Creation of the LithoMosaic Process

Note from Robin Brailsford

As many of you know, I am a public artist, and a co-inventor of LithoMosaics, with Lee and Ron Shaw.

A public artist is an artist – often a sculptor - that works on a huge scale in the public sphere, usually with architects and landscape architects. Our work is site specific – created exactly for the urban light rail system, state beach or national park of which it is to be a part. An artist’s budget is .5 – 2% of the overall design/build budget of the overall project.

In 2000, I was the artist on the design team for the $13.3 million Santa Monica Downtown Transit Mall. The project encompasses 11 urban blocks, embracing the Third Street Promenade – the third most visited tourist destination in the Los Angeles Basin. Our goal was to facilitate the flow of buses through a busy urban center. I worked with traffic engineers and urban planners on every aspect of the project.

I decided that I wanted the entire project to have an environmental, Pacific Rim theme. I called the work, “River of Life” and looked to the I-Ching, origami and geometry for my design inspirations.

Glass was my chief material, used to great effect in the bus shelters, and in the mosaic pavers I had been developing for some time.

With my mosaic paver process, I glue tiles of glass tesserae, stones and porcelain to paper with white glue, and then transfer and set them on Hardibacker-board with Thinset. The result is a beautiful, highly labor intensive but modular design element, perfect for the sidewalks. An added bonus is that the art is fabricated offsite and set later by a mason. Forty-four mosaic pavers based on ancient kimono designs are part of “River of Life.” These pavers are tremendously popular, colorful – and tough.

In 1997, with the Klemaskes of Progressive Concrete, who now head the Innovative Concrete Systems Division of TB Penick & Sons, I completed an award-winning (American Institute of Architects) latex intersection design for the entrance to a San Diego high school.  The client in Santa Monica was interested in my creating six equally appealing street intersection designs for them… but these would have to take the long-term and intense rumbling wear of fire engines and tandem buses on Broadway, and at the ocean terminus of US Route 66.

I was at a loss of how to achieve the task, until I met Ron and Lee Shaw in Costa Mesa. They had just completed a Lithocrete® public art piece with my mentors - Newton and Helen Harrison – and had the inventive new process and expertise required. They had a history of working with artists and were undeterred by the challenges I broached. They were my guys!

The “River of Life” intersections in Santa Monica have two designs. One is based on origami folding patterns, and the other (inspired by Barcelona) is called ”Las Scramblas.” Its graphic geometric pattern emphasizes the dynamic of pedestrians crossing the street en masse to and from the early, and now very famous, Frank Gehry Santa Monica Place.

At the time, the regular, geometric designs of these intersections really pushed the technical and design envelope of Lithocrete. A process of quick setting concrete had to be developed by Shaw & Sons for this project. Each intersection was poured in quadrants – with even bus traffic passing over them within 24 hours.

The project has won multiple awards, including the American Public Works Association, “Southern California 2002 Streets and Transportation Project of the Year.”

Santa Monica won me Phoenix. In 2003 I was hired by the City of Phoenix and Valley Transit to work on the $3.2 million Ed Pastor Transit Mall. Again working with a hefty design team, I came up with the project’s overall design and theme. In this case it was the 10,000 year history of agriculture in the Phoenix area. For my work, “transit/urban/garden,” I designed a series of huge green, seemingly irrigated arcs, and a meandering river – over 1000’ long – all of Lithocrete. T.B. Penick –with the Klemaskes at the helm, was the lucky contractor – and we worked side by side, on site to achieve our fabulous results.

As an individual artist working with a concrete crew on site, I began to see problems and potential with the process of Lithocrete. They were both two sides of the same coin.

While the freedom, SCALE!, longevity, colors, texture, forms and labor aspects were all superb (… better to spend a week than by spreading thousands of pounds of gorgeous aggregate by hand at breakneck speed, in the hot sun, while a whole crew of hardworking guys follows along – and is catching up…. ) there was only so much AS AN ARTIST I could achieve from a DESIGN point of view.

I could pre-determine the perimeters of a Lithocrete area, and the general effect…. but the aggregates were always going to be set in a RANDOM PATTERN, and unlike my work with the pavers, I was always going to have to be out there with the crew, spreading aggregate in person, to assure the hand of the artist in the project.

I began to wonder how I could achieve an ORDERED PATTERN to Lithocrete glass tiles and aggregates.
I began to experiment with what I had learned from making my mosaic pavers (tiles glued in definitive patterns to paper in the studio, set by others on site.) And the result as they say - is history…. LithoMosaic history.