Digital technology creating new possibilities for ceramic tiles

May 24, 2013

We all know that digital technology has transformed photography and the music business.

It has also transformed the ceramic tile industry, creating new and intriguing possibilities for home interiors.

Digital technology’s most obvious impact has been the change in the appearance of the tiles. Adapting inkjet printing techniques, ceramic tile manufacturers can now make tiles that so closely resemble natural materials like marble and wood, even the tile professionals can’t tell the difference. “Once the tile is installed, unless I touch it and I’m six inches away, I can be fooled,” said Vancouver-based tile designer Ryan Fasan, in a recent interview.

Another plus with the new technology: It is almost impossible to discern a repeated pattern because the tile makers now create “pattern areas” that are 30-by-30-feet square. In the old days, you could easily spot identical tiles within about two or three feet of where you were standing. Not anymore, Fasan pointed out.

Of even greater interest to tile designers, the new technology allows them to design tiles with unusual three-dimensional qualities, Fasan said. In the past, a raised pattern could not project more than 1/16th of an inch from the tile surface. The effect was subtle and only visible at close range. Today, a tile pattern can project as much as a half-inch, creating effects that are visible from across a room, and a look that can change in the course of a day, depending on how sunlight hits it. The sizes of these distinctly different-looking tiles have also changed; tile manufacturers can now produce tiles that are very large and very thin — 3-by-10-feet in area and 3 millimeters (about 1/8-inch) thick.

What does all this mean for homeowners? You can make dramatic changes to your entire interior with a material that you probably thought best suited to bathrooms and kitchens. Whether you’re going for a more decorative, turn-of-the-last-century look, a spare, midcentury modern look or a more eclectic contemporary “I’ll create my own aesthetic” look, there’s a tile out there for every household and every room. The choices number in the thousands; these are a few of the standouts that I saw in April at Coverings, the annual international trade show in Atlanta for the ceramics and stone industry. Reflecting the fact that nearly 70 percent of the ceramic tiles used in the United States are imported, four of these five standouts are produced by foreign companies.

The most dramatic possibilities for a new look with tile are the look-alikes. If you’ve always hankered for marble but resisted it for practical reasons — real marble is a soft stone that cracks and scratches easily — here’s your chance. You can install ceramic porcelain tiles that look exactly like the real deal, combine the look of several real stones, or ones that evoke a long ago time and place.

Grespania, a Spanish tile manufacturer, makes a red-clay-colored Palace Alicante tile that is a dead ringer for Rojo Alicante, a very common Spanish marble that will look familiar to many Americans. If you want to wow your visitors as they step over the threshold into your foyer, this would be a good flooring choice.

Knoxville-based Crossville’s brand-new Virtue looks like white marble, but not a specific stone, because it’s a combination of three classics — Carrara, Calacatta and Statuario. With subtle veining and a soft satin finish that imbues it with a calming ambience, Virtue would be perfect flooring for a sitting area where you want to unwind after a long day.

Marble is not the only stone that tile makers are mimicking. Lamosa, a Mexican firm, makes Piedra Terraza. It looks like real river stones — stones with a rounded surface after eons of contact with running water in rivers or streams. Moreover, each individual stone on each tile is raised, a detail that becomes obvious when you walk on it barefoot.

The porcelain ceramic wood look-alikes are made to resemble individual floor planks or parquet flooring with multiple wood pieces on each tile. Lamosa’s Firenze collection includes American standards like Cherry and tropical hardwoods like Ipe and Zebra wood. Aparici’s Sonar displays a distressed or worn, weathered look that does not resemble real flooring; it’s actually more interesting. The wood “wannabes” can be used in any room but are especially well suited to wet areas such as kitchens and bathrooms or outside as a pool deck.

The 3-by-10-foot ceramic porcelain tiles offer tantalizing possibilities. In the past, whenever you opted for tile, you also got grout lines running everywhere. With the big tiles, such as Crossville’s Laminam, you can cover large areas of walls and floor in pure color or a textured finish with very few grout lines that are nearly invisible because the tiles can be set very close together. The 3-millimeter thickness of these large tiles is also a boon to remodelers because it makes the messy, time-consuming step of removing old floor tiles unnecessary; these tiles can go over the old ones.

The large 3-by-10-foot tiles can also be used for kitchen counters and bathroom vanities. Not only do you get a great look, but only a single tile is used, so there’s no grout lines to keep clean.

Other benefits of a porcelain ceramic counter: It is almost impossible to stain, scratch or crack. The Spanish firm Levantina’s Techlam offers the tiles in multiple colors, including sassy red, a bright orange and kiwi lime green.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at salanthousewatch@gmail.com or www.katherinesalant.com .

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