Ceramic and more recently porcelain tile was once thought of in purely functional terms. The colors might change, but the format generally remained the same. Product options were similarly limited, with sheets of rectangular mosaics for kitchen backsplashes and 4-inch squares for the bathroom. Those days have passed to the pleasure of many designers, and now homeowners have a sometimes-overwhelming range of options to choose from.
For at least one trend spotter, in fact, today’s broad range of products is making it difficult to actually spot trends. “It used to be very definite, what was in and what was out. What we’re seeing now is a lot of available choices, and sometimes it makes it difficult to identify current trends,” says Lindsey Waldrup, marketing vice president for Crossville Tile. But she sees millennial home buyers relishing all the available choices.
“I think the younger generations purchasing their first homes now were raised with an attitude that rules were just suggestions when it comes to design,” she says. And today’s broad product lineup is offering up many suggestions to consider.
The rapid entry of porcelain products into the U.S. market has only added to homeowners’ design decisions. While the material was originally promoted over ceramic tiles for its low water-absorption rate and through-body finishes, designers say these differences rarely come into play in wall applications. And, in the end, most buyers are most interested in appearance.
“People are very familiar now with the term ‘porcelain,’ but they’re really looking for something that’s going to look great and fit their budget,” says Emily Holle, trend and design director for MSI Surfaces. “Porcelain tends to be at a higher price, so often people will end up using ceramic on the wall because of that.”
Waldrup agrees with Holle’s assessment. “I see more questions being asked about floors because consumers are more concerned about chipping and breaking, [and] because of the wear and tear on a floor versus a wall,” she says. And in some wall locations, ceramic remains the material of choice. “You’re going to see a lot more ceramic on backsplashes than you are porcelain, and that’s fine.”
However, DeeDee Gundberg, director of product development and design for Ann Sacks, has one caveat when it comes to the choice of one material over the other. “In general, there is no difference in performance for a backsplash,” she says, noting this isn’t always the case in bathroom projects. “In a shower application, one should confirm that the ceramic tile has a glaze that is not crackled, as water can penetrate through the cracks in the tile and discolor the body.”
While material might not matter much to today’s tile buyers, size is beginning to make a big difference. Consumers are moving toward larger formats for both kitchen and bathroom installations. Burhan Ozturk, Ege Seramik’s sales manager, says his company’s Euro-influenced lines are expanding to meet growing demand for larger formats.
“In our portfolio, small-size 3 by 6 and 4 by 13 glossy-finished wall tiles are high-selling lines, but we also added new sizes such as 3 by 9 and 3 by 12 to provide more options for our customers,” he says, noting that there’s room for preferences to shift to even larger dimensions. “Though we are able to sell 10 by 30 or 13 by 39 wall tiles in Turkey or Europe, those styles are still too early for the U.S. residential market.”
Melanie Towey, regional sales manager with Emser Tile, says her company also sees a shift to larger formats. “You have 12 by 24 and 12 by 12, and now larger format and different sizes in both rooms,” she says. “Matte and texture also are big, along with a lot of the geometric shapes.”
While also noting a trend toward larger sizes, Shelley Halbert, Marazzi’s lead designer, says off-white tones are moving up in popularity, though white remains the most popular color. “The taupe and the ‘greige,’” she says, using the term for today’s trending neutral shade that falls between gray and beige. As for texture, “Satin is kind of the finish we’re leaning to now. We’ve also seen people doing a combination of gloss and matte for more of a 3D feel,” she says.
MSI’s Holle says she sees a reaction against “white fatigue” in homeowners’ current color choices. “They’re still going to be married to their white countertop, but also a lot of blue tiles—navies, pale blue and emerald green. We’re even seeing encaustic patterns with black and white, with some blues and grays.”
Bolder color choices also are on Waldrup’s radar. “Whether in the kitchen or bath, we’re seeing a lot more color,” she says. “I’m seeing more black and matte black in the kitchen, and sandstone looks cut out of larger, floor-style tile.”
Styling with Tile in the Kitchen
In kitchen applications subway tile still rules, though tile designers are making some changes with this longtime favorite. “The traditional 3 by 6 subway is evolving to 4 by 12 or 6 by 12,” says Laura Grilli, Daltile’s lead designer. Homeowners are stepping away from simple running-bond patterns toward more interesting fish-scale and chevron approaches. She adds that backsplashes are getting more attention.
“The kitchen is now an important part of the house, and sometimes the backsplash can really be the focal point of the design,” she says. “Now encaustic patterns are very popular, and the new Moroccan style is popular.”
