“Making a mosaic is like painting with stones,” Livia Garreta, Barcelona-based mosaic artist tells us in her Gracia studio one January morning. Hundreds of tiles, all glistening with colour are stacked against each wall; jaggedly cut pieces, no bigger than a finger-nail are spread across the table when we arrive. “When you make a mosaic, you know that it will last, it can withstand all the elements.” This she explains is why it was the material of choice for Catalonia’s modernist architects, and why the undulating roofs and dream-like façades of Barcelona’s most famous architect, Antoni Gaudí are covered in mosaics.
Livia Garreta at work on a mosaic in her Barcelona studio / Sharmeela Harris
When you look at the scale of her restoration commissions (the Sagrada Familia, Palau Montaner, to name a few), and then the bite-sized materials Livia uses, often difficult to even pick up by hand, you begin to understand the care that trencadís, one of the many methods of mosaics takes. Livia is sitting on one of the three chipped and scratched worktables in her studio on a January morning as she explains the long history of trencadís and her lifetime of experience working with it. She explains that you can place mosaics on any shape or surface, meaning the possibilities in form, structure and style are endless. Indeed, Livia’s long run passion comes across, as she begins to tell us the story of trencadís and its place in Catalan history.
Livia has had her studio for more than 25 years. It is here that she prepares her restorations for many of Barcelona’s modernist masterpieces. “It’s more complicated to restore a mosaic than to do it new,” she tells us, “you must do an investigation into the artist”. Livia is currently working on restoring the floor of Palau Montaner, a UNESCO World Heritage Site housing Madrid’s Government Delegation in Catalonia. It was designed by and named after another Catalan Modernist architect, Lluís Domènech Montaner, the man responsible for the striking mosaics on the Palau de la Música.
Livia Garreta working on a contemporary design / Sharmeela Harris
As Gaudí has become more popular, mosaics have become more visible. Indeed, it is Gaudí’s kaleidoscopic dragon in Parc Güell and the façade of Casa Batlló that are made using the trencadís method. Trencadís, however, was not created by Guadí and has over 5,000 years of history, amongst many other methods of making mosaics. A few years ago Livia was handed responsibility for restoring parts of the mosaics in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s most iconic building.
Livia originally trained in Fine Art in Barcelona and specialized in mosaics in Italy. Along with Gaudí, she sites Josep Maria Jujol as a strong influence. She then points to the poster on the wall of the mosaic artist Lluís Brú, one of the best and most influential artists. He trained under Montaner and was responsible for the mosaics in the Palau de la Música, as well as countless other pieces in Catalonia. In turn, Livia has trained with the grandson of Brú.
Evidence of trencadís can be found on or inside virtually every modernist building in Barcelona. Buildings sparkle with their mosaic finish in the sun for the eight million tourists that visit the city every year. The art is so revered that trencadís recently gained the status of one of the 116 icons of Catalonia.
Livia Garreta cutting tiles for trencadís / Sharmeela Harris
The 1980s saw many modernist buildings undergo massive restorations, and since then their place has been protected by the city’s strict preservation code. This code has warned off property developers looking to knock down any modernist buildings, and has subsequently encouraged global brands to accept their importance. Livia has work in the Museu del Modernisme Català in the centre of the city. Even the McDonald’s next to the Sagrada Familia commissioned a large Garreta mosaic - a nod to the iconic decoration of Gaudi’s cathedral.
There is a myriad of terracotta and clay patterned tiles on the left-hand side of the studio. Sourced mainly from Spain, they generally serve as material for private projects in homes and restaurants, as well as large-scale murals and restorations. Livia also makes original pieces. She uses other materials commonly found in trencadís mosaics, such as glass. On one side of her studio hangs an array of fish mosaics, subtly coloured with crushed glass to give a startlingly life-like scaly appearance.
Livia mostly works alone, designing and carrying out all the work herself. She holds regular workshops in her studios for people of all ages and nationalities, receiving students from all over the world to learn the art. Spending only a few days with her we soon see the close-knit community of artisan workshops that populate the area: sawdust drifting out of a small opening two doors down and people popping in from nearby tallers to say hello or exchange stories and products. Artisan workshops and independent stores are at the core of Gracia, and Livia’s work illustrates how important these trades are for the city and its identity. Although Barcelona honours the region’s historical commitment to mosaics in its museums and galleries, the tradition continues to thrive. Through the work of contemporary artists like Livia Garreta, mosaics maintain a strong place in the image of the city.
Coauthored by @christopherjfinnigan and Sharmeela Harris. All photos are the property of Sharmeela Harris