Ceramic Tile: New Life for an Old Staple

From large sizes to hyper-realistic decorative detailing, ceramic tiles offer consumers an ever-expanding array of natural, functional options that will elevate spaces for decades to come.

authors Emily Blackburn | October 14, 2020

The versatility of ceramic tile, coupled with its health and eco-friendly appeal, has consumers turning back to the ancient building staple after relegating it to tub surrounds and backsplashes for decades.

Aided by advancing technology, new life has been breathed into tile, with digital imaging allowing for hyper-realistic motifs and designs, such as marble and hardwood, without the expense and sourcing issues that go along with such materials.

“The tile industry, in terms of trends, is easily one of the fastest innovating sectors,” says Ryan Fasan, research consultant for Tile of Spain. Tile trends reflect the desires of consumers at large, showing designers not just which aesthetic styles are appealing to homeowners, but the importance of functionality and cohesiveness in space while adapting to a rapidly home-bound populace.

Return to Nature

“There’s been a general warming up of the palettes,” says Roxanne Morris of The Tile Council of North America, pointing out that in past years, homeowners and designers alike have favored minimalist approaches to tiling with an emphasis on cold neutrals paired with metallic looks, as well as simple finishes and designs.

MSI Stone’s Azul Scallop

In response to the long-standing, starkly minimal designs, homeowners are now looking for styles with fewer hard and fast rules, Fasan explains. “The main thing is to give a form of expression and a layered aesthetic that really connects the owner of the space and tells a story to the users that they share their space with.”

That theme of layers is very strong in manufacturers’ collections this year, Fasan says. Not only are more sizes available but, with digital printing technology, manufacturers can print finishes and textures, adding depth and life to their designs.

Earth Stone and Colours’ Cava Domum

That lust for life carries over into the “biophilic” design trends Morris is seeing. Biophilia, or an innate affinity for life and nature, has taken over facets of every industry, with potted plants and patterns dominating the interior design world in recent years.

“People want to get back to nature,” Morris says. “We’re on screens so many hours of the day, everything is so digitized. Pair that with everyone’s increased focus on health and wellness and the known benefits of being in the outdoors, and people are realizing it’s great to surround yourself with natural materials and looks as well.”

In addition to digital botanical prints, this means a lot of natural clay programs and, as Fasan puts it, a modern take on classic terracotta, both glazed and unglazed, like zellige and Moroccan wall tile. “I think that love of and value for natural designs builds into people’s desire for uplifting and clean spaces right now.”

Geotzzo’s Ribbon Black Artistic Tile

Within that desire is individuality, and tile programs are seeing this, with more mixed palettes within one installation and “more randomized pops of color” taking over from the monochrome of the past, Morris says.

Emily Holle, director of trend and design at MSI Surfaces, is especially fond of blues and golden tones, listing “moody blues” and “sun-washed chic” as trending styles she’s noticed in 2020 and going into 2021. “Rooms designed with this magic-hour aesthetic—the time after sunrise and before sunset where the light’s soft and golden—have a day dreamy natural look,” she says, echoing the desire for warm, natural aesthetics.

In addition to a wider variety of interesting, non-rectangular shapes and designs such as chevron and diamonds, “there’s been a move towards more organic, painterly designs than there used to be,” Morris says. “Instead of all geometric shapes, I’m seeing more watercolor shapes even as far as the tile etches, ones that have a handmade look. People like to see that something has been made with care.”

A Matter of Scale

While long popular in European markets, large tile sizes have only recently taken off in the North American markets. “The ubiquitous builder tile for the past 50 years probably has been 12 by 24 inch, with manufacturers still making that size specifically for the North American market until last year,” Fasan says.

Previously, accent tiles would have been accent or backsplash features, but now design programs are incorporating them into the design as a whole, such as in this StoneImpressions Dandelions Collection.

The past year has seen the adoption of the 24- by 48-inch tile in North America—four times as large as the old standard. “If you look at the two pieces side by side, you go, ‘Holy smokes, that looks huge!’ But then you see the 24 by 48 tile in a hotel lobby or even in a resident great room where it’s open plan, and it really doesn’t look that big.” An added bonus, he says, is that with such large tiles, grout maintenance is greatly reduced.

According to Fasan, there’s been a strong revival for Art Deco, seen here in Motawki Tileworks’ Blooming Bell Art Tile, with curvaceous forms and arches going hand-in-hand with the more organic forms making their way into decorative programs.

Some slabs on the market are as large as 4 by 8 feet for indoors and 5 ½ by 11 feet for exteriors. This means the slabs can actually span an entire story, with only one vertical join every 5 feet for an exterior cladding job.

In addition to larger sizes, Fasan says rectangle tiles, a staple of North American style guides and still favored, are slowly being edged out of the spotlight as square tiles make a comeback, especially in flooring.

The thickness, or rather the thinness, of tile has also expanded the opportunities for tile use in the home. Gauge porcelain tiles as thin as 3.7 millimeters have hit the North American market, with the practical purpose of cladding surfaces such as cabinet doors and tables, but also and especially, as aesthetic veneers for doors, walls and even furniture.

Morris considers this one of the biggest innovations in the market, expanding the market from flooring and backsplashes. “It’s a different type of animal from tiles in the past. It really gives possibilities for new applications”

Thicker porcelain tiles have also taken the market, with gauged porcelain pavers as thick as 2 centimeters used for flooring and countertops in place of stone, marble or other less natural materials. They’re low maintenance, stain-, scratch-, flame- and water-resitant, and easy to install, Morris says.

