Friday, March 27, 2020

Pebble Mosaic Garden Carpets

A sidewalk in the center of Lisbon, Portugal
In the mid 1980's I made my first journey to Europe.  I flew to Madrid, and then took a bus to Lisbon, Portugal to meet up with a friend.  I arrived early and got an affordable, funky room in the attic of an old building on the Largo de São Domingo, which was paved in a grid with cut blocks of white limestone and black basalt.  I had a view of the Praça and could open the window, so I bought an inexpensive bottle of sparkling wine and sat on the sill and gazed out over the square to the Alfama, the old city of the Moors.  Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world, with a history spanning more than 3,000 years.  So there is much hidden beneath the surface.

In the morning I went out for a walk and was astounded by the extraordinary sidewalk pavements.  I've never fully recovered.  Mosaico Português, or calçada portuguesa has been used to express design in outdoor urban paving since the 1,800's.  The patterns are diverse and cover a multitude of styles from Baroque to modern.  It seems that every city block had a different motif and you can tell where you are depending on the designs on the sidewalks.  Here I was in a city you could visit just to see the sidewalks.  This was a rather profound shock to my psyche.  We didn't have sidewalks worth looking at where I grew up.  Pavement can be beautiful!  This is a video I found that uses an acrobatic cyclist to showcase a number of stunning pavements in the city.

The classic wave pattern was originally used to pave areas redeveloped after the tsunami following the Great Earthquake of 1755.  A third of the city's population perished in the earthquake and 70,000 died in Morocco, Spain, and Portugal from the tsunami that followed. The quake occured on All Saints Day when the cathedrals, which all collapsed, were full.  Most of what you see in the city today dates from after the earthquake, which opened the earth 15 feet in places.   There is an in depth article on the event at

 From Lisbon we traveled to the Algarve in the south of Portugal, and then in to Southern Spain and Andalucia.  I took some very academic classes in the landscape history in college and was tantalized by images from lectures on gardens in Spain, Italy, and India that I would later journey to as a form of pilgrimage.  A visit to the Alhambra forever changed the way I would design gardens from then on.

The Patio of Yussef II in the gardens of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Mosaic walkway of the Parador, the Alhambra
Many of these formal designs are remeniscent of carpets.  As I've become more adept at constructing crafted gardens I've also developed an interest in weaving and carpet looming.  Most of the carpets in my home are Persian.

A late 19th Century Persian Carpet in my living room with Arabesques of Grape Vines, I've stared at this for hours
Originally many of these carpets were woven to be laid out in camps of caravans traveling across the desert.  Garden carpets were portable Edens, a flower filled portable oasis surrounded by a protective wall on which you could recline and sleep.  While my first mosaic patio was very organic, based on sub atomic particular forms and waves of energy, my first commission to build a patio was a Persian carpet.

This carpet mosaic is about 11 x 18 feet in size
My portfolio was fairly lean in the beginning but I worked hard and was able to do some fairly nice stone work.  We learned how to work with mortar, laying bricks in a small urban park project when I was in college.  So I developed a technique of setting pebbles in to a bed of wet mortar and then flattening it with a piece of plywood.  Its a fairly low tech but tedious process.  My wavy patio at home was garnering some attention.  I received a Golden Trowel Award from Garden Design Magazine for my small, pebble encrusted garden.  People seemed to like what they saw.  Again, America is mostly paved in asphalt and concrete so the intricacies of pebble mosaic are a baffling concept for the average American.  I notice it when I read the comments when people see photos of my mosaics on social media.  "Can you walk on it?  It must have taken forever.  It must hurt your feet.  Want."

