Sincere Forms of Flattery

In the design industry, few materials can match the assets and adaptability of ceramic tile. In recent years, its remarkable shape-shifting capabilities have been industrialized to the point where ceramic tiling can seem to transform into any material imaginable. With ultra-high resolution scans of actual marble or stone slabs, combined with a manufacturing process that allows precisely calibrated surface textures, you can source uncannily realistic simulacra of marble, stone, wood and concrete, as well as a growing array of human-made materials like textiles and wallpaper. It is, for sure, impressive. Is it desirable?

Edward Burtynsky’s Carrara Marble Quarries, Cava di Canalgrande #2 shows the massive scale of resource extraction. Photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

The verisimilitude was on display in full force at the most recent Cersaie exhibition, held in Bologna last fall. Cersaie—the Italian acronym for the International Exhibition of Ceramic Tile and Bathroom Furnishings—presents architects, designers and journalists with a huge interactive encyclopedia cum yearbook of notable products and developments. And the show demonstrates the ever-increasing chameleon-like properties of ceramic tiling. Stall after stall displayed immersive dioramas of “marble look” panels so large and so intricately patterned that the lay eye is hard-pressed to differentiate it from the real thing.

Panera Ceramica’s Zero.3 Eternity products imitate marble using 6-millimetre-thick porcelain tile.

Twenty-five years ago, during my first tour of the Italian ceramic-tile industry, the industry was more of an old-world affair, and ceramic-tile manufacturing was, if not quite artisanal, far more labour-intensive. The tile factory we toured back in the mid-1990s thrummed with workers. The tiles they baked and pulled out of industrial kilns looked like—well, tiles. They were generally no bigger than a metre square, and our ethical quandaries focused on which phenomenon disgusted us more: the folksy kitsch destined for export to Germany, or the replication of the Castello Borgia’s sixteenth-century foyer floor tile. There were few patterns that attempted to mimic natural materials; those that did looked ridiculously fake.

These days, the entire industry has been turned on its head. When our group toured the Fincibec Group factory in Sassuolo last fall, it was eerily quiet and empty, as ambulatory robots loaded, carted and processed the materials. In factories like these throughout the region, huge machinery spews out tiles that can now be as massive as two or three metres long, and as slight as three millimetres thick. Digital technology has been standard for a decade now, but has advanced in quantum leaps in recent years to enable unprecedented high-resolution patterns and imagery. Photocatalytic printing and “sinking inks” can create flow-through colour with a great sense of depth.

The Pietra d’Iseo collection by Cotto d’Este is inspired by the ceppo di grè stone extensively used in Milan.

In our marauding band of designers and critics, all guests of the Italian ceramic industry, one could hear periodic groans (sotto voce of course) about the lack of authenticity in these faux-natural offerings, even though—especially though—the tiles more than ever look like the organic materials they’re impersonating. Yet we accept that architects will keep sourcing them because clients keep wanting them, especially newly rich clients in emerging global economies.

But is there a design argument in support of mimicry? To New York-based design historian Grace Jeffers, it’s a moot point: imitation is the only option left to us—if not now, then soon. “The bottom line is, we’re facing the extinction of various natural resources—and I do mean literal extinction,” she told me in a recent telephone interview. Now that we have such convincing simulacra of endangered natural resources, she says, “it is absolutely irresponsible to use the real.”

Jeffers, who also serves as consultant to material manufacturers, has thought and publicly argued long and hard about the concept of authenticity in materials. It’s not as simple as it used to be. Truth to materials—John Ruskin’s term from The Seven Lamps of Architecture—is one of the field’s sacred tenets, but Jeffers considers it an obsolete concept. She brings up the recent Art Gallery of Ontario and National Gallery of Canada exhibition Anthropocene, which includes artist Edward Burtynsky’s large-scale photographic images of natural-resource extraction. One of Burtynsky’s most memorable vistas is the Carrara mountain, largely eviscerated due to the endless human lust for its finely veined marble. “That mountain is half-gone now, so the big question is: Now what? Are we going to stop, or are we just going to use it until it’s all gone?”

The texture and grain of wood is convincingly replicated in Isla’s Essence tiles.

It is difficult to reconcile one’s horror at the earth’s desecration with the vague nausea induced by contemplating an endless panoply of material imposters. Meanwhile, the forgeries are becoming more life-like than ever. Fine tendrils of colour vein through the faux-marble. The appearance and texture of “wood look” ceramic tiling is astonishing in verisimilitude. That is, until you actually touch it and feel the cold, hard surface of something that is emphatically not wood. Petrified wood, perhaps. But clearly a much more functional design solution for bathrooms. And clearly a more ethical solution than clearcutting the world’s rainforests. Alternatively, perhaps designers could advise, educate and encourage their clients to choose an alternative material to actual endangered wood—or an alternative ceramic pattern to a material imposter.

At Cersaie, the exhibitors’ stalls acknowledge the simulacra with the modifying word “look”: Marble Look, Stone Look, Wood Look, Concrete Look. Ceramic that looks like concrete is arguably less of an imposter than the first three, since concrete is already a man-made material. It does not pretend to be part of nature, but its characteristics—hard, cold, abstract—are close to those of ceramic tiling. Also included in the roster of replicas is a term that gives one pause: Colour Look. I never thought of colour as being the subject of imitation; the acceptable design standard is that plain colours or abstract patterns are critically acceptable, since they are not “faking” any other material. Or are they?

Caesar Ceramics’ Trace tiles skillfully imitate the look of weathered metal.

The colour in materials is technically “fake,” argues Jeffers, and hasn’t been “real” since an 18-year-old chemistry student named William Henry Perkin accidentally invented the first synthetic dye—a hue of deep purple—in 1856. From then on, organic dyes—mostly sourced from plants—were incrementally replaced with synthetic dyes. So, today’s purists who insist on never faking organic materials might theoretically have to forgo any kind of synthetically tinted paint, tile or other material—which basically means any material of colour.

I find it less complicated to embrace the overtly playful, not-trying-to-fool-you Domestic Jungle prints of Ornamenta or tire-tread textures of Serenissa; or the more expressionistic flooring for Papa Restaurant by Caesar, or the Diamond patterns by Mosaico. Even though Mosaic’s own press materials reference its evocation of leaded-glass windows, these are homages—an excuse for playing with geometric form.

These days, we have entire mansions, restaurants and corporate lobbies sheathed in what looks to the untrained eye like zebra wood or Carrara marble, minus the ecological devastation. But one-upmanship never sleeps, and some fake-marble slabs are inlaid with slender strips of real gold. It is as vulgar in concept as it is in appearance, but it’s clear what drives this niche market. As Carrara marble—faux or real, doesn’t really matter—floods the market, the emerging wealthy must find a new way to signal their new spending capability. It’s an obnoxious quirk of human nature, and an enduring client reality.

The designer’s job is to address their clients’ needs, crass as they may be. However, it is also the designer’s role to educate, persuade, enlighten, advise. The ceramic-tile industry itself is conscious of environmental Armageddon, and has embarked on systematic improvements in sustainability and material recycling in the past decade. As the rainforests vanish and the earth simmers, it’s hard to maintain a Ruskinian objection to what is essentially an aesthetic choice.

Research for this article was conducted in part during a tour sponsored by the Italian tile industry. The tour organizers did not review or approve the content of this article.

Adele Weder is an architectural curator and critic based in British Columbia.