Ege Seramik’s Ozturk also is seeing new subway-style options breaking into the market. “Subway tiles are getting larger with different color options and finish alternatives,” he says. “We decided to add new sizes for our small-format wall tile offerings. In addition, we came up with crackle-look glazed wall tiles with several color options.”
Crossville Tile’s Waldrup sees new finish and format preferences emerging. “I’m seeing more natural looking materials—sandstone and things that look like concrete but without the maintenance,” she says. “And I didn’t think I’d see the day penny-rounds would come back, but they have. Also large format pieces, so it looks like slab stone, but you you’ve got low, low maintenance. And with that slab look, I’ve seen a lot of counters of the same material, so visually it just continues.”
Towey, who notes Emser Tile has added a subtle wave to standard subway designs with its Craft line, agrees that industrial concrete looks are taking off. “The cement tile lookalike has been wildly popular for us in the 9 by 9 format,” she says. “It’s getting an aesthetic that’s popular, with added durability. We’ve seen it continue to grow as a trend.”
As to the use of colors, Waldrup sees two different design approaches now taking hold. “I see a lot of bold colors, and heavily veined stones are back in,” she says. “So I think if you’re going to be subtle, you’re going to be really subtle; and if you’re going to do color, you’re going to be really bold.”
Holle also sees divergent trends. “White and gray are still king, and marble looks are very important, but color is coming on strong,” she says. “Glass is a big part of that, and we’re seeing crackled finishes are becoming important.”
And, she adds, tile as a material is simply becoming more important in homeowners’ kitchen planning. “I think one of the big things is the way people are incorporating more tile,” she says. “They’re running it all the way around the window, or all the way up the hood wall.”
Bathrooms as Personal Spas
The trend toward larger formats is also playing out in a big way with bathroom showers, according to our experts. One advantage of bigger tile is it leads to fewer grout lines—an important plus for those who might have had issues with mold in the past. Larger tiles also can help create a more luxe appearance.
“The wall tiles are closer to 5 or 6 inches,” says Marazzi’s Halbert. “It gives you a little more pattern and it gives you a high-end look, but it’s not as expensive as stone.”
Daltile’s Grilli sees classic grand hotel looks showing up in bathroom plans, with Victorian-style encaustic floor tiles paired with walls clad in tiles mimicking the look of polished marble. “Bigger sizes are showing up—even 10 by 30 or 12 by 36—to recreate the hotel spa looks,” she says. “But with 3D, with texture, so you have different levels in the style of the tile face.”
Emser’s Towey also is seeing increasing interest in high-end, large-format stone looks. “The natural stone lookalikes with the veining are big sellers; it’s the porcelain and ceramic being able to take on that look with added durability,” she says. In fact, some are starting to create shower surrounds clad in single slab-style porcelain panels. “We’re seeing that pick up across the market.”
Waldrup draws a distinction between powder rooms and bathrooms when discussing these design trends. “In powder rooms, you’re always going to have a lot more fun with the design,” she says, incorporating more color and metallic finishes. “If you used a blue-glazed tile in your kitchen, you might bring it in as an accent.”
Bathrooms, especially master baths, she says, face differing demands. In these spaces lighter, less-distracting finishes serve a functional purpose. “Bathrooms where people are preparing themselves for outside viewing tend to be softer.”
But regardless of location or finish preference, Waldrup says she is seeing an increasing interest in tile that has the look of being handcrafted. “I think it’s just an extension of the maker’s movement, which we began talking about a few years ago.”
Examples of such handmade designs could include the retro-looking mosaic tiles mentioned by several of these designers, including Marazzi’s Halbert. “Hexagon mosaics have been very popular for shower floors and as accents on the wall,” she says.
Beyond Kitchens and Baths
While kitchens and baths are certainly the most important rooms for tile in most homeowners’ plans, the material is showing up in both accent and full-wall applications in other areas as well. “Typically, it’s a very small area where you can make a big impact,” Waldrup says. “It’s a quick and easy change.”
And Grilli says such use can help set the tone for a home’s visitors. “I see creating an accent wall, for instance in the entryway,” she says. “It’s sort of a business card. I see a lot of shape and three-dimensionals here, in a real stone or cement. Metal is also a very strong trend now.”
Others see fireplace surrounds as a common application for tile in common living spaces. “Tiling the fireplace is very common, and a great way to bring tile into the living spaces,” says Ann Sacks’ Gundberg. “This can be a simple tile that blends into the background, or a stunning focal point of the room.” QR