A DNA Molecule mosaic in the parking strip
My new clients were remodeling a large historic home on a busy corner in Northwest Portland.  The garden is quiet small, and most of the windows look right down on to the sidewalk.  So I built mosaics in the heavily trafficked parking strips between the old linden street trees.  Pebble mosaics look great from above.  They had some beautiful woven carpets in their house and a grand staircase with tall leaded glass windows looking down on to the garden.  So I proposed that we build a pebble mosaic carpet for the patio, which would take up the majority of the garden area.  I built a low seat height wall around two sides of the patio area, which is something I have done in many of my gardens projects to provide a place to sit without having furniture.  I've always been interested in the cosmos and myths of creation, so I made the center medallion of the carpet a lotus blossom.  Lotuses are considered a symbol of purity in Eastern religions because the cellular structure of the plant does not allow mud to stick to it.  Water beads up on the surface.  Buddha images are often seated in a lotus blossom, a pure, clean base detached from the Earth.  This central 8 petaled flower would symbolize the Big Bang, the explosion of energy that is believed to have been the birth of our Universe.  Expanding outward are a series of flower like galaxies.  The carpet is surrounded by a border that is a crenalated wall with flowers growing from stylized vines.  So the carpet is essentially a walled garden and metaphor for the Universe.  By setting this intention, the concept provides a basis for contemplation and meditation.

I hired two people to help me, one who sorted pebbles by shape and color and the other who mixed mortar and infilled the patterns I laid out with the field of black that makes up the majority of the mosaic.  I had found a fairly good quality pile of drain rock at a stone yard that I could buy by the cubic yard, and Erin would sort through the pebbles with me until she thought she would lose her mind.  Sorting is tedious work that many of you won't have the tolerance to do if you ever try this.  It took a couple of weeks to lay the drainage pipes and grade and compact the base for the patio, and 3 weeks to form and build the mosaic.  I left permeable gaps between the border and main body of the carpet so that water could nourish two large trees growing by the patio, and make it easier for the large area to drain.  Labrador violets have seeded in to the gaps over time.  The Adirondack chairs in the photo have since gone away.

Garden photographer Alan Mandell photographed the patio, which later appeared in Fine Gardening magazine and on the cover of Landscape Architecture accompanying articles I wrote on building pebble mosaics.  Its shown up on a number of websites and Pinterest since then.

I like creating small gardens, and often develop room like spaces.  Garden carpets are a great way to make that room like space more literal.  But the first one I built was by far the largest.  Most of what I have built since then are more like an area rug.  Portland garden celebrity Lucy Hardiman arranged for me to give a pebble mosaic workshop for the Hardy Plant Society where I built the first of her "Flying Carpets" in a garden parking strip in front of their Victorian Home.  For the record I don't give workshops anymore.  They are exhausting endeavors.

We used cut Indian granite cobbles for the border that came from Lakeview Stone in Seattle, and Mexican Beach Pebbles purchased by the bag.  I hand collected the gold and red pebbles from a beach on the Columbia River as well as the larger accent stones.  The second carpet I built was based on an Anatolian Turkish Tribal design, as was the third.

An Anatolian tribal carpet design I built along with two others in the parking strip of a well known garden in Portland, Oregon
The fourth was more ornate, with a Persian influence somewhat reminiscent of the Birth of the Universe carpet.

I later built another carpet mosaic in the French Aubusson style for Lucy's friend Nancy Goldman at her garden Nancyland, for an article being written for Better Homes and Gardens magazine.  We placed glass doorknobs in the corners ringed with pebbles to make flowers and a cut crystal coaster in the center medallion.

Moss overtakes a carpet mosaic in the parking strip at Nancyland
My friend, landscape architect Mert Hauck Geiger designed a carpet mosaic for clients incorporating terracotta tiles that I built in a sunken space between the house and garage, with a large double lotus medallion surrounded by flowers and a crenalated wall.  It requires a great deal of care to mix materials like this, as the pebbles are organic shapes and the tiles have such straight edges, so a lot of sorting for uniform shapes was required.

The Beacraft Levy patio incorporates tiles in to the design
When I bought the former Crack house next door to my original house I spent 7 years gutting and restoring it from a very dilapadated state.  The garden surrounding my houses are tiny, and I wanted to build a Persian carpet based on a design I had seen, with an Islamic Mihrab, or altar that is oriented towards Mecca for prayer in front of the house.  Inside the niche frame are two Cypress trees representing longevity, and a Tree of Life centered between them.

Persian Sarouk Carpet with Cypress Trees and a Tree of Life
It took me 4 years to collect the pebbles I needed to build this mosaic, which is about 4x6 feet in size.  I use pebbles collected from the wild in my garden rather than sorting from piles in stone yards.  I think wild collected stone is more magical as the memory of the places I gathered them are attached to them.

