In the U.S., Italian manufacturers are celebrated for the design of their cars, clothes, furniture and housewares.

Ceramica Vallelunga Ceramica Vallelunga

We need to add another category to the list: ceramic tiles.

At Coverings, the international trade fair for ceramic and stone tile held last month in Atlanta, two Italian firms and their designers showed American audiences how sophisticated ceramic tile can be.

While many ceramic tiles today look exactly like real marble, Italian designer Giovanni Barbieri has taken things about 10 steps further.

His “Memento” line for Ceramica Vallelunga looks like it was lifted from a 500-year-old palazzo in Castelfranco, the small town in Northern Italy where he lives. Somehow Barbieri has managed to infuse these look-alikes with the patina of age — the surface of all the tiles has the rounded, irregular wear pattern produced by thousands of footsteps over hundreds of years.

Unlike Barbieri’s work, the originality of Phillip Starck’s “Flexible Architecture” line for Ceramica Sant’Agostino is not apparent at first glance or even the first five minutes. The bold colors and patterns are captivating; the fact that five barely dissimilar tiles can be rearranged in a seemingly infinite variety of distinct patterns is cleverness itself.

Ceramica Sant’Agostino Ceramica Sant’Agostino

Then the light bulb goes off, as you realize that the generating motif for all the patterns is the humble grout line, something that most tile designers regard as distracting, ugly and something to hide.

Starck has done the opposite, celebrating it by incorporating an exaggerated textured grout line into the tile itself. When the tiles are installed you can’t miss the “fake” grout line’s three-quarter-inch width; the actual grout line is one millimeter wide and nearly invisible because it’s colored to match the tile.

Starck also shows us that it doesn’t take much to create a three-dimensional effect — the one-quarter-inch difference in the thickness of the tiles in his “Flexible Architecture” line creates a distinct shadow line in every pattern.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. She  can be reached at or