In 1979, Maurizio Grande followed his passion and opened a business in Vancouver, a place called Marble Art. Thirty years on, he still visits his native Italy three times annually to study trends and find raw marble. He does not restrict himself to Italy, however. “We bring in raw marble from all over the world,” he says, in the expanse of his storage and display facility. It is a fascinating place, with sheets of marble in every conceivable colour, each with a pattern unique unto itself, standing row upon row in symmetric lines. “It is financially challenging, keeping this much material in stock, but there is no other way to really do it,” he says, his eyes roaming along the rows.
Why Vancouver? “Well, simple. It is the most beautiful city in the world,” Maurizio says. “We did a lot of business in Los Angeles in the early years, where we could sell certain products for five times what we could charge in Vancouver. But living in L.A. was never an option. We were asked many times to set up an office there, but it was not something I was prepared to do.” In those early times, at their first showroom at Granville and 6th, Marble Art functioned as an importer of fully finished products: tables, counter tops and so on. But Maurizio quickly realized the best approach was to source and import the raw marble, and build products from it, exactly to order. “It was really after the first year I knew we would need a plant for ourselves, to create the things we wanted to.” As the business grew, Maurizio added a partner, chartered accountant Greg Charalambous. “When Greg joined, he grew the business to another level altogether. I was able to concentrate on what we do on the floor, while he developed the business, made all the numbers work. It has been a very good partnership.”
“Vancouver basically has the best trades in the whole world—just my opinion. It means we can accomplish certain things here, with design and installation, which might not be possible elsewhere.”
Two artisans also joined the team in the first years—one Italian, one British. Clients were happy with the extraordinary quality, both of the material and the artisanal workmanship. “Vancouver basically has the best trades in the whole world—just my opinion,” says Maurizio. “It means we can accomplish certain things here, with design and installation, which might not be possible elsewhere. And our approach from the very first day was to never be complacent, to always try to be better at what we do, each day. I am older now, of course, but that is still true today, of the company and all of those who work here.”
The approach from the outset was to make things “unique, different, one of a kind”. Clearly that has worked well. For many years now, Marble Art has performed its work frequently by referral from architects and interior designers, who share Maurizio’s passion for perfection in marble. Marble Art also continues to enjoy working directly with the public, who often walk in to the showroom. It is a daunting task much of the time, because the requests received are usually, in some way, out of the norm. “When someone wants something technically demanding, unique, a difficult project to do, they come to us. We still have not found a way to bend marble, though,” he says, smiling. And so designing and engineering a particular piece of work becomes the paramount task.
The raw marble arrives on 2-centimetre-thick sheets, each approximately three metres by two metres. Then the magic begins, since that raw material is transformed, often, into solid blocks of marble, for table tops, counter tops, stairs, baths, sinks, fireplace mantles. Even a close inspection of the finished product belies no evidence that you are looking at anything a but a naturally occurring block of solid marble, when in fact it is often many layers of marble sheet, all designed, cut, glued together to create a finished piece. “Working with marble only two-centimetres-thick is a big challenge of course, but it is impossible to import more substantial raw sheets,” says Maurizio. “Cost prohibitive, given the weight of the material. So, we are careful with our designs, and work closely with architects or designers, to give them what they want.” Examples abound in homes throughout the Lower Mainland, but, Maurizio points to a “floating staircase” as a challenge well met. “The architect came in, and asked me if I could create a floating step. We worked thorough the logistical problems, and I can tell you, there were a lot of calculations to do, especially because there would be actual weight-bearing steps. We found the solution, and the finished stairway is just fantastic looking. It actually does look to the human eye as if each individual stair is floating, suspended in mid-air.”
“We spend a lot of time developing apprentices, certainly. Even with all the new technology and equipment available to us, you can never replace the human eye, the human touch, when you are working with stone.”
There is a fully functioning apprenticeship program at Marble Art, a necessity, really, given the demands of the jobs the company embarks on. “We spend a lot of time developing apprentices, certainly. Even with all the new technology and equipment available to us, you can never replace the human eye, the human touch, when you are working with stone.” A small team is working on cutting, another team on polishing, another on assembling a fireplace mantle that will span nearly three metres, with all kinds of rounded edges and design flourishes. When complete, it will look as if it was cut and polished whole, out of a massive block of solid marble.
Marble Art works with other types of material, such as granite and slate, but marble is still what gets Maurizio’s heart racing, and keeps his imagination fired: “I still get goosebumps, after all these years, at the sheer beauty of this material, which comes to us straight from nature.” He surveys the array of raw marble again, touches the surface of a sheet that was quarried in Tuscany, another one quarried in India, and pauses, most likely imagining what will come of that raw material—destined for someone’s home, transformed into something unique, and uniquely beautiful.
Photos: Marble Art.