Installation Case Study: Transforming tiles into artistic masterpieces
After moving all over the U.S., an experienced tile installer planted roots in Homer, AK, where he now crafts unique customized tile designs for customers looking for something one-of-a-kind
Joshua Nordstrom is no stranger to change, as he tells me about his lifelong journey to pursue what he is truly passionate about — tilework. “With a creative mindset, over the years, I have managed to sell my clients not only on traditional tilework, but also on my mosaics,” explained the Battle Ground, WA native, who currently owns Tierra Tile, LLC in Homer, AK. “It has not been an easy task. I am offering a service that is basically totally new to the industry and that no others are doing. As an artist trying to make a name for myself, I have found that many times I have just about had to give away my work to gain the knowledge and recognition needed to further my career. There were definitely times when I was frustrated and wanting to throw in the towel and find a ‘real’ job, but with the wisdom, patience and encouragement from my wife, I am happy to have stuck it out.”
With a main focus on art and pottery classes in high school, Nordstrom acquired his first kiln at the young age of 17. Shortly after, a friend tasked him with creating tiles for a new apartment he was building, which kick-started his tiling career. “I was eager to take on the challenge of making tiles from scratch since I had never tried it before,” said Nordstrom. “At that point, I was just making sculptures and whatnot. Being in the construction industry, I saw the potential in handcrafting ceramic tiles for peoples’ homes. I had not done any tiling at that time. I was siding houses and found myself unhappy with the siding trade.
“Growing up in Battle Ground, WA, a very gray and wet place for most of the year, I had the dream of trying life out in a totally different dry environment,” Nordstrom went on to say. “Opportunity came knocking after I traveled to see my best friend that had moved to Bisbee, AZ. When I arrived back in Washington after my weeklong visit, I had made up my mind that I was going to make the move to Bisbee. I sold everything except my carpentry tools and ceramic equipment, and three months later, I found myself heading south to a warmer place.”
After making the coast-to-coast move, almost 1,500 miles away from everything Nordstrom knew, he took on many random carpentry jobs to get by at first. “At one point, I was even working in a custom hat shop steaming and shaping Panama straw hats,” said Nordstrom. “I was willing to try anything.”
Nordstrom befriended a local man, Daniel, who owned a carpentry business called Tierra Madre Del Sur. “He was buying houses, fixing them up and flipping them,” said Nordstrom. “Bisbee is an old copper mining town that was full of old mining houses that were in need of desperate repairs. With super affordable houses, this attracted a crowd of artistically minded people, ‘hippies.’ It was a real eye-opener for me growing up in a rural country town in southern Washington.
“Daniel and I worked together on many projects over the two years that I spent in Arizona,” he explained. “He knew of my love for art and my interest in tile. I asked him if he would mind if I borrowed part of his business name and that's how Tierra Tile came about.”
Since Daniel split his time equally between Arizona and Alaska, spending winters in Arizona and summers in Alaska, he was always trying to convince Nordstrom to move up to Alaska. “He told me that it was much like Bisbee in the sense that it was also an artist community,” said Nordstrom. “Alaska seemed so far away since Bisbee sat only 10 miles north of Mexico. It was another great dream — the thought of living in a cold, snowy environment.”
One day, Daniel made Nordstrom an offer he “could not refuse” and he decided to take another chance and make the 4,000-mile move up north to the farthest tip of the country. “Daniel decided that he needed his box van full of tools driven up to Alaska for next summer’s work and asked me if I was willing to make the trip for him,” explained Nordstrom. “I had nothing better to do, so I agreed. He gave me $1,000 for gas and a credit card in case any car troubles occurred. My girlfriend at the time and I took our time driving and passed the keys off about 30 days later. We camped in a tent for about three months of one of the best Alaskan summers ever, had lots of great Alaskan adventures and found ourselves back on a plane to Arizona. My heart was left back in Alaska. We soon went our own ways, and I was once again moving my ceramic equipment and tools back north. Way north. Once I arrived in Homer, I soon realized that there was an abundance of carpenters and not so many tile setters. This was when I bought my first business license and started Tierra Tile.”
Tierra Tile, LLC, which has been in operation for more than 20 years, creates works of art using porcelain, glass and natural stone tiles for residential and commercial customers across Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and Arizona. Nordstrom uses intricately cut and shaped individual tile pieces, fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, to compose whatever images his customers desire. Unlike some traditional mosaics, the tiles in Nordstrom’s pieces are not arbitrarily broken, but deliberately crafted elements of a larger picture.
“My clients come to me with a basic idea of what they want and plant a seed in my head,” said Nordstrom. “It is then up to me to water that seed, sketch out designs and present ideas as to how I can see the project working.”
Known for his out-of-the-box designs, one local homeowner approached Nordstrom to create a kraken-like octopus mosaic for a bathroom shower, which took around 240 man-hours to bring to fruition. “The homeowner specified that they did not want bright colors, fearing that it would come off as to cartoonish,” explained Nordstrom, who places a lot of focus on the types of colors when designing each of his mosaics. “That was the only regulation.”
