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Artisans restore Forum Theatre's hidden 1920s mosaic

Artisans have raced the clock at one of Melbourne's most loved theatres to restore a 1920s mosaic floor that has been hidden under carpet for 50 years.

The workmen laboured up to 19 hours a day for three months to return the elegant feature, created for the Forum Theatre's opening in 1929, to its former glory.

Melbourne-born, Italian-trained mosaic artisan Fabian Scaunich says the once broken and dirty floor of 200,000 mosaic pieces will be ready for the Comedy Festival launch at the Flinders Street theatre on March 28.

Mr Scaunich and two Italian workmates lifted 40,000 of the most battered pieces, and brushed and washed them.Mosaic artisan Fabian Scaunich with the newly restored floor in the Forum's foyer.

More than 20,000 of these had to be replaced. The vitrified-ceramic newbies were bought from French company Winckelmans.

But while the Forum originals had an imperial width of three-quarters of an inch, or 19.05 millimetres, the Winckelmans versions measured 20mm, so they were cut by water jet at a Dandenong company so that each new piece matched the older ones.

Mr Scaunich said a mosaic "is not just something you can bung together. You have to go through the process."

To put the "jigsaw" together, up to 400 pieces at a time were glued to small blocks of paper sheets – in deliberately imperfect lines to match the 1920s pieces.

If they are too precise, they would look a little bit off," Mr Scaunich says.

The sheets were turned upside down and the pieces were stuck to the floor with a cement-based adhesive. The paper, now on top, was wetted to dissolve the glue from the tiles, and flattened with a trowel. Finally, the paper was removed.

Mosaic bits for odd spaces were hand-cut with a special hammer – a martellina.

Under the carpet was a large square gap where a ticket booth once stood.

Filling the gap is a handsome new marble mosaic of a mythical gryphon – part eagle and part lion – which references the theatre's exterior gryphon gargoyles.

The artisans also uncovered a clock, its glass face lit from the basement, inlaid into the floor near the Flinders Street doors. They recreated its Roman numerals which had been removed.

Mr Scaunich was a Melbourne furniture importer until he fell in love with mosaics while visiting a workshop in Spilimbergo, in north-eastern Italy, near his parents' birthplace.

From 2006, he studied for three years at the Scuola Mosaicisti Del Friuli. He now runs Melbourne company Mosaic Republic.

The mosaic project is part of a nine-month restoration of the Forum by its owner, the Marriner Group.

Stonemason Bruno Borgia repaired two Carrara marble and tile staircases to the upper foyer, which were also covered by carpet. Some of the marble was broken into dozens of pieces.

Chief executive Jason Marriner said the carpet was installed in about 1963 when Greater Union ran two cinemas here, and would have been considered modern and luxurious.

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