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Hip To Be Square

For A Tile Supplier, Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

October 01, 2000|MARY MELTON

Some store owners, just some, mind you, don't like to part with their merchandise. Take rapid-talking Luisa Ranieri-Perez of Mortarless Building Supply, located on a stretch of Fletcher Drive in Atwater Village that's better known for its nude club and old Van de Kamp's bakery. It causes Ranieri-Perez physical and emotional pain to part with certain tiles.

"I love Calco," she says, clicking a trivet with inch-long fingernails. "This is an architectural piece, early '26. They're still Arts and Crafty colors. Then you go to the '30s and have the very bright Art Deco colors." She points to an iridescent piece. "That's an original Tiffany. Yes, a glass tile. The pattern is actually the engraving of Mr. Tiffany's cane."

Though Mortarless sells new handcrafted ceramic and clay tile, it is most proud of the remarkable stacks of vintage California tiles that Ranieri-Perez and her brother Joey collect and sell--the Malibu and Calco, the Franciscan and Batchelder--that rattle half a dozen or so glass display cases. Ranieri-Perez is so protective of her stash that she's reluctant to sell, say, original New York subway station tiles if they're destined to be used for something as temporary as a movie set. Her recurring nightmare: "Somebody's going to come in with an original 1910 home, and they just need 30 pieces to make their bathroom shine, and they're not going to have it because the stage got it and broke it all up."

Ranieri-Perez worked in the music industry before joining her dad at Mortarless. Joe Sr., who trained as a stone and tile setter in Italy and is as quiet as Luisa and Joey are boisterous, did marble work for Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and Vic Damone. He's the kind of guy who bought a used roulette wheel from Caesars Palace and, when it didn't fit anywhere, added a 900-square-foot dance hall onto his Glendale house to give it a home.

Atwater Village and Los Feliz used to claim a confluence of pottery studios: Franciscan and Claycraft were based nearby, as was Calco, headed by designer Rufus Keeler before he was stolen away by Malibu in 1926. "He brought his glazes, his patterns, his genius, his mastery to Malibu," says Ranieri-Perez. The fabled Malibu studio burned down in 1932, but Mortarless recently stumbled onto a gold mine in Camarillo of 50 crates of original Malibu tiles, some with singe marks, that are now for sale.

Unlike her brother, who Ranieri-Perez says will sell anything, she thinks collectors should hold on to their treasures. And while, as a proprietor, she should be thrilled by a blocky piece of Batchelder adorned with a Spanish galleon she recently acquired from a customer's 1920s fireplace, she feels sorrow that her gain was a gorgeous home's loss.

"She calls and says, 'I don't like it, it's not me,' " Ranieri-Perez recalls of the customer. " 'I know it's worth something, just take it and give me marble.' I'm not kidding you. I tried to talk her out of it. She had a beautiful Spanish-style home in West L.A. Stenciled beam ceilings--she painted them. Taking all those gorgeous hand-carved doors out. I felt like saying, 'Why are you raping this house? Go buy a condo.' "

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