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Industry Interview – Piecing a future together

Recently, Adam Bernstein spoke with Gary Bricknell, founder of the Mosaic Restoration Company, about the company’s origin and its position today in a “very niche market”
For some, business is about revenue generation. For others, it’s a calling to be creative. But for Gary Bricknell and the Mosaic Restoration Company it’s both.

Established in 1998, his company specialises in mosaic design, manufacturing and restoration in a multitude of locations from privately held Victorian or Edwardian properties that feature geometric hallways to the restoration of a serious pieces of mosaic artwork in public buildings.

With more than thirty years of experience of working with mosaics, a natural question to ask is how did Bricknell and the Mosaic Restoration Company start out?

An uncle teaches
Originally from London, he and the company are now based in Northamptonshire. But Bricknell’s interest and passion for mosaics began when as a child visited an uncle, Trevor Caley, at his workshop.

As Bricknell tells, “my uncle was quite a well-known mosaic artist and designer in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. I’m from South London and he lived in South London too. As a child I used to visit the workshop in Streatham. I’d to go there and just mess around with mosaics.”

Bricknell says that Trevor was like a typical uncle and would set up little projects for his sister and himself to complete. “I had an interest in it anyway and was always interested in the arts” – it was fun and not in the least bit laborious.

To cut very long story short, Bricknell says that he moved with his family for work around the UK. Trevor then asked him if 4 he would like to work with him: “I was in my late teens, around 18, when he got a large job to work at various underground stations – Oxford Circus, Tottenham Court Road, Finsbury Park and so on. I joined him staying for three years or so.”
Bricknell says that through plenty of hard work they built up the business to relatively large workshop in South London where they fabricated many big mosaic commissions – “and that’s how it all started – as a child to actually doing the work which were predominantly new commissions and other works – in a workshop.”

It’s important to recognise that Bricknell’s never had any formal training in the art of mosaics – he’s learned everything from being hands on and practical: “I never went to any university – I’ve just got a flair for it. I do have some O Levels, but I just had a genuine interest for mosaics and it went from there.”

But business being business, the work dried up and so Bricknell left to join the building industry where he became involved with project management and allied work. However, the interest in mosaics never left him and so used to do smaller commissions himself. By the start of the 1990’s he hooked up again with Trevor and progressed to eventually become a director, Trevor Caley Associates, and later his own business – the Mosaic Restoration Company – when Trevor retired in 1998.

In time, Bricknell moved his company from London to Northamptonshire in 1999 with his family. The reason being, as he says, “the central location for the business was better positioned to work on projects throughout the UK including Scotland and the north of England.”

In time, the company gradually expanded and has over the last 20 years or so has established itself with “an excellent reputation in all areas of mosaic design, restoration and conservation.”

The company now operates out of a purpose-built workshop in Daventry, in Northamptonshire, where staff are able to conserve and restore existing or fabricate new mosaics to order. “The large workshop and studio,” says Bricknell, “enables clients to see work in progress and view a comprehensive range of salvaged mosaics kept in stock including very rare marble mosaics, glass mosaics, and venetian glass mosaics.”

Finding work
Some companies come and go; however, the Mosaic Restoration Company is, says Bricknell, 25 years old this year. But remember, in terms of mosaic restoration Bricknell’s been working in the sector for nearly forty years.

Thirty odd years ago he was carrying out repairs to Victorian geometric floors found in old Victorian houses as well as undertaking artistic works – this gave him continuity of work. He recalls that he too had an old house and used to enjoy doing it up – “I just couldn’t really get away from it.” Work then – before the move to the Midlands – was mainly in South London around Fulham and locations close by. Notably, as he says, “once you start working, I found that every house has got that type of floor; it was handy for me.”

Those Victorian geometric floor subsequently fuelled Bricknell’s interest in mosaics because, and this should be obvious, they’re both very close in nature – it’s just that one is in a larger format. Then from there, Bricknell found himself receiving larger and larger contracts from churches, cathedrals and town halls. Since then, he says that he’s specialised in not just in geometric floors, but also marble and ceramic and more decorative works.

Incoming work is the life blood of a business and on this Bricknell details how, in his view, times have changed when it comes to generating interest.

He says that when in South London he “put an advert into the Yellow Pages – it cost around £780 or so – to target a specific area in London. It was useless.” He soon found as many others have elsewhere that the best form of advertising was word of mouth – “you do one job well and others will hear about you; I built up a good reputation and so that’s how it went.”

Later, thanks to the Internet, Bricknell found that work really snowballed. “I didn’t have to directly market; we were given write ups and had a relatively good website. Word then got out because we’re so niche; if you’ve got a good reputation and people like you work just comes in. It was relatively easy.”

The mid-late ‘90s may have been world’s away from where media is now, but work was still buoyant. Back then Bricknell’s firm had, as he describes, a minimum of three months’ work booked in. Now, it’s grown to be almost two years.

