The trickiest part of creating our new pebble mosaic was landing on a design for the space. The sources of inspiration are limitless, but the ultimate driver for any design is access to materials – not just geographical access, but cost and consistency as well. It was fine for me to toy around with intricate designs on paper, but the real test was going to be what I could actually do with the materials I had on hand. The smaller the pebbles, the more detailed a mosaic can be. But I kept circling back in my head to the larger pebble designs that felt more garden like than grand piazza like. There’s a time and a place for those designs, but this garden is small and our house is simple, and I really wanted something that would look both modern and timeless in this space.
I finally landed on three rock choices – a white beach pebble, a polished black pebble, and the more common Mexican beach pebbles that are in the blue-gray to gray-green range when dry, and deeper slate colored when wet. I really wanted black and white pebbles, as those were the most common designs in Genoa, Italy where I lived and the seed for this idea was planted. Many of the mosaics in Genoa (and buildings as well) incorporated black and white into the design, and I have sketchbooks and photo albums full of those.
I knew that I wanted a circle, and that I’d lean towards a symmetrical / radial design. I’ve always liked the incorporation of design that orients. I still remember how much E loved her compass when she was younger. We live in a neighborhood laid out on a grid, in a city that orients itself on that axis. When you walk out of our house you are facing north, and we have a very clear directional marker just 21 blocks to the east of us – the Mississippi River. I decided that I’d do a play on that compass design, but soften it up a bit, turning the spokes of the wheel into a petal design that ties into the carved arrow details in our house’s elaborate cornice work. The layout also reminds me of quilt work, and I thought of my grandmother while I was creating it. She would have LOVED this project, really loved it.
In all my initial sketches I included a border to the mosaic – it’s 12″ wide, and ties into the design of the wood carving over the windows and on the house’s brackets. My sketches were all pretty elaborate, but I quickly determined that I could get the desired look with something simpler, less literal. That was a very freeing moment for me. Stones are extremely irregular, and the beauty of a mosaic is that if you get the basic structure in, your eyes complete the rest of the design for you – they actually fill in the gaps! I kept to my string lines and a few key measurements, but I tried not to over obsess on each specific pebble placement. The center of each border section has three white stones that recall the wheat sheaf designs on our house, and also loosely relate to the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of our city. From there, I created scroll work that curved out from the center, and then repeated that in all eight sections.
So I had the basic structure in place for the mosaic – a 24″ diameter center, the eight petals in the body, and a 12″ border around the edge. That’s where I started to riff on the structure a bit to make this installation really personal to our family. I wanted the design to feel symmetrical, but not rigid. F had given me some sketches that she had designed, and she had done a similar portioning of the space into four sections like I had done in our holiday card last year. I started thinking about how the entire garden design had been an attempt to layer some type of order onto the space to create elevated garden rooms, an entry path that sliced through that and felt both logical and welcoming, and the completion of several built items like our iron fence and modern planters. And even with all the lines and planes we established – there’s still a sense that all of these things were built over the course of almost 140 years – because they were! I knew I needed to break up that order a bit to add some fun and whimsy.
That’s when I landed on the final design. I “tipped” the cardinal directions, adding two lines that orient to the Northwest and the Southeast. They represent the starting points for both M and myself, and they meet in the middle here in this spot – just as we did almost 25 years ago. It’s also a nod to the view when we first walk out of the house and through the garden from our front door (which is really a side door.) The center is a flower design, a direct reference to this place where we first put down roots, and now, two decades later, built a garden together to commemorate that. In each of those four quadrants it creates, I placed a star, one for each of us. The symbol of these neighborhoods, the way these old buildings have been held together for over a century, and the first symbol I incorporated into the design of that third floor nursery we built eighteen years ago this summer.
We send that first nursery dweller due north in less than a month’s time, the first of many send offs in our near future. We’ve done our best to let the girls know that they can venture out in any direction they want, to explore and grow and be whatever interests and inspires and moves them. Pick a petal and go for it. You’ll always know where home is.