If you think handmade tile is a luxury you can’t afford, Mercedes Austin would like to change your mind.

“We’re making tile designs accessible and approachable,” she says, and she’s built her business to do just that.

Austin, 40, is the owner and founder of Mercury Mosaics, a handmade custom ceramic tile company in northeast Minneapolis. Their new 15,000-square-foot headquarters is designed with the consumer — and her staff — in mind. “We have room to spread out, room to be a stronger team,” she says.

Now Austin and her staff of 25 creatives (and the studio dogs) can design, make and sell tile comfortably, with room to grow. The shop will eventually house a tile showroom and space to work directly with clients and homeowners. Yet to come: an online tile shop.

While her business is equally split between residential and commercial, Austin has always nurtured the side that puts its art into your home. “A shower niche is just as important as the meat department of a big grocery store,” she says. And yes, she’s done both. (See their work all over town, from sweeping tile murals at the airport to the Galleria and Bachelor Farmer Cafe.)

Austin got her start in 1999, when, armed with a tax refund and proceeds from the sale of her jazz CD collection, the fine arts graduate launched Mosaics by Mercedes in her apartment. With an inventory of light-switch plates and higher-end mosaic pieces, she worked the art-show circuit and sold to local vendors and gift stores. “I wanted to get into people’s homes with smaller purchases,” she says.

She learned the art and business of tile by working for a small local company, traveling to industry shows and focusing on listening to customers. As she learned the ropes, she started to “envision what was possible” for her own business.

By 2005, Mercury Mosaics was born. A self-starter with an entrepreneurial spirit and knack for marketing, Austin met with architecture firms to expand the commercial side of her business, but never lost sight of where she began — with homeowners.

So she started to reach out to them directly, both through social media and mosaic classes. “Anyone can be an artist for an afternoon,” she says.

Much of her company’s traffic comes from Google, Instagram, Pinterest and Houzz, the popular home-interior website. Austin says customers from around the world find Mercury Mosaics through internet searching or online mood boards.

She’s also jumping into online commerce in an industry that typically doesn’t. With a goal to provide one-stop shopping, the Mercury Mosaics website includes project examples with costs, from a $600 powder room wall to a $5,300 custom kitchen backsplash. Austin plans to add a design calculator, allowing potential customers to dream — and budget — from the comfort of home.

She blazes trails in other ways, too, by working to develop standards and efficiencies in an ancient Italian industry where each tile is cut and each color applied by hand. Austin learned straight from the source, taking lessons in Italy from an artist who told her, “First you must learn the rules, and then you can break them.”

So she does, with the help of her staff. “We all contribute ideas to try to make it better for the next person,” she says. Whether it’s focusing on shapes — from unique Moroccan fish scales (her favorite, shown at right) and bubble tile, to more traditional subway tiles or penny rounds — or how best to apply color and texture to clay, those efficiencies are what makes the final product accessible and affordable to average homeowners.

Handcrafted tile is an investment for homeowners, Austin says, which is why having that personal touch and the ability to customize is so important. Her advice: “Invest where it matters.” That might mean making a showstopper fireplace of Moroccan fish scale tiles, or a custom shower niche paired with less-expensive commercial tile.

“Tile will always be relevant,” she says. “Moroccan fish scales are a universal language.”

Mercury Mosaics

1620 Central Av. NE., Suite 125, Mpls.


mercury mosaics.com