Because the carpet design is directional it is viewed from the entry walk.  A sandstone carving of the Sarnath Buddha I brought back from Bubaneshwar, Orissa, in India sits at the end of the carpet, maximizing the visual potential of this tiny garden space.

The Sarnath Buddha holds his hands in the teaching mudras, with the Wheel of Law behind his head and his diciples at his feet.  
My next carpet project was a small entry mat at the front of a gate as a trade for steel work that a friend did around my garden.  I was using a lot of hand sorted stones picked from an assortment of colored pebbles called Montana Rainbow Mix.  Red is the predominant color, but there are also gold, green, purple, and white pebbles in smaller quantities.  I used red for the main body of the carpet, and Indonesian turquoise pebbles purchased by the bag, along with Mexican Beach pebbles and some round flat beach stones I collected from the wild.  There is a central lotus medallion and spiraling arabesques, and a simple crenalated border wall.  It makes an eye catching threshold to the garden behind the gate, which has paths made of stepping stones with a complimentary design.

Sam's carpet at the entrance to his garden
A garden designer from Portland was working on a project for friends in Los Angeles when she came across the Birth of the Universe carpet while visiting a friend who lived there.  She talked me in to flying to LA to look at the garden remodel where I was asked to built an inset in a poured concrete patio outside the newly remodeled kitchen doors.   I wasn't wild about the patio but I loved the doors and the kitchen, and created what is probably the most precisely executed mosaic I've ever done.  I hand picked the material in Portland and drove them down to LA.  I laid out the design in sand to determine exactly what I needed for the various lines and fields of pebbles in the design, which was inspired by Moroccan style carpets they had in the house.  I cut tiles of Turkish Limestone with a small stone saw to create the star like medallions and used glazed 8 pointed star shaped tiles I bought from the Pratt and Larson Tile Company in Portland.

I then removed the pebbles, keeping them sorted in piles, and reassembled the mosaic, setting it in wet mortar using 1x4 forms to set the sections, maintaining the straight lines in the design.

The finished mosaic is very fine.  It has undulations that translate well to the character of a woven carpet.  Its held up well over the years.  The climate in LA is mild so the tiles haven't popped out as there aren't freezing temperatures.

When my clients who I built the Birth of the Universe carpet decided to build an underground garage for two cars, we adapted the design so that it would have a flat patio roof you could walk on to from the narrow area around the house.  This was technically the most difficult patio I have ever built.  We used cut stone tiles in 4 colors that matched the color scheme on the house.  The clients had traveled to Spain and Argentina and liked the idea of a ballroom floor with Moorish 8 pointed star medallions centered in a field of golden stone tiles from India that have wonderful fossilized patterns in them that are sometimes remenscent of Japanese landscape paintings or fern fronds.  The patio drains perfectly in to two small drain holes on one side.

Laying out cut stone for the patio design 
This was not an easy task, and you often see large puddles on pavements like this because it is hard to get the pitch right so that all the water drains off of the surface.  We had to seal the roof with an elastomeric rubber like sealer so that water wouldn't leak through the concrete pour.  Then we used a latex additive to the mortar mix to give it a stickier bonding quality.  It took an enormous amount of cutting to produce all of the pieces fitting together in this design, and I will never do it again!  It is perhaps the prettiest garage roof I have ever seen though, so perhaps it was worth all the effort, and there are no puddles!

At the entrance to the garage I built an inset mosaic carpet with some similarity to the Birth of the Universe carpet to bring some continuity to the garden.  It is like a mat in front of the nicely crafted garage door and can be seen from the roof terrace when looking over the railing.  There is a lot of foot traffic on this street and people often stop to admire the mosaic.  The stones we used were chosen for their larger thickness so that they would embed well in to the mortar and not pop out when driven on.

Driveway inset carpet mosaic
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Last Summer I was commissioned to build a mosaic carpet at the entrance to an extravagant home in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles.  Again I had to hand sort all of the pebbles in Portland and then transport them down to LA.  I cant say I love the drive, or working in that city.  It was not a fun project, but the house is impressive and I wanted the design to be inspiring for me as well as the clients and their guests, as they entertain a lot.  I worked out a concept based on photos of the architecture of the entrance to the house, which has double doors with square panels on each door.

