to period properties, Hill says: “It’s also quite versatile – it fits very well with modern colours, and modern fixtures and fittings.”

Modern day solutions
Indeed, it’s not only Victorian homes where one finds London Mosaic’s handiwork. The company recently supplied tiles for One Sloane, a boutique hotel in London, which has recently been completed after five years of development. “The world-renowned designer François-Joseph Graf created the hotel’s interior, and he specified a particular design of geometric tiling,” Hill says. “He came up with it, and then we supplied the design. For the reception flooring, all the tiles were specially cut to size after a lengthy consultation, a lot of drawing, and a lot of planning. We supplied the majority of the tiled flooring throughout the hotel which was then fitted by Mega Marble. I wouldn’t say it’s typical Victorian tiling, but it’s a period-style design we assisted with.”

Hill describes this more specialist work as “quite extreme,” when it comes to high-end work. While the standard Victorian tile supply involves a fair amount of consultation for design and implementation, London Mosaic’s larger, more commercial projects can break from tradition, necessitating even more supervision. “For example, marble mosaic – we’re able able to offer that service as well. If a client wanted lettering for an entrance, we can have that designed, built, and installed.” In fact, the company did just that for Harrods. “We don’t tend to shout out so much about that, because it’s not something we do every day,” Hill says. “But we do offer it, and we do have clients for it.”

Beyond these projects, one other avenue in which London Mosaic has embraced modernity is the digital world. Hill says he attributes the success of his company “in a large part” to his investment in the web. From the first day he was able to, he bought a digital camera, created a website and began uploading pictures of his work. “Ever since, I’ve always invested in our online presence, in terms of putting up information for clients about the services we offer, what we do, and how the process works.”

Of course, this early groundwork helped the company transition from an early web 2.0 presence to the world of social media we inhabit today. In line with Hill’s first investment in a digital camera for the website, today the company still focuses on the more visually oriented platforms, such as Instagram and Pinterest, for its social media presence.

Even so, Hill remains prudent with his investment into these platforms. “With social media, it was a very new and fast moving phenomena, which has really surprised us all I think,” he says. “But I’ve always been cautious about putting too much monetary investment in. Even today, we dedicate some of our time and resources, but not a huge amount, because it can be a little bit of a black hole. It’s difficult for us to measure its effectiveness. I feel it’s important though, especially when you see clients using it.

Historic times
The last several years have been filled with a succession of unprecedented events, affecting nearly every company in ways big and small. In this regard, London Mosaic is no exception. “Economically, I would say, COVID hit us at a very worrying time, a very difficult time for us,” Hill explains. The pandemic began right as the company committed to taking on new, larger premises. This was a significant outlay, and should the company have experienced a serious downturn, it could have been catastrophic. “Thankfully, the home improvement industry, for us at least, remained very buoyant,” Hill says. Like the company’s product, its clientele seems similarly unphased by change. “The housing market in London is always up. It’s more resilient to market forces, so we’re fortunate in that regard.”

Indeed, after the strict lockdown period, the company actually experienced a “definite uptick” in business during COVID, which Hill happily attributes to homeowners saving money by not going on holiday. Business has levelled out somewhat for now, but the company remains in a robust position, and even through recent inflation and energy price rises, it’s managed to weather the storm. After a year of award nominations, large commercial projects and consistent business, it’s tough to imagine a crisis that could shake London Mosaic now.

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