George Ehling's Mosaic HouseGeorge Ehling (1927 - 2016)
About the Artist/Site
George Ehling was as complex as the mosaic patterns he creates. Until his death at age 89, he worked alone as he had for 47 years: piecing together thousands of bits of scavenged tile to cover a castle-sized home. Ehling’s mosaic work is distinctive for its overwhelming scope, but also for its playfulness. He was a master “mash-up artist;” like a modern DJ, he incorporated classical patterns with modern scrap tile to produce a wholly new language. He cross-pollinated architectural references and global geometric syntax, making an ancient visual grammar buzz with potential.
Ehling purchased his 4500-square foot Mediterranean-style castle in 1967 with a $9,500 down payment from his father. The spectacular view from the upper floors overlooks the steamy San Fernando Valley and the distant but distinct HOLLYWOOD sign.
If Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey and the Alhambra had a baby, it would be Ehling’s environment. Ehling worked alone, allowing help only for grouting and rock-setting. He stated with pride, “Not one other person has set a single piece of tile on this house.” He began by trying the “random tile setting, but that was before I knew just what I was doing. That was in my infancy.” Soon, like jazz improvisation, Ehling began riffing on tradition. Here, a twisting meander of Roman border; there, an optical illusion borrowed from an Islamic tradition. A mad array of tile and glass bottles feel right at home within the vibrant geometric patterns. Any surface might contain scraps of hand-glazed iridized blue tile, angular bits of outdated kitchen floor tile, authentic Mexican Talavera, and a batch of leftover bathroom tiles deposited at the curb by a well-meaning neighbor.
His capacity for interpreting pattern was mind blowing. He reworked ancient patterns, assimilating disparate materials to accommodate his thriftiness, ultimately transcending time and place. But Ehling didn’t just copy ancient patterns: he used the geometrics in his own voice. He would carefully study a Cosmati floor from Venice, for example, and in true scavenger style, re-envision it with hundreds of green and blue glass bottles, carefully sliced on his beloved wet saw. He improvised while always staying true to a pattern’s origins. What he reproduced, with absolute fidelity, was the underlying structure, the unseen grammar that determines form and sets its style. Ehling drew on his memory and understanding of pattern play: repeat and reiterate; cut one shape, reveal another, then use that shape to create yet another set of repeating patterns. The same design appears with opposite colors—the remnants of one section may have inspired the setting for another. Every cut piece was saved and categorized in buckets: useable. The interlocking geometrics always worked together. One could say that the house is a kind of “sacred space” in its strong resonance with the world’s most revered visual traditions, as the complex patterns amalgamate into one alchemically charged architectural vision.
Ehling was born in San Francisco, California on May 17, 1927, to German parents who had emigrated from Romania. Beginning at age 6, Ehling endured a difficult period in orphanages and grim schools. At age 15, he saw the famous body builder, Jack Lalanne, and was so impressed he began lifting weights to emulate him. By his twenties, with his physique in top condition, he made his way to Europe to tour as an exposition boxer under the name Cowboy Cassidy; he partied hard and even found work as a movie extra in Rome, landing a role as a gladiator in the 1961 Dino De Laurentiis film, Barabbas. Ehling also spent years as a union carpenter for the IATSE Local 44 in Hollywood. Working in the studios, constructing the façades of false cities, Ehling developed the skills necessary for building his own dream. The studios were also a source for scraps of tile, marble, and statuary.
Ehling was primarily self-taught, although he attended the Italian mosaic school in Spilimbergo for a month each summer for three years in the 1980s, taking advantage of personal attention from mosaic maestros as well as close proximity to architectural antiquities. Additionally, he was an avid reader, always looking for visual source material to inspire the next phase of his project. But this was only a launch pad: Ehling was constantly flipping and changing up the patterns, asking the house itself to tell him what she needs. The playful results are evident in mandala-like roundels, twisting guilloche ribbons, and trompe l’oeil designs that look three-dimensional.
Ehling’s work is a testament to his physical endurance, and the home is a living, breathing entity, saturating the senses and one’s entire field of attention. Areas begun twenty years before still bear empty spaces, left unfinished. New areas were started, borders were returned to years later, augmented and completed as the muse struck or energy persisted. While it could be useful to date the progression of Ehling’s works, specifics were absorbed into the whole.
Ehling was like most visionary artists; creating only for himself, not for his work to be seen in a gallery, nor for commercial venture. Working outside of any art establishment, away from public feedback, here at his home he found in the fitted tiles acceptance of every idea—a welcome reassurance after an early life of hard knocks. I began a Facebook page that helped his work gain attention, and George enjoyed sharing stories and images with his international admirers. He told me, a couple of years before he passed, “I have faced rejection all my life, until I started tiling my house.” Here, the only critic that mattered was George Ehling himself.
Update: SPACES visited the Ehling home in 2023 and found it to be in excellent condition. The home remains in the Ehling family and is occasionally rented for film and photo shoots.
Map & Site Information
7110 Woodrow Wilson Drive
Los Angeles, California, 90068 us
Latitude/Longitude: 34.123897 / -118.3474998
Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles, CA
Santa Monica, CA