More Than Just a Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts


Joe Pieri (Tile Setter)

I was born September 2, 1936, in the Abruzzi region of Italy. I came to New Orleans with my younger brother and my daddy in 1956. He was a refugee of WWII. I couldn't speak any English. Our first house was at Esplanade and Bourbon. New Orleans was good to me; it gave me an opportunity to better myself. Everybody can find work if they want to work. Nobody can tell you more about it. I came to New Orleans, I didn't know anybody. I got here at nine at night. My sponsor came and got me from the train station, went out and found me a job the next morning. I've been working ever since. I worked every chance I get. My boss asked me to work Saturday, I worked Saturday. My boss asked me to work Sunday, I worked Sunday. He asked me to work late, I worked late. Put in long hours and hard work and you get success. I don't work on Saturday now. Because being a little bit older, I want Saturday and Sunday to myself and my family. I've done it a long time to get ahead.

Pieri Tilework created this piece at the 2002 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival as part of the New Orleans Building Arts demonstrations. Photo: Maida Owens.

When I first came here, I was young and I needed work. Not knowing the English language, I started terrazzo work and then changed to tile. I helped for a year, then apprenticed for a year, then I started doing actual setting of the tile, layout, and prep work and all of that. I went into partnership for a while; then I went into my own business in 1967. I started with just myself and one helper. Now I employ about eighteen people. My daughter [Deena] and my brother [Alex] and maybe my son [Joseph] will come in. Hopefully my family will keep it going.

Tile has been changing over the last fifteen years. In the olden days we used wire metal lath with cement. You would use felt paper behind it and then use this wire and then cement it to the wire. For a while the tile industry was good, and in the mid-[19]60s a new system came out where instead of cement wove with wire, they would glue it and more people got into it because it was easier. It left out some of the real craftsmanship. Some of the work, especially in these big apartment buildings, was just gluing everything and the tile work got kind of a bad reputation for not holding up well.

Unfortunately they don't have a trade school for tile work; it's just the school of hard knocks. I would see [the need for] some kind of training for any trade. Few years back they were union and they had little programs. But they really need some kind of training for tradesmen because everybody wants to go to college. We need tradesmen. There is room for every trade. You can make a good living at any trade if you are good at it. They need better training to teach our young people to get into something. If there was a school, they might find more interests and want to learn and get into it. Since there is no school and you have to just go working for so-and-so in the summer, and all you do is get your hands dirty and wet, you think, "Oh, this is not for me." But if there was a school where they teach you all the techniques and benefits from it, maybe more people would get interested.

Joe Pieri was interviewed as part of the New Orleans Building Arts Project. Laura Westbrook edited More than Just A Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts in 2004 for publication online.