The tiles, they are a-changin'

By Elaine Markoutsas
Universal Uclick

With an ever-growing versatility and range of styles, ceramic tile is a formidable surfacing material that can be fashionable as well as practical. Its rich history, one that goes back thousands of years, impresses, and to this day, inspires.

Walking through the porticos of Bologna, for example, which hosts Cersaie, the annual to-the-trade show for ceramic tile, surfaces and bath furnishings, you can't help but appreciate the engaging tapestry of stones on walls and underfoot. This is especially true of terrazzo, which has enjoyed a design renaissance in recent years with no sign of letting up, as changes in scale and palette are giving way to exciting new effects -- even textiles and decorative accessories.

Porcelain tiles have been getting the most attention, and that's mostly due to boosts in technology that allow remarkable fidelity to images and textures that replicate all sorts of stones, as well as concrete, majolica and photography, much of which are enabled by extraordinary digital printing. Inspiration from history sees turns in classic design, plus looks of rustic or glam, with flecks or additions of gold, copper or silver. Some designs are stylized, some hyper-realistic, while others are playful.

From slabs that are dead ringers for real marble, limestone and gemstones that can be impossibly slim, to micromosaics fashioned to create stunning murals, there's a lot to offer. Which is why more designers and homeowners are considering moving beyond kitchen backsplashes and bathroom walls and floors for installations.

Wallcover up

One reason pivots around a growing trend in recent years: porcelain tile being billed as "wallpaper." Large-scale allover patterns or bold decorative imagery on open grounds, as well as strong geometry that taps into popular retro eras -- '60s, '70s and '80s -- keep feeding designs. Creating feature walls or even framing tiles as art is catching favor, much as it has in wallpaper.

Full-scale murals amaze with their fidelity to images and extraordinary detail. Land- or cityscapes, such as one of Venice by ABK, create atmospheric interiors.

Flower power

Vivid depictions of flowers are taking different paths, as evidenced at Cersaie. Ceramics producer Casalgrande Padana unveiled a blooming wall of roses nestled into glossy green foliage that was so lifelike it demanded a touch just to make sure -- even though this fool-the-eye example was just 2D. The same was true of two other designs -- one ivylike pattern and the other foliage that featured tiny white Stephanotis flowers.

Bringing the outside in is appealing, but this porcelain tile also can be used outdoors, to permanently brighten a drab wall. In addition, a technology borrowed from sanitary ware manufacturer Toto activates a reaction in the presence of sunlight to reduce air pollutants and decompose dirt deposits, which are washed away by rainwater.

Glossy green foliage is punctuated by chromatic depth and shading, with the lifelike color of the climbing rose. Coral Rose is part of the Limpha collection from Casalgrande Padana.

While uber-scale flowers have been popular in wallcovering as well as porcelain tiles, Vallelunga and Co. explored another intriguing direction. Designed as a companion to a black ground that features swirling patterns, there's a series of horizontal tiles with graphic images of flowers. On an entire wall, the effect feels almost random, and it's a departure from the overblown florals we've seen in tile and wallcovering, and one with a very modern look.

Another floral pattern conjured the feel of textiles, and for good reason -- it's a collaboration between Florim and Rubelli, a revered high-end textile manufacturer based in Venice. One of the patterns, a soft, breathtaking, medium-scaled floral felt almost like the fabric that it replicated. Whether it's used in a living space, teamed with a chair that repeats the pattern in jacquard or damask upholstery, or in a bathroom with modern fixtures, it's uber elegant.

Wood play

Wood looks, which have been dominant in recent years, offer a whole new range of possibilities. Grain, with real, palpable texture, sometimes exaggerated in wide planks, has been prevalent, even in unexpected colors. Some of newest iterations riff on traditional parquetry in a new hybrid of wood look on porcelain tile. One by Emilceramica features a kaleidoscopic pattern. The Italian brand Sant'Agostino features several novel patterns -- skinny wood tiles arranged in a labyrinth, or in a random look of Pick-Up Sticks dropped on the floor and incredible replication of hand-rubbed and oiled wide planks.

Industrial, take 3

Although the industrial look has backed off a bit as a style category, cement and cement-look tiles still appeal. Combinations, like those with wood, also include terrazzo. At ABK, geometric pieces patterned in terrazzo create a sort of rug pattern on a "concrete" ground.

Some of the cement looks are very painterly, with a fresco feel. One from Del Conca depicts a worn threadbare look popular in rug design.

Surface mixes

Contrasts between matte and glossy, and smooth and textured surfaces, are adding more interest, even to monochromatic schemes. At Tonalite, for example, an entire wall of emerald green tiles (bottiglia) from the Tissue collection, which the brand says is a favored hue, is all the more striking because of several textures, including large-scale herringbones, plaids and honeycomb. In addition, slivers of shiny copper and gold could be seen intertwining or overlapping rough cementlike textures in broken-up plaids.

The Italian brand Imola took an ordinary subway tile, showed it in a coral red, then accented it with a metallic gold in a bubble pattern. Dimensional mosaics, especially on a beefed-up scale, which enhances pattern options and allows for more seamless designs, are an emerging category. Artistic Tile's Garden Party shows lovely elements such as dragonflies, butterflies and flowers that pop from a ground of creamy Bianco Dolomiti marble.

Another dimension

Besides bas relief, more exaggerated 3D examples continue to push the design envelope. Chunky pieces, like those of Made39's Cube, are hollowed out or assembled in overlapping cubes, a rich dimension that is highlighted by light and shade. Zephyr, one of the most striking new designs from Artistic Tile, which won the 2019 Best of the Year award from Interior Design magazine, depicts dynamic sweeps of gilt-edge ruffles that mimic fabric. In fact, the undulating design by Alison Rose was inspired by the symbol for infinity.

A swirling effect much like that of fabric is achieved in porcelain by New York City designer Alison Rose for Artistic Tile.

Fashion, architecture, archival patterns, paintings, photographs, cityscapes and dreamscapes, as well as geometry, textiles and paint techniques all are driving today's tile designs. Choices abound for those looking for surface materials for floors and walls, indoors and out. On a smaller scale, backsplashes, fireplace surrounds and feature walls offer special canvases for striking designs that require little maintenance -- always an attractive selling point.