Mosaic artist Allison Eden builds a fashion empire from a chance encounter with colored glass
There is an ebullient, vibrant force afoot in the world of glass mosaics. To say she is creative would be an understatement. It might be more accurate to say she is the Lady Gaga of the tile world, bringing to bear a plucky, energetic mix of inventiveness, innovation, cheerfulness, enthusiasm, openness, tenacity, excellence – and fun – to the art and craft of glass mosaics.
To talk with Allison Eden is to get swept up in how much she is in love with what she does – creating custom designs for a wide range of applications, from residences to retail, hotels to hospitals, to community centers to restaurants and everything in between. Her custom designs have been featured in Architectural Digest, Interior Design Magazine, Architectural Record, Metropolitan Home, New York Cottages and Gardens, and Elle Décor and grace the homes of such celebrities as Elton John and Kris Kardashian. Her passion is palpable, and by the time you’re done conversing with her, you are sold on how her colorful designs help make the world a better place.
Case in point: Eden was commissioned to bring a pop of color to a hospital in Barrow, Alaska, to fight the high suicide rate. Barrow – the subject of the 2012 movie “Big Miracle” – is the northernmost city in the United States, and has 67 days of darkness in the winter. After the hospital, her work enlivened a hotel, community center and school. Her dedication to her work is such that she wound up flying for 72 hours on five flights to lend some direction to the initial hospital installation after the tile contractor was mauled by a polar bear.
Captivated by color
Eden got her start at the Fashion Institute of Technology in the 1990s, graduated with a BFA and went to work designing a women’s line for Nautica in New York City. Captivated by some colorful sheet glass displayed in the window of a store in Greenwich Village one day, she bought some, took it home and experimented with it on a wall. Then she broke it with a hammer, glued it with Elmer’s to a piece of cardboard, and brought it to the tile store that was just opening up across the street from her apartment. They loved it.
She opened up a studio, and started growing a business, putting ads in the Yellow Pages in every single category into which she thought she might fit: architect, interior designer, fashion, designer, contractor. It worked: she got a call in 1995 to tile a Burger King floor in three weeks.
“No problem!” she said. “You’ve come to the right place.” She bought a video on how to tile a floor, then showed up in the middle of winter at the job site to create a Brazilian Wave mosaic on the floor, in 20-degree weather, while it was raining and snowing inside. She hired installation help, got it done on time, and invoiced her client with a form she bought at Staples.
She continued pounding the pavement, carrying Polaroid photos of her “fabulous new product” to companies in the Garment Center she knew, asking if anyone was looking to renovate or redecorate.
“I got one job after another,” she said. “I learned a lot on every project.” Eventually she moved to a studio across from Macy’s until the rent skyrocketed from $6,000/month to $30,000/month. Eden and her husband, who manages her studio, were able to get help from the city as artists and manufacturers who were keeping jobs in New York, and moved their operation to Brooklyn, employing 14 people to cut and assemble the pieces.
Speaking of which, all of Eden’s designs are hand-cut, using nippers and pencil cutters: no waterjet or power tools. She crafts painterly details of shadows and highlights, all hand-cut and then assembled with plastic front mounting. “I need to see everything!” she said. “You peel the plastic off like tape. It lets you be sure the joints match up perfectly.”
Shoes at Bloomies
Bloomingdale’s department store sought Eden out to create permanent glass mosaic sculptures for the store: a perfume bottle that towers nine to ten feet tall in the entryway and a “monster shoe” for the shoe department. “My shoe gets more hits on Instagram than anything else in the store,” she said. While she was there, she was approached by LebaTex to develop a line of Pop Art fabrics based on her tile designs.
She asked the Bloomie’s CEO to take a meeting to discuss her textile ideas. “I went in with the fabric pillows and clothing and decorated the entire room with how I wanted the Allison Eden Department to look,” she explained. “We had a huge pop-up event and sold out of everything. Then they asked me to make a shoe and handbag to match the mosaic shoe. If you don’t ask, you don’t receive. Maybe someone will believe and see your vision!” Bloomies has continued to support Eden, featuring her designs in their famed windows. “Mosaics speak for themselves,” she said. “They are bright, happy and different. I love being in the tile business!”
Inspiration is everywhere
How does Eden come up with her designs? Partly she is influenced by her interior designer mom, the glitter and glamour of the 70s and 80s and all the over-the-top styles of that age. “It’s shaped how I design – big, bold,” she said.
Other inspirations come from her travels or simply from walking about the “very vital city” that New York is. “You find the beauty of other places and the beauty of your home,” she said, recording her inspirations in a book she carries with her everywhere. She also grooves on fashion and textiles, spending time in fabric stores and attending shows during fashion week.
Her very first collection was filled with things she loves: lips, palm trees, unicorns, rainbows and lip gloss. “My husband Gary said, ‘Why can’t you make anything saleable?’” she said. “I will sell more of this than anything. Your home needs to be positive. People want to live in a place that is happy.”
Eden says her work is all about color, talking about the popularity of the Moroccan tile and all the color it embodies. “People want different!” she said. “People may tell me that’s not true, but we have never been busier with custom projects.”
The trend to social media is a key driver for her business too. “People want a feature wall so they can take pictures in their home with their fabulous lifestyles and their fabulous walls,” she said. “And restaurants are doing that now – creating something unique and wild so their clients can be wowed. It sets them apart from others.”
Quality products, quality installation
Eden is keen on U.S. – made materials for her designs, often from family-run glassmaking businesses. “I collect a lot of old glass and use that in my designs,” she said. “When a factory closes, I try to buy all the glass.” She lamented about the cheapening of products and the growing propensity to buy cheap, low-quality products, often shipped from China.
“If we could be like we used to, we could be an industry that is self-sufficient,” she said. “I keep a really high-end business. I take such pride in every single piece I make; it has to be perfect.”
Although she observed that the Art Tile Village at Coverings has gotten smaller over the years, she makes it a point to be there to see her clients and stores (she’s represented in over 400 outlets around the world), and you can find her in New Orleans this year at booth 4107. “We get wonderful support from our tile stores,” she said.
Though Eden once did her own installation, she lets the pros handle that now. “You need a good installer to do tile,” she said. “[NTCA member] Rod Katwyk did one of my installations years ago and visits me at Coverings. And LATICRETE has been very good to us.”
Elizabeth Lambert of Lambert Tile & Stone, an NTCA Five-Star Contractor in Colorado, installed Eden’s mosaics years ago, and found them very easy to work with. “We follow the instructions,” she said. “You give her the exact dimensions of the space and she numbers all the pieces so they interlock the way she designed it. She sends a bunch of extra pieces, and whenever we call she is on the phone in seconds. She is very accessible. And she understands the need for qualified labor to install. The last thing she wants is a failure with her name on it.
“She is a total artist,” Lambert continued. “There are not that many vendors in the U.S. that do work like that. It’s unique and delicate. She can create anything – send her images and she’ll find a way to make it happen.”