Ceramic Tile + Digital Tech: Stunning New Possibilities

By Katherine Salant

Simulated river stones -- in ceramic tile -- are impossible to distinguish from the real thing.

The 20-by-20-inch “Piedra Terraza” ceramic tile by the Mexican firm Lamosa -- and shown at the top of this post -- mimics river stone, a classic upscale American floor finish for bathrooms made with stones rounded from eons of contact with moving water in rivers and streams. To produce a more realistic three-dimensional tile, each “stone” is raised, an effect readily apparent when you walk barefoot on it.


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 Fusan, 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, Fusan pointed out.

Of even greater interest to tile designers, the new technology allows them to design tiles with unusual three-dimensional qualities, Fusan said. In the past, a raised pattern could not project more than 1/16 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 half an 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 only 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 this spring in Atlanta at Coverings 2013, the international trade show for the ceramics and stone industry.

Reflecting the fact that nearly 70 percent of the ceramic tiles used in the U.S. are imported, five of these six 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.

Giovanni Barbieri’s Memento line for the Italian firm Ceramica Vallelunga looks like it was lifted from a 500-year-old palazzo in Castelfranco, the small town in Northern Italy where he lives. In a somewhat counterintuitive fashion, Barbieri has used the newest tile-making methods to create faux marble that looks really old and infused with the patina of age — the surface of all the tiles have the rounded wear pattern produced by thousands of footsteps over hundreds of years.



Marble is not the only stone that tile makers are mimicking. Lamosa, a Mexican firm, makes “Piedra Terraza.” It not only looks like real river stone (stones with a rounded surface after eons of contact with running water in rivers or streams), 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 appear to be individual floor planks or parquet flooring with multiple wood pieces on each tile. Crossville’s Wood Impressions includes patterns that mimic tropical hardwood like “Brazilian Cherry” and American standards like “Birch” as well as “Gunstock,” which looks like red oak but is actually a composite of several wood species.

The Spanish firm Aparici’s Sonar displays a distressed weathered look that does not look like 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, and even those 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 and time-consuming step of removing old floor tiles unnecessary; these ultra-thin tiles can go right over the old ones.

The 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 are 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, bright orange and kiwi lime green.

Award-winning syndicated columnist Katherine Salant is the author of The Brand-New House Book. To read more of Katherine's articles about house building click here.

Originally Published in Katherinesalant.com

04/10/2014

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