Most casual terrazzo aficionados know that the technique originated in Venice roughly 500 years ago; that it exploded in popularity in the United States during the first third of the 20th Century; that the discovery of epoxy as an alternative to cement led to its “rediscovery” in the 1970s; and that it’s currently a favorite choice for designers, architects, and contractors alike.
What this truncated narrative overlooks, however, is the incredible contributions made by the Italian immigrants from the Friuli region where terrazzo had originated and been honed to equal parts art form and construction technique. Terrazzeri, they were called, and they had preciously guarded the secrets of their trade through the centuries. When the first terrazzo installation was performed in New York City at one of the Vanderbilt’s Fifth Avenue mansions in 1890, it was Italian craftsmen tasked with creating the terrazzo floors found throughout the massive home.
Rosa Mosaic & Tile Company – Old World Beginnings Built on Craftsmanship & Apprenticeship
It was on this centuries-old tradition of knowledge and expertise being passed down from father to son that Louisville-based Rosa Mosaic & Tile Company was founded. Born in Trieste, Italy, Romano Rosa immigrated to the United States in 1894, moving from Buffalo to Louisville in 1905. In 1909, he and brother Keno founded American Mosaic & Tile Company and they were soon joined by kinsman Louis Rosa.
Louis’ precise relations to the brothers isn’t clear (probably a cousin), but chances are good that the two could have used all the Old World-skills and know-how they could assemble. That’s because the dawning of the 20th century up until the Great Depression encompassed two boom times for terrazzo: the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties. Most of the company’s early work was on residential projects, and Louisville proved to be a fertile area for expensive and intricate terrazzo installations, some of which were undoubtedly financed by the money tossed around by high-level bootleggers drawn to the city’s distilleries during Prohibition despite the fact they were shuttered.
In 1937, Romano sold his interest in American Mosaic and with Louis incorporated Rosa Mosaic & Tile, and in 1950 gave another Italian immigrant, John Cristofoli, the opportunity to apprentice in the terrazzo and tile trades. Cristofoli was a natural, passionate about the craft and the business, and after 30 years of working for the company he seized the opportunity in 1981 to purchase it from Louis Rosa’s nephew, who had inherited it following the founder’s passing in the early 1970s. (You can get an idea of Cristofoli’s respect for the man who helped him get started in terrazzo by the fact that he named one of his sons Louis.)
Rosa Mosaic & Tile – Continuing a Family Tradition
By 1994, Rosa Mosaic & Tile Company had nearly 60 years of terrazzo experience to its credit, not counting the time that its founders had spent working as American Mosaic and had an outstanding reputation for quality work. That was the year that Cristofoli decided to ask his daughter, Anna Tatman, to join the company.
At first blush, Tatman’s previous experience as a tax attorney might not seem to have been the background for a terrazzo contracting company. But her stints at GE Capital and Coopers & Lybrand had taught her broad-based skills applicable to any enterprise—managing project-based work, researching market conditions to find business opportunities, improving internal efficiency through process identification and mapping, and assembling teams to leverage the strengths of its members—and she accepted her father’s offer.
Today, Tatman is president of Rosa Mosaic and partners with her brother John in running the business, while brother Louis is an operations manager for Vesta Tile, a separate entity that specializes in commercial tile installations—and Rosa Mosaic is, just as when it was founded, a family business.
Much like a well-balanced blend of aggregates in a terrazzo installation, the combination of Tatman’s business acumen and her brothers’ hands-on terrazzo knowledge has been an undisputed formula for success. Five years after acceding to her father’s request to join the team (“I want to retire someday,” he told her, “so if you’re interested in working at Rosa Mosaic, it’s now or never”), the company earned the Job of the Year award from the National Terrazzo and Mosaic Association (NTMA) for its work on the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville, an honor it garnered once again in 2011 for its four-color terrazzo installation at the KFC Yum! Center, also in its hometown. In between, the company won several major design awards, some from the NTMA, others from organizations such as the International Masonry Institute and Interior Design magazine.
Arim-Inc – Aggregate Chip Supplier for NTMA Honor Award Terrazzo Installations
Its most recent honor was for another hometown project, one that in fact had the potential to leave an impact on hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city: the Louisville International Airport renovation, for which Rosa Mosaic earned a 2018 NTMA Honor Award for its decorative—and narrative—terrazzo design. Described by one local media outlet as arguably the “crown jewel” of the airport’s renovation, the terrazzo flooring uses iconic images associated with Louisville’s heritage—bourbon barrels, baseball bats, jockey helmets, and even the mythical horse Pegasus—to encapsulate the city’s rich history and charms.
Learn more about this NTMA Honor Award in the NTMA 2018 Honor Awards Video below
Tatman says the company was confident at the outset because terrazzo was the obvious choice for the location. “Considering the thousands of people who walk through the airport daily and all the germs, spilled drinks, dropped food, and so on that entails, terrazzo was the perfect choice,” she says. “It lasts for decades, it’s stain resistant, easy to keep clean, and is definitely not germ-friendly. And with terrazzo you can create intricate designs that bring a warm, inviting atmosphere to the bustle of the airport.”
Once underway, Tatman said the installation ran into the problem faced by other terrazzo contractors doing projects at airports: the terminals all stayed open throughout the process, which mean Rosa’s workers were shunted behind divider walls to lessen the distraction on travelers. Working with what amounted to limited vision, she says, was not easy, because “temporary partition walls block off sections of the design being poured, and some sections of design would be installed weeks before the others. But our terrazzo mechanics were able to keep the process going even without a visual reference of the full design concept—and we were truly amazed at the results when we finally removed the walls and saw the full scope and majesty of what we’d installed.”
For the aggregates used on this award-winning installation, Rosa Mosaic turned to Arim-Inc., a New Jersey-based manufacturer and retailer of aggregates that Tatman had discovered in 2010 at the NTMA Technical Seminar. “We were immediately drawn to their extensive inventory of marble and glass chips,” recounts Tatman. “After the seminar, [Arim owner] Nilgun Bandari came to visit our shop with samples and a price list, and we’ve been working with Arim ever since. Arim-Inc has the most durable and highest-quality marble—New Pure White is one of our favorites—and they inventory a vast selection of glass and recycled aggregates. We love working with Arim, and especially look forward to collaborating with them on another award-winning project in the future.”
Residential Terrazzo Resurgence Taking Place in Countertops and Furnishings
And as terrazzo becomes an increasingly popular choice not only for flooring but also for other construction components such as staircases, steps, and counters that can be pre-cast to satisfy mass-market demand, the chances get better every day that more of those award-winning installations could be for residential projects, hearkening back to Rosa Mosaic’s beginnings. For Tatman, it would be a dream come true. “Terrazzo flooring will probably always be in demand for large commercial settings,” she says, “but I would love to see terrazzo become more popular in residential markets in the coming years. Terrazzo was once a highly favored finish in homes, but it fell to the wayside during the housing boom after World War II. Terrazzo has a reputation for being expensive, but if you consider the high cost of a marble floor, terrazzo is comparatively affordable.”
But how long will it be before this news reaches enough consumers to create a tipping point? “There isn’t much demand for terrazzo floors in residential settings, and there are very few terrazzo contractors who install small or mid-range residential projects,” Tatman notes. “That being said, I see terrazzo already making a comeback in the form of countertops and furnishings. We recently installed a beautiful terrazzo top on a large shoe rack in a master suite closet. Hopefully in three years, it won’t be uncommon to see terrazzo in houses across the United States.”