Canadian Architect

Feature

Tiles for All Tastes

Standouts in Italy’s annual tile show include Ceramics that play with photorealism and texture in intriguing ways.

March 11, 2016
by Andrew Jones

Daniel Libeskind’s installation at the Milan Expo used iridescent tiles from Casalgrande Padana.

Daniel Libeskind’s installation at the Milan Expo used iridescent tiles from Casalgrande Padana.

TEXT Andrew Jones

Visiting Cersaie provides a zeitgeist survey of the world’s ceramic products. This year there were 872 exhibitors representing 39 countries, and more than 100,000 visitors. Wares ranged from a seemingly endless variety of tiles and bathroom furnishings to tools and equipment for the tiling trade. Cersaie seemed to propose that the world could be made anew in ceramic, whether practical or luxurious—and, after a few days of exploring the show’s offerings, I learned that ceramics, with all their many advantages, can be used for virtually every building surface. Furthermore, ceramics continue to evolve into high-tech materials that go beyond the expected.

One of the exciting technical innovations in ceramics is the production of extra-large and wafer-thin panels. Sizes reach 1.6 m x 3.2 m, with thicknesses as little as 3 mm. Large thin panels are easy to handle and cut compared with conventional porcelain, are perfectly flat, and can be installed over existing surfaces without the need for demolition. Thin panels have outstanding green credentials thanks to their limited use of raw materials, energy resources and water. Large panels are made using an industrial manufacturing process that employs a meticulously selected blend of clays, rocks, feldspars and pigments, which are pressed under very high load on a continuous belt and are then fired at a temperature of more than 1,200 degrees Celsius. Manufacturers of these sleek tiles include ABK Group and Laminam.

One large-format standout is Patrick Norguet’s recently designed Naïve panels for Lea Ceramiche’s Slimtech product range, which includes a white background with an irregular pattern of intersecting lines. These crosshatched lines are registered over top the same design in low relief, creating a floating graphic effect.

Daniel Libeskind’s installation at the Milan Expo used iridescent tiles from Casalgrande Padana.

Daniel Libeskind’s installation at the Milan Expo used iridescent tiles from Casalgrande Padana.

New technological advances allow for a quick and seamless process from initial concept through to sampling and manufacturing. Designers are now able to create designs using many types of artwork, surface relief and metallic inks. Daniel Libeskind used these characteristics when working with the Italian company Casalgrande Padana on the tile-clad Vanke Pavilion at last year’s Milan Universal Expo. A description from the Libeskind website explains: “The three-dimensional surface [of each tile] is coated with a metallic coloration that changes as light and viewpoints shift. At times it will appear as deep crimson, then a dazzling gold, and even, at certain angles, a brilliant white.” The geometric ceramic panels evoke a dragon-like skin, and also possess highly sustainable self-cleaning and air purification properties. Casalgrande Padana recently licensed the proprietary Hydrotect technology from the Japanese company Toto, and with it has developed the Bios Self-Cleaning line of ceramics. When the tiles are used in façades and exposed to light, the technological innovations break up organic substances and pollutants on the tile surface.

High-definition ink-jet printing is not brand new, but is still having a profound effect on the ceramic tile industry. The potential of digitally printing onto tile has opened up limitless possibilities for pattern, colour and combinations of surface relief and pattern. But we’ve yet to see the full potential of digital printing in ceramics.

At present, the technology has resulted in a proliferation of ceramic tiles that simulate the appearance of wood and stone. At Cersaie, it seemed that every producer had a broad selection of wood and stone look-alike tiles. However, a handful of companies have reacted against photorealism and are referencing real-life materials in a self-conscious way. As an industrial designer, I feel these products are most comfortable in their ceramic skins.

Sant’Agostino’s Digitalart tiles employ the texture of herringbone fabric.

Sant’Agostino’s Digitalart tiles employ the texture of herringbone fabric.

For instance, Digitalart by Ceramica Sant’Agostino samples herringbone fabrics with irregular and contrasting colour and weave effects. The design claims to be “the first fabric-look made on a three-dimensional textured ceramic surface.” Five neutral colours and eight modular sizes allow for textile-like combinations for walls and floors. Imagine what might result if fashion houses in Milan, like Pucci or Prada—who have fully realized the potential of digital printing on fabric—were to join forces with the Italian ceramics industry.

Similarly, there is a renewed interest in clay and in past methods of pattern-making as inspiration for new designs. These designs show the random, malleable qualities of the stuff itself. Maxe, for example, is a playful, wood-inspired tile designed by local architect Studio Architetto Romanelli for Unica by Target. The tile design is created by hand-rubbing graphite over wood samples, a technique inspired by the work of German artist Max Ernst. In a similar vein of mixed media exploration, Slimtech Type 32 by designer Diego Grandi for Lea Ceramiche overlays photorealistic wood with lines in chevron patterns to create an interesting hybrid of photo and drawing.

41zero42’s Sign tiles play with subtle, plaster-like textures.

41zero42’s Sign tiles play with subtle, plaster-like textures.

Two collections by boutique manufacturer 41zero42 also show inventive verve. Rigo by 41zero42 is a full-coloured body tile, which the company describes as having “the contemporary charm of wood’s imperfections.” The woodiness is conveyed through surface relief alone, which highlights the wood’s natural grain and bandsaw cuts. Signs, on the other hand, features six different patterns imprinted onto extruded, full-coloured porcelain. Tiles vary in thickness and shape, giving the collection a handmade feel.

Another product focused on surface texture is Carve, a floor tile by artisan stone designer Giovanni Barbieri for Vallelunga & Co. Even though it is industrially produced, the tile appears hand-chiselled
because the patterns were first handmade.

Overall, Cersaie demonstrates the continued relevance and evolving role that ceramics play in our contemporary built environment. With fierce competition from China, the Italian ceramics industry is invest­ing in design, technical innovation and better environmental materials to ensure its dominance in the global marketplace. This foresight will ensure that Cersaie will continue to be the place where the latest and greatest in ceramics are seen for years to come.

Andrew Jones’ work includes furniture design and architectural, commercial and residential interiors. He teaches at the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design.