A great mirror can transform a room. If you’re looking for something truly special and unique, you need to see Oshawa Ontario artist and designer Karen Johnston’s work. She runs a small design studio called Mosaicworks which produces handmade one-of-kind mirrors that are as commanding and beautiful as any work of art.
Many of her designs feature a contemporary spin on the ancient art of mosaics, but she also works with everyday materials that will surprise and delight you. It was the modern industrial feel of her metal ruler mirror that first caught my eye. Her wooden ruler and pencil mirrors (also part of her School House series) are equally charming and original. Karen has a great eye and it shows in each of her designs.
Word of her talent is out. She was recently featured on Design Sponge and Style North. Even Chatelaine magazine is talking about Mosaicworks. I wanted to find out more about Karen and her thriving business. She was happy to answer a few questions.
ARTIST/DESIGNER/AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR: Karen Johnston of Mosaicworks
JM: You have a broad background in the arts. What got you interested in working with mosaic tiles?
KJ: “My love of mosaics all began with a book and a man. Ok, so it’s not that simple. There was art school, working in advertising, working at a newspaper, working as a graphic designer, moving (three times!), working as a freelance graphic designer, having babies (two times!), writing and illustrating a children’s book.
One day while browsing through Chapters, I picked up a book titled, Mosaics, by Kaffe Fassett and Candace Bahouth. Kaffe Fassett’s work is brilliantly rich in colour and over the top in details. I would soon discover that he was ‘The Mick Jagger’ of the knitting, needle work, and mosaicing world. What I loved about his mosaic work, which I was immediately drawn to, was that he took an amazing ancient form and put a very contemporary spin on it. I was inspired. My first mosaic was a small floral picture frame made from broken vintage china. That was it. I was hooked.
Although my work is clearly very different from Kaffe Fassett’s the basic principle of good design is present in both of our work (says me). And good design, like mosaics, will always transcend time. Thank you Kaffe Fassett. You and your many books have inspired me and led me to a passion that has now turned into a successful business that I love.”
JM: Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
KJ: “The answer is simple. I don’t know. The ideas just come. I was in Home Depot one day buying some nuts and bolts when suddenly it dawned on me how shiny and pretty they were, like jewellery. And so, the Silver ‘Bling’ Mirror was born.
What I do know is that most ideas are inspired by the simple things that surround us, sometimes without us even knowing that they’re doing just that. Case in point my gold heels. Inspirational? How could they not be?”
JM: What are some of the challenges of working with mosaics?
KJ: “The biggest challenge is the amount of time involved in making a mosaic. There are hours and hours of work involved from the beginning of a project, the design stage, to the end of a project, the construction stage (cutting, laying out, adhering etc.)
With that said, the good part is that those hours seldom go unnoticed.”
JM: How long does it typically take to create a new mirror?
KJ: “Hours and hours (lol). It all depends on the scale of a project and how much cutting needs to be done. A lot of my pieces are ‘one offs’ (only one is made) so my time hasn’t been tracked. To move things along I try to work on more than one piece at a time – while glue is drying on one piece I’ll move to cutting tiles for another. I’m a one woman assembly line!”
This incredible mirror is made from vitreous glass tiles, chained rhinestone and coloured seed beeds. So fresh and lovely.
JM: What has been your most popular design?”
KJ: “The most popular mirrors seem to be the ones made with ordinary objects, The Ruler and Pencil mirrors. I think people like the unexpected factor where something very ordinary and familiar is transformed into something completely different and extraordinary.”
JM: What Canadian artists or designers do you admire?
KJ: “I have a soft spot for painters. Of the past – Paul Peel, The Group of Seven, Emily Carr. Recently I’ve been admiring the work of Peter Rotter.”
Realist painter Peter Rotter is known for his landscapes of Northern Ontario. You can see his work here.
Karen has also written and illustrated a book about her beloved late dog — a Vizsla named Bob. The book is called Mr. Bob’s Magic Ride in the Sky, published in 2002 by Whitecap Books. I’m a dog lover too, so I’m a sucker for a book like this. Check it out here.
If you live in the Toronto area, you can find Karen’s work at 1212 Decor on Yonge Street in Rosedale. If not, you can contact her directly at her studio. She also writes an interesting blog which you can find here. Photos courtesy of Mosaicworks.