Interview by Wenke Mast
Photo's by Nathalie Pauwels/Morrec
Mosaic features quite prominently in the museum building. In the entrance lobby and the imposing 19th-century staircase, for example. But also on the balcony at the front. The beautiful floors were originally laid in the late 19th century by the Pellarin brothers, mosaic experts from Sequals in northern Italy. Gino Tondat and Sarah Landtmeters of Mosaico di Due have been working on their restoration. The duo are also installing a brand-new art mosaic at the top of the museum steps.
We talked to Gino and Sarah in their studio, surrounded by millions of marble and glass mosaic tiles in a thousand and one shades. A plan of the new art mosaic, designed by Marie Zolamian (see ZAAL Z issue 28), hangs on the wall. It’s divided into sections: "The blue zones are finished’, Gino explains. ‘Once you’ve cut the tiles to size by hand, you turn them over and stick them to a sheet of paper. You then piece all those sheets together in situ. We use cellulose-rich paper that’s rough on one side and smooth on the other. The tiles are stuck to the rough side using a flour-based glue. When we’re on site, we lay the side with the tiles face down onto a layer of mortar. We then wet the smooth side of the paper, which is at the top, so that the glue softens and we can peel it off. The next step is to finish the joins and to polish the surface."
It’s wonderful to see a design like this evolving into a finished ensemble in stone.
Sarah: "A unique aspect of this project is that we get to work with around 60 types of marble from all over the world. That gives us at least twice as many tones and shades to work with."
Gino: "It means you really can paint with stones. The Renaissance artist Domenico Ghirlandaio once said that a mosaic is a painting that will last forever. We’re working on something that will be around much longer than we will. I find that a really beautiful thought."
The mosaic that was at the top of the museum steps until recently didn’t last all that long, did it?
Gino: "You’re right. That particular floor had been there since the 1970s. The ground wasn’t right, though, and the technical execution was poor. It was beyond restoring. But that gave the museum a unique opportunity. The old floor is being replaced with the largest art mosaic of its kind in Europe. The one Luc Tuymans designed for the MAS in Antwerp might have a bigger surface area, but it’s made up of fewer than 100,000 tiles. The one at the KMSKA will have 480,000. That’s a big difference."
Besides the art mosaic you’re working on right now, the two of you have restored pretty much all the mosaic floors in the museum.
Gino: "We have. Over a period of almost 30 years. The first one we did was in the nineties, when the main staircase was restored for the Antwerp ’93 event. Ten years after that, we treated a smaller mosaic at the back of the museum and now, with the renovation, we’re doing all the remaining floors. So the circle is complete."
Gino has been doing this job for nearly 40 years now and Sarah too has clocked up 16 years. Where did your passion for mosaics come from?
Gino: "It was in my family. My grandfather made mosaic borders for stone floors in the 1920s and my father followed in his footsteps. When that went out of fashion, they started laying other types of floor. At the age of 13, I travelled with my father from Belgium to his native region in northern Italy. He was determined to see the Palio, the annual horse race in Siena. My dad was a bit of a boy racer and I was constantly car sick. He got fed up of having to pull over the whole time, so he dropped into the village where he was born and left me there with a Dutch couple we’d never met before. They took me to a town called Spilimbergo, where we visited the Scuola Musiva. I didn’t speak a word of Italian, so I thought it was a music school at first. The walls and ceilings inside were covered with gold leaf and mosaics – ancient and modern, all mixed up. I was really impressed. But most of all, I spotted an opportunity not to have to go back to school. When my dad picked me up, I told him I’d rather go to the mosaic school and he drove us straight there. They said I was too young – you had to be 16 – but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He went to the principal and said, “I come from here, my parents come from here and this is where my son is going to school.” And that was that. The course lasted four years, the first few of which were really tedious. We had to learn the craft, master the cutting technique, lay out patterns and so forth. As I gained more freedom, my passion grew."
You also taught for a while, to pass on that passion, which is how the two of you came to meet. And now you live and work together. Was Gino a good teacher, Sarah?
Sarah: "What I mainly remember is that at first he was really strict. Everyone in the class sat and worked in total silence. I visited Gino’s studio for the first time during an open day at the academy in Wilrijk. It was really crowded, but I knew straight away it was what I wanted to do. I signed up for his course and threw myself into it. I started to go on site visits with him from the first year onwards. After a while, I was allowed to cut out a crack in a mosaic floor for the first time, and was gradually given more responsibility. I also began to receive commissions of my own while I was still a student."
Gino: "You learn most through actually doing the job – far more than you ever could at the academy. I still had a lot to figure out too after I finished my training in Italy. How to work with pigments, for instance, or the effect of a particular ground. I’m 60 and I still learn new things every day. Mosaic-making is a craft that has existed for thousands of years and continues to evolve in both style and technique. You have to keep experimenting."
You restore floors and you execute designs of your own and by other people. What’s the most satisfying?
Gino: "‘The moment you’ve laid the floor and you get to view the finished result in its entirety. It’s always quite tense – did we measure everything correctly? The paper we use sometimes expands, which can result in a certain amount of variation. That’s what happened with the museum staircase, where we ended up with a one-centimetre difference across the total area. Fortunately, with a design 15 metres long, you can correct that easily by spreading out the tiles one millimetre per metre. Once it all finally fits, you get an immense feeling of satisfaction. And when you start sanding the floor, you see all the colours emerging – just beautiful."
Sarah: "We’re lucky to have such a lot of variation in our projects. It takes us to all sorts of different places. Sometimes you make something for a person’s home and the customer is so moved by the finished result that you get tears in your eyes yourself. Every aspect of the job has a charm of its own."
Gino: "Apart from repetitive backgrounds. We had to lay 300 metres of the same pattern for the Schippersbeurs in Antwerp. All straight lines and very boring to do. At times like that, we call our sisters in. We give them a temporary contract and have them follow the lines we set out on paper. Sarah’s daughter has also become pretty adept in the meantime."
It won’t be long before your work at the museum is done. What is your parting wish for us?
Gino: "‘Twice as many visitors as you’re aiming at!"
Sarah: "And above all a fabulous interaction between old and new – because that’s going to be the biggest change."
This conversation previously appeared in the winter issue of our free museum magazine ZAAL Z.