Hasta la Vista

inside the jewelry box

Albuquerque’s Tile House is a landmark of gradually revealed delight.

This article first appeared in Spring 2007 Su Casa

At the elaborately mosaic-covered house created by Beverly Magennis in Albuquerque’s North Valley, I didn’t count the White Owl cigar boxes affixed to the living room ceiling in neat rows, but I bet there are more than 100. In a splendidly individualistic residence of continual but gradually revealed delights, the red and white boxes drew my attention when I saw they had not been crushed flat, nor had one side been cut off to be applied like wallpaper. These slim packages remained intact, each die-cut window that once displayed a neat lineup of cigars now casting a subtle shadow into the interior of the box.

The golf balls glued to the ceiling nearby, on the other hand, had all been cut not quite in half, but just slightly more, which gives the illusion they are partly sunk into the ceiling. The matchsticks forming geometric patterns on the kitchen cabinets have all been burned, just at their tips. The Scrabble letters set among gorgeous tile mosaic in the bathroom spell not just words, but names. I recognized one.

It’s the details, man!

It’s the Tile House.

Artist Beverly Magennis created this Albuquerque landmark during an 11-year period from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. Now it belongs to Beverly’s daughter Erin Magennis and her husband Kyle Ray, both artists themselves and now carrying on the mosaic tradition (see “Piece work,” page 70).

The oft-photographed exterior of the Tile House arrests the eye with its bold, colorful geometric patterns covering entire walls (see Su Casa, Summer 2003). Inside the tiny house, where the mosaics press-in close to the eye, the patterning spontaneously decomposes into its unlikely constituent elements: besides broken tile and ceramic pieces crafted by Beverly, those elements include pennies, mirrors, cereal boxes, plastic straws, bottle caps, cigarette lighters. Most are placed in rows or as border trim, without adding up to readable patterns like diamonds or chevrons or deco abstractions.

With this mosaic modernism, the post-Warhol application of an ancient art, the pieces themselves and the surface they create say it all. The act of design centers on the selection of those pieces. Mosaic art is interesting partly because of how the assembled bits transcend their fractured individuality to form the image of something else. Inside the Tile House, you can’t hardly get past the pieces: it’s a White Owl cigar box. Get over it!

As meticulous as the tiled walls appear, a pleasing spontaneity, or maybe it’s creative opportunism, seems to govern the work. When I asked Beverly why the ceiling isn’t entirely covered with those boxes, she dryly replied, “My husband quit smoking.” So it goes.

Initially, she planned to only tile the outside of the house. “I’d always wanted to keep the inside pristine—a Japanese aesthetic—but make it crazy outside. Then one day a folk artist came by and asked me, ‘What are you going to do inside?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ He flipped out. He said, ‘You’ve got to take it all the way.’ I wondered how I could live with something busy, but then I just started.”

Beverly worked inside during winters, then outside summers until she finished. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Catron County, New Mexico, where she continues her art. Now it’s Erin’s place, but Beverly often visits. She expresses considerable fondness for the mosaic “curtains” in the bedroom, the sinuous micro-tile mosaic in the bathroom sink, the bottle-cap room, which shimmers like precious metal in the morning sun, and the matchstick patterns in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, Erin and Kyle are renovating the exterior, which has suffered from more than a dozen years’ exposure to the elements. It’s a painstaking job, peeling off the tiles, then reapplying them—or new ones—with a coat of thin-set mortar to hold them tight. Erin claims she had nothing to do with the original tiling of the house. As a teenager, she just wasn’t very interested. A charming ceramic portrait of her, which occupies a central location in the living room mosaic, however, cements the mother-daughter bond for posterity. And while Erin demonstrates a remarkable commitment to her mother’s Tile House, she and Kyle are ready to carve out a space of their own on the property, a place with walls plain enough to hang paintings!

During our photo session at the Tile House, photographer Jack Parsons asked Erin what she thought of the place.

“It’s like living in a very, very small jewelry box,” she answered aptly and without hesitation.