The entry area and site of a proposed pebble mosaic
I had photographed a carpet in the Museum of Islamic Art in Istanbul , Turkey years ago that is a classic plan view of a Persian Chahar Bagh, or four quartered garden divided by the Four Rivers of Paradise as described in the Bible and the Koran.

A classic Chahar Bagh garden carpet divided by the four rivers of paradise, Museum of Islamic Arts, Istanbul
I love how this carpet depicts the plan view of a paradise garden, with a square pool with a fountain, and fish swimming in stylized rippling water.  The rivers frame four planting beds filled with flowers and abstracted plants and patterns.

I used 1x4 inch boards to form the areas, and constructed the border of the carpet, using red pebbles and 8 pointed glazed tile stars.  8 pointed stars are an Islamic motif comprised of two overlapping squares, representing the overlaying of time (the four seasons) and space (the four cardinal directions).

I again used Montana Rainbow Mix pebbles as a source and spent many long tedious hours sitting on the pile at the stone yard, wetting them so that I could see the colors.  I was able to collect enough green to make the rivers and plants.  I used small black Mexican Beach pebbles for the borders.  They come in black and a kind of olivine green, which I used for tree trunks and for the Cypresses.  I had to rent a vehicle to do the 900 mile drive so that I could fly back, and rented an apartment on Airbnb for 8 nights.  Out of town projects are expensive for this reason and these costs need to be taken in to consideration when proposing out of town commissions.

Montana Rainbow pebbles at All About Stone in Portland
Once the border was completed, I set the square pool at the center with a tile mandala that would represent the fountain, where the spring of water would emerge to irrigate the garden.  The star tiles also suggest the night sky reflecting on the surface of the water.

Central Medallion with 8 pointed stars
Then I framed and set the four rivers.  In the Book of Genesis names the rivers as the Pishon, Gihon, Chidekel (The Tigris) and the Phirat (The Euphrates).  There are texts that refer to the Pishon as being the Ganges in India, and Gihon as the Nile in Africa.

The Four Rivers of Paradise in place
Now that the rivers were in place I was able to start working on the four part garden, or Chahar Bagh.    This was the trickiest part as my pebbles were not the most refined and I was under time constraints.  I couldn't start work until the sun had passed over the house and there was a shadow over my work space.  It was in the high 80's and 90's so the time I had to set the pebbles was shortened by the speed with which the mortar would dry.  I had a limited range of colors to work with to make convincing beds of plants.  So the design was in part determined by the quantities of pebbles I had.  I used tiny black Mexican beach pebbles to make small planting beds that alluded to plowed soil with simple stylized flowers in them.  The predominant plants in the garden around this house are tall Italian Cypress trees, and handsome Olive trees, so I opted to make both types of trees in rectangles in the corners.

I finished the work right on schedule, with a sore back and a mess to clean up.  I had to leave the acid wash cleaning to a maintenance contractor as I flew home the next day.

I instructed them to let the mortar cure for two weeks before pouring a diluted mix of one part Muriatic Acid mixed with two parts water, letting it disolve the mortar film that make a greyish cast on the pebbles.  The acid also exposes some sand in the mortar so it isn't a white cement look between the stones.  Adequate protection, long sleeves, chemical proof long gloves, and a respirator are needed.  The fizzling mixture of the acid reacting to the base in the mortar is hosed off with a spray nozzle which further dilutes and neutralizes the acid.

Freshly acid washed mosaic
The lawn was then replaces where it had been damaged.  The final photo is one taken with someone's phone.  I don't think I'll ever be back to see it again.

The completed Four Rivers of Paradise Carpet Mosaic
I'm sure this wont be the last carpet mosaic I'll be building.  They work well as a design element in the right setting in a garden, have the potential for lovely references, and do a nice job of bridging architecture and nature in to a work of art.  And they allude to paradise, which is what gardening is all about for me.

A magnificent Persian carpet with Cypress trees in a lush garden
Thanks for reading, Jeffrey


  1. Thank you for sharing your process and history here. I am inspired to design a patio pattern for our forest garden at the base of Mt Hood.