Photos by David Ellis
Sporting a cheerful smile, perky pixie cut, and plastic safety glasses, local entrepreneur Mercedes Austin takes us on a tour of her tile manufacturing space, pointing out where clay is formed into sheets, where tile shapes are cut, and where each piece is hand-painted before it goes into the kiln.
As the founder of artisan tile company Mercury Mosaics, Austin has turned what was once a one-woman show into a thriving operation with a mission to add a little color and character into spaces across the nation through beautiful tile installations. The industrious owner keeps herself busy coming up with creative designs, collaborating with other well-known brands such as Room & Board, and leading her team of 30-plus employees—plus a rotating roster of dogs—from their 15,000-square-foot factory in Northeast Minneapolis.
Mercury Mosaics (which Austin named after the Roman god of skilled trade and craftsmanship), currently offers tile designs ranging from classic subway and hexagons to Moroccan fish scales and diamonds for both residential and commercial projects, as well as custom pieces and in-house mosaic classes open to the public.
Here, Austin talks a bit about what she’s noticing in the industry and what’s next for her beloved company.
We’ve been noticing a boom in the popularity of tile in homes. Why do you think this?
I think my evil plans to take over the world in tile are working. *insert evil tile laugh with thunder and lightning*
What tile trends are you currently noticing in the industry?
We are slammed in custom. We’re being flocked to by clients who want something unique within their space, something meaningful they’ve curated for themselves. We’re seeing people driven to bring rich hues in greens and blues into their spaces. White is not driving the conversation—green is being used as a neutral.
We’re seeing tile used on floors, in showers, and in kitchen backsplashes. What are some other unique ways to incorporate tile into your home?
Bar areas, wrapping kitchen islands, fireplace faces and hearths, focal walls in living spaces sprinkled with hand-built ceramic air planters, column wraps. I’m seeing hospitality inspiring residential and vice versa. People are seeking out well-lived lives and making their spaces into personal expressions of themselves.
What is a common misconception people have about using tile in their homes
That it’s a commodity, something you grab from a hardware store. This is true in some cases, but if you do a bit of research and go outside the box, it can be so much more. The same can be said about shoes: You can pop over to Payless and call it a day, or you can make a trek to Red Wing Shoes and be fitted to your specifications and get a pair to last you for years to come. The increased aesthetic in your home gained from using handmade tile translates into the quality of your everyday life. As Erin Francois of François et Moi says about handmade, imperfect objects: “I think these pieces add soul and a relaxed sensibility, affecting how we interact and feel in our homes.”
What sets your handmade tiles apart from other factory-processed tiles?
Color: We hand-brush the color on, so no two tiles have the same color—you have a subtle change in hue from tile to tile. Shape: These are made by hand, so you have a bit of variance from piece to piece, which will require a touch of sorting before install. (It’s worth it in the end.) And, last, my favorite: You might find small marks from the makers; it could be a faint fingerprint, a little divot, a pressed-in corner. All are signs of an actual artisan taking the time to bring that piece of tile to life, and there’s a story there.
What’s next for you and Mercury Mosaics?
You’ll see us taking the risk to be a multiple-location maker. This will start first in Minnesota, and it’ll be a surprise where after that, so be sure to follow along with our tile adventures—we’re just getting started!