Inside Out

Bisazza's Navone collection employs retro patterns.
Bisazza’s Navone collection employs retro patterns.

Text Elsa Lam

Cersaie, the annual ceramic tile and bathroom fixture extravaganza held in Bologna, attracts some 900 manufacturers who fill over 16 square kilometres of exhibition space. Host country Italy remains a dominant player in tiles, as a 5-billion-Euro industry—claiming 30.4% of the global market in tiles. It’s closely rivalled by China, which boasts a 26.7% market share. Third place is claimed by Spain, with 15% of global tile revenues.

To keep their edge, Italian tile manufacturers have been pushing towards greater innovation. The most successful results go beyond residential kitchens and commercial floors, pointing toward broader applications including feature walls, exterior cladding and raised flooring.

Some of the most dramatic products on display this year were large-scale slabs, whose backing incorporates fibreglass mesh. The Magnum Rex line, launched by Florim Ceramiche, reaches sizes of 1.6m x 3.2m—large enough for full countertops, including returns, to be milled from them. Advanced digital-imaging technology makes the line’s high-gloss faux Calacatta marble slabs particularly compelling—at a tenth of the price of the real thing.

Cotto d’Este showed similarly oversized tiles, which come in a range of thicknesses for different types of installations. Their superstrong 14mm tiles are designed for commercial flooring applications. At the other end of the spectrum, 3.5mm and 5.5mm tiles are intended for wall cladding. According to the manufacturer, the lightness and large size of the tiles allow for speedy installation. The extremely thin tiles are also curveable: they can be installed on walls with a five-metre radius or larger without cracking.

Laminam’s supersized slabs may be used in interiors, but their strength also allows them to serve as exterior cladding, using a mounting system produced and tested by the manufacturer. While rarely seen in exterior applications in Canada, porcelain tiles absorb little water—Laminam’s product has a 0.1% average absorption—making them resistant to frost damage and freeze-thaw cycles. To prove the point, distributor StoneTile’s headquarters in Toronto is proudly clad in porcelain slabs.

Tagina’s Dot-to-Dot modules are also designed for exterior applications. As an alternative to flat surfaces or slabs, the hexagonal units can be arranged freely as independent pixels on a vertical surface. Each tile is subtly faceted, giving it dimensionality, and the modules include a custom fastener system.

Raised floors are another application where, in Canada, tiles are underused. Marazzi’s engineering division has developed pedestals that support 50cm square tiles; patterns can be chosen from any of the manufacturer’s many floor-tile lines. An outdoor version—intended for decks and public shelters where lighting and power cables are needed—incorporates open joints and channel systems for drainage.

Subtle innovations in form and patterning were also of note. These design-forward tactile patterns drew craned necks—and outreached fingers—at several show booths.

The best of the batch show an attention to craftsmanship and detail. Brix’s new line Alea is a grid of tiny, not-quite-circular dots. Reminiscent of marble mosaic tiles, the line comes in subdued tones, making it a classy finish for commercial and residential applications alike. Boutique company 41zero42, named for its postal code in Modena, showed creative verve with their jungle-scene Jane and neon-streaked Lola, both part of the Paper41 line.

Rich mixtures of textures, including metallic touches, were also deftly deployed in collections such as Visia by Ava, and Fiber mosaics by SICIS.

Collaborations with designers, including architects, were on display throughout the show. Lea Ceramiche worked with HOK offices in Toronto, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Miami to develop Nest—a retro-coloured line based on hexagonal patterns. The oversized tiles, which can be laid in different configurations, are intended for hard-wearing feature walls.

A subtle 1950s vibe is also present in Bisazza’s new line of cement tiles with several collaborators, including interior designer Paola Navone. The playfully decorative patterns are intended to be mixed and matched, yielding unique patchwork motifs on walls and underfoot.

Ornamenta’s Sale e Pepe (salt and pepper) collection similarly invites customization, inviting designers to create their own compositions from a selection of nine grid patterns in 30 colours.

Turning to crowdsourcing, Refin Ceramiche initiated a design-your-own-tile competition, launching the winning design at Cersaie. The refreshing result, by emerging Polish designer Kasia Zareba, is a hand-drawn pattern inspired by the fluted shells of fossil ammonites.

The sophistication of today’s tiles make the options worthy of careful consideration by architects—not simply as sturdy surface cladding, but as an integral part of the design of both interior and exterior environments.