The field tile on the shower walls, which the homeowner selected, is a 12- x 24-inch porcelain tile from Florida Tile’s Level 10HDP collection in the silver-gray color, “Platinum Suite.” The industrial tile, inspired by stained concrete, provides a neutral background for the detailed mosaic design.
For the octopus, which spans about six-feet-wide across all three shower walls, Nordstrom was given artistic freedom to choose the types and colors of tiles. For the main body, he used 12- x 12-inch pieces of Sazlik Green brushed marble from Meta Marble & Granite, which were cut to size to form the entire figure. The wavy black highlights throughout the body, which emulate leather, are cut from 12- x 24-inch pieces of porcelain tile from Pental Surfaces’ Hard Leather collection in the color “Dark.”
For the hundreds of suction cups on the octopus’ tentacles, Nordstrom utilized pieces of 12- x 12-inch slate tile in the color “Brazilian Multicolor Natural” and 4- x 8-inch textured ceramic tile from Pental Surfaces’ Camp collection in “Army Green Canvas,” which looks like reptilian skin.
“The pebbles on the shower pan and curb were locally scavenged off the beach in Kachemak Bay here in Homer,” added Nordstrom.
Around 60 square feet of tile was utilized to fabricate the octopus, which was supplied by Pacific Tile Supply in Anchorage, AK.
For each and every one of Nordstrom’s mosaic projects, he uses his 10-inch wet saw and completes all installations by himself, since his designs are incredibly detailed and involved. “Each project starts with a scaled drawing, then blown up to actual size using an old-fashioned overhead projector,” said Nordstrom. “I then add any grout lines that the piece may need and label each individual piece with a series of numbers and letters so I know where each piece fits into the puzzle. After labeling, I color the whole thing to help me visualize what colors of tile are needed. Next comes a whole lot of tracing paper. I trace the whole project, carefully labeling each piece and focus on having consistent grout lines. Once on tracing paper, I carefully cut everything out with an X-Acto knife and segregate into containers labeled for each color of tile to be used. Then comes tracing the templates to actual tile while writing its number on the back for identification.
“Next, I lock myself in my specially designed cutting room for many, many hours,” the tile artist went on to explain. “After everything is cut, they all need to be washed of all of the dust that collects during the cutting process. And then finally the best part: getting to put the whole thing together.”
Once the mosaic is assembled, Nordstrom sees his vision come to life. “Once everything is laying the way that I like on my life-size pattern, I cover the whole thing with carpet film,” he said. “I then cut the whole thing up into bigger pieces, relabel, flip over and glue on a fiberglass mesh for an easier installation. When the glue dries, I clean the edges and dry-set the mosaic over the field tile. It can now be traced out and cut into the field tile. This is all done in my shop — a 30-foot yurt — and then transported to the jobsite for installation.”
The octopus alone incorporates about 800 individually hand-cut pieces and was grouted with Laticrete’s Spectralock® Dazzle™, which glows in the dark, adding an extra element of surprise to the newly renovated shower.
To grout the field tile and shower pan, Nordstrom used Laticrete’s Permacolor. He also installed a Schluter-Kerdi-Shower-Kit using Schluter All-Set, a specialized modified thinset mortar specifically formulated for use with Schluter membranes. Prior to the tile installation, Nordstrom applied USG Corporation’s Durock cement backer board. All installation products and shower parts were supplied by The Cronin Company in Anchorage, AK.
“This project was particularly challenging because of the use of marble,” said Nordstrom. “With the natural veins in marble, it was challenging to cut some of the pieces without having them fall apart in your hands. You learn to read the marble well before you trace out the tile to be cut.”
Although the stone pieces posed a bit of a challenge for Nordstrom on this project, the emotional connection to his artwork is a bigger hurdle for him to get over. “The hardest part really is walking away when all done,” he said. “I spend so much time on a piece that they become a part of me.”
For this particular project, the homeowner was “blown away” with the new shower, which is a living testament to how much Nordstrom’s work impacts not only himself, but his customers. “They had a hard time trying to visualize the outcome of the project and put a whole lot of trust into me,” said Nordstrom. “I can see the vision of the project the whole way through and when executed right, it's truly gratifying and worth all of the effort.”
Designer/Tile Installer: Tierra Tile, LLC, Homer, AK
Tile Supplier: Pacific Tile Supply, Anchorage, AK (Florida Tile’s Level 10HDP collection in “Platinum Suite,” Pental Surfaces’ Hard Leather collection in “Dark” and Camp collection in “Army Green Canvas,” Meta Marble & Granite’s Sazlik Green brushed marble, slate tile in “Brazilian Multicolor Natural”)
Installation Products: The Cronin Company, Anchorage, AK (Laticrete’s Permacolor in “Platinum” and Spectralock® Dazzle™ in “Smoke Grey,” Schluter-Systems’ Schluter®-Kerdi-Shower-Kit and Schluter® All-Set, USG Corp.’s Durock)