SapienStone’s Calacatta Macchia Vecchia and Rovere Baio designs showcase the hyper-realistic printing technology possible, with detailed marbling indistinguishable from the real thing.

SapienStone recently unveiled its Calacatta Macchia Vecchia and Fior Di Bosco tile colors, featuring a realistic marble design that digital specialist Tiffanie Harel says is in high demand among consumers designing porcelain countertops. “Our porcelain slabs are harder than most granites available and are heat resistant, which allows for unique applications such as an induction cooktop, where you can cook meals right on top of your porcelain countertop.” These large slab porcelain tiles create seamless transitions across aesthetics and function.

Large ceramic and porcelain pavers are great for outdoor use, as they can be laid and grouted or just laid as a paver, the way one would indoors. “What’s really nice about those is you can then coordinate your indoor and outdoor spaces,” Morris explains. “You can carry a consistent design throughout your home and then into your outdoor space, which people seem to be utilizing more recently with everybody being home more. It’s nice because you can blur the distinction between indoor and outdoor and make for a more cohesive space.”

“To be able to spill our space into the exterior and create a bigger living space, whether it’s just a patio to sit or an exterior kitchen or something like that so you’ve got another space, and then to also have the aesthetic continue from the inside out, it gives even just the illusion of more space,” Fasan adds. “That makes it much easier for us to be our spaces, if they feel bigger, let alone act bigger.”

Ariostea’s Rovere Baio Wood Effect Porcelain Tiles

Especially for outdoor pavers, porcelain’s natural color fastness and resistance to warping through hot/cold weather cycles means designs and shapes will remain unchanged year after year, which Morris says speaks to its long-term appeal as a building material.

Large format porcelain also boasts a versatile weight to surface area ratio, which makes them great for use on whole walls as well, especially in areas that are prone to high humidity.

Health Concerns in the Home

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, health was at the forefront of homeowners’ concerns, especially in the materials they were choosing to bring into their homes.

Studies by the United States Environmental Protection Agency show that many common household products such as carpets, paint, furniture and building materials emit volatile organic compounds as gases. These include formaldehyde, methylene chloride and benzene, known carcinogens.

Porcelanosa’s Starwood Wood Effect Tile

With consumer concerns over the quality of their materials, tile—which is comprised of all-natural minerals, silicates and clay—has become a popular choice to replace plastic and petroleum-based alternatives.

“People are definitely paying more attention,” Morris says. “They want to know they’re making the healthiest choice. More people are looking to tile because of those qualities. It’s naturally free of harmful irritants, sustainable and easier to keep clean.” Ceramic is able to maintain a high level of cleanliness at an intrinsic level because it is naturally non-porous. This prevents dirt and other debris from accumulating in cracks and crevices.

Additionally, according to Fasan, ceramic is naturally chemically inert and hypoallergenic, with a high density that offers heat and damage resistance and allows for heavy use and abuse as a worktop. This also makes it ideal as cladding over less expensive materials as an upgrade to the existing structure, such as flooring.

Portobella’s Ms Barcelona

With COVID-19 disrupting supply and demand, markets are rapidly shifting towards a focus on hygiene—already one of porcelain’s innate features—with more of an emphasis on known anti-microbial, self-cleaning properties that can be naturally added to tiles.

“There are actually also a lot of catalytic additives that can go into glazes that make the surfaces anti-microbial completely and destroy bacteria and virus on contact with the surface just by using light as a catalyst,” Fasan says.

Titanium dioxide is one such mineral that is added to glaze and, once fired, continues to break down carbon chains, the building blocks of most organic material including bacteria and viruses. “So there’s some that use UV full-spectrum light for exteriors, and there are others that can just use LED or whatever we have in our interiors to use as a catalyst and keep the surface completely clean.”

Green Innovations

Hand-in-hand with homeowners’ concerns for off-gassing volatile organic compounds, and with a growing interest in natural products, is a desire for sustainability and eco-conscious consumption.

Gayafore’s Aura collection

“When you consider the average lifecycle, tiles have the lowest carbon output because they can be used much longer than almost any other material,” Morris says.

Fasan goes into more detail: “If you look at flooring category EPDs, the flooring category rules state that they must list the carbon footprint inputs and outputs for the material over, I believe, a 20-year span. So, when you look at those two columns, in ceramics versus just about everything else those two columns are identical because the usable lifespan of ceramics is 40-plus years, whereas almost everything else has to be replaced two, three, four times in that 20-year span.”

There is incentive to increasing efficiency, both in energy optimization and environmental preservation, as a bottom-line measure. “If it’s more efficient to make it, they can offer it at a lower, more competitive price, which means more tile gets into jobs,” Fasan says.

Walker Zanger’s City Bricks

Many companies are also taking the initiative themselves to reduce waste. Walker Zanger’s City Bricks line contain 31 percent recycled post-industrial content and 58 percent locally sourced natural clay, which is part of a developing Green Product collection.

Fasan relates a number of strategies being implemented in Europe that have been developed especially over the past couple of years to optimize energy efficiencies, decrease waste and find new streams for the waste that is coming from the manufacturing sectors, such as public work projects that utilize the second- and third-choice material and laminating it together to make an impermeable paving material that’s highly durable, as well as finding a waste stream.

An additional detail to note is the environmental impact of deforestation and mining for marble and granite. With rapid advances in technology allowing for ever more detailed printing, ceramic is able to emulate the style and aesthetic of more ecologically costly materials, without the burden. QR

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