A mosaic-loving family’s journey of many tiles

Santa Monica bungalow, covered in millions of mosaic bits, is quite the conversation-starter

Los Angeles TimesFebruary 26, 2014 

The transformation started simply enough, with a molded 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, Calif.

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.

One morning about two weeks ago, Aziz, 65, fitted bits of plates, floor tiles and orange hearts on the last remnant of bare wall near the two-car garage. A school of whimsical ceramic fish — each planted in the center of a tile adorned with circles of blue, green, tan, white and red glass beads — swam through the section.

Aziz pointed above the fish, to a colorful bird plate. Atop it he had stationed a turkey. Both objects were treasures from Santa Catalina Island, saved for this crowning moment and placed high for their protection.

“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.”

He was impatient to be done. Later, a hired helper would fill in the mortar.

How many pieces did he use to cover the house? “Twenty million,” he says. Who’s going to argue?

Steve Mount, who lives next door, has watched the venture from the beginning and even advised Aziz on the grape motif for the Farnams’ picture window, next to the mosaic apple tree worthy of Genesis. “I’ll be out gardening and people will screech to a halt,” Mount said. “It’s a wonderful conversation-starter.”

The Farnams estimate that a fifth of what’s on their house was supplied by friends, family and neighbors.

The Farnams’ madcap affair with mosaics began as an inside job. When another son, Ryan, was in fourth grade at Franklin Elementary 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 colored 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.

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

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.

Last year, the TLC television network featured the tile house in a segment of its “Four Houses” series. Two of Louise’s rivals dissed her house as a “sensory-overload ... hobby gone wild.” Nonetheless, Louise took top honors, winning $10,000 and beating out a water tower residence, a Modernist cube and a big Calabasas house.

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.”

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