Even now Bricknell says that much of the work is generated by recommendation. However, the website has been very important in reaching potential new commercial and residential clients. It now features a new facility, “a quick and easy quote request system” where enquirers can describe what they want and upload sample images to illustrate what they have in mind. And for large commercial projects the company can provide detailed mosaic reports following a comprehensive survey carried out on site.

The company now undertakes mosaic restoration and new mosaic works throughout the UK and Europe with “many prestigious projects in Central London.”

Of course, it also helps that Bricknell’s company sits in what he describes is a “very niche market.” On top of that he says that he’s “got to meet a lot of people over the years” and is “lucky to be able to have a good reputation; people would know of me or know of the company.” To this he adds that he’s written reports and the like for both Historic England and Historic Scotland. He also gives talks and lecture at the London School of Mosaic – “I get quite involved as well as the hands-on things.”

Fundamentally, Bricknell says that “because we’re so unique you’ve only got to look for mosaic repairs and restoration on the internet and you’ll find us.”

Now to the use of social media to promote the business. On this Bricknell states that he has “younger people” that work with him to manage this part of the business: “We’ve got an Instagram page, a website, we post blogs, and we’re on Twitter. So, we are relatively active – but we could be better in all fairness.”

Even so, he does think that the website is most important thing in terms of publicity. He tries to have it updated on a monthly basis with blogs – “little news things” – if nothing else.

But even with the advent of the web and social media, Bricknell finds that “promotion just happens.” He adds: “We’re currently working at Manchester Town Hall. We did a big job in Rochdale church. We’ve been at Salisbury Cathedral, the V&A, and did a new commission at Westminster Cathedral. They are all quite noteworthy projects.” Using the work at Westminster Cathedral as an example, Bricknell says that it appeared the cathedral’s own magazine which then went live on the cathedral website. “Because we’ve completed a couple of projects in Roman Catholic churches it tends to get the word out… it happens like that, on websites, and then I get a phone call.”

With a long and storied history, Bricknell tells how the company has completed
projects of all sizes – from “tiny little commissions for people’s homes and a small one for Westminster Cathedral that was only 400mm by 1500mm… but which took nearly nine months to make” to the biggest of jobs where he’s worked at the Albert Hal “which took us two years”. He says that they’re currently at Manchester Town Hall for two years. But that’s not as long as a commission for Westminster Cathedral some seven years ago that took him three years to finish. All in all, he says, in the same breath as mentioning St. Paul’s Cathedral, that “some really massive projects can go on for years.”

But work needs managing which is why Bricknell aims to balance one big project – like that currently running at Manchester Town Hall which finishes in June 2024 – alongside smaller jobs such as those from churches and other commissions. But be it small private work, or a large public commission, each project – he says – receives the same attention to detail.

Staffing matters
Clearly with the volume of work that Bricknell has the company needs staff. And indeed, there are a number on the books. In more detail, he outlines that currently there are six people employed under PAYE – “the longest serving have been with me four, eight, twelve and fourteen years.”

As for how they’re recruited, they’re mainly stone masons. Bricknell says that one’s a qualified conservator with a degree in conservation and there are another four specialist subcontractors that the company uses who are all specialists in their own fields. In essence, though, he says that “what we tend to do is hire either mosaic artists, conservators or people from similar trades who are skilled in stained glass windows, stone masonry, or are letter carvers and so on.”

Not surprisingly when hiring Bricknell has to sort the wheat from the chaff because, as he says, “we get lots of enquiries from people who think that making mosaics would be a nice thing to do. But there’s a misconception about sitting in a workshop and making or creating arty things. Sometimes it’s like that, but many times you’re on your hands and knees on a building site with a hammer and chisel and it’s quite labour intensive.”

The struggle for Bricknell is to find someone that has an artistic flair, is good with their eyes, and understands how to fabricate and design. But because the work is quite physical it becomes a challenge to find both. And that’s why he says that “I’m lucky that my team are like me – they don’t mind getting their hands dirty while creating some amazing artwork as well.”

Apprentices feature in the business. Every year Bricknell participates in the Prince’s Foundation and has taken an apprentice on via the organisation in each of the last three years. “Currently,” says Bricknell, “we’ve got one girl that’s been with us for a year from Historic Scotland on a formal apprenticeship. And we’ve got a young lad, who’s 18, in Manchester that we’ve made a bespoke mosaic apprentice.”

Bricknell says that the aim is that at any one time he has one apprentice or more training with the company. He says that they don’t necessarily stay after training, but still thinks it good to pass his knowledge on. “What tends to happen,” he says, “is that they go and do their own thing… mosaics or tiling – an allied trade to ours. But what’s useful from my point of view is that with most of them I can pick up the phone to see if they fancy joining us for six months to help with a big job.”

Overall, Bricknell considers his company unique with “a fresh and friendly approach to running its business. And because staff are directly employed and trained to a high standard, they have pride in the work they carry out.”

Look out next month for the continuation of our interview with the Mosaic Restoration Company.

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