The tabletop as art display space: Ceramic mosaic tops by Furthur

There are some wood-only tables for sale at Furthur on Sunset Boulevard but not many — the specialty at this furniture store is mosaic tabletops.

"I love tile," says Michelle Arias, who, with her husband, Raymond, opened Furthur 20 years ago. "It's so easy to live with and it's nearly indestructible. Water is not going to hurt it; it takes hot and cold. And there are so many color combinations."

Unlike glass-tile tables, which they also produce, tables with ceramic-tiled tops have often been relegated to patio and pool areas — strictly outdoors.

But that's changing, she says. Tables adorned with 4-by-4-inch Mexican azulejos (ceramic wall tiles) are now in-home worthy because the quality of the tiles that she gets in Dolores Hidalgo, about a 40-minute drive north from San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico, has so vastly improved.

Azulejos can be traced to Moorish influences in the Iberian peninsula. Both there and in Mexico they became an obvious status statement — ornamental wall art that also functioned as a temperature moderator. Azulejos turned up on walls, floors, ceilings and were featured in churches and royal mansions.

Now they're the stars of Furthur tables.

In the last 20 years, Michelle says the biggest change in the tiles she uses involves the removal of lead and cadmium in the ceramics process in Mexico. Lead can be deadly, but it also gives colors an intensity that's hard to duplicate. A lead-free palette, for example, has translated into terra cottas that are pink rather than brownish and blues that lack the cobalt hues from colonial times.

Nonetheless, she continues to be enthusiastic about the imports.

"When I look for tile, I look for detail," Michelle says. "Some tiles are hand-painted, some are serigraphs and then painted. I like shiny tiles. I like to mix matte and a high-gloss finish that looks like melted glass. I don't like shiny whites. I like the Mexican white, blanco talavera. It's matte."

In the Arias family, Michelle says, Raymond is the artist. "I'm the editor," she explains. "I think we make a good team. Everyone needs editing. We feed off each other."

Furthur tables frequently use different types of tile, a combination of border tiles with a design created from four printed azulejos.

"If they're in the same color palette they'll go together and there won't much of a push to it," she says. "But sometimes we do combinations of tiles that are a little bit busy. You can pull it off, but it may not be to everyone's taste."

Back when they started, the tile tables were built of teak or other exotic hardwoods. No longer.

"You had to have a hardwood that can take grouting and finishing," Michelle says, adding: "We don't do that anymore. There's no need to get in the way of the tile. It's beautiful on its own."

Furthur, 4312 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, www.furthurla.com

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