The Little Squares that Could

Ceramic tiles are everywhere: they were used in ancient Rome’s grand urban projects, but originated in an even more remote past. Today, in addition to their ubiquitous association with kitchens and baths, they embellish public spaces–transit stations, streets in historic neighbourhoods, parks, gardens, and public squares.

Italy has long been the world’s leader in tile production. A recent surge has the country filling 43% of the European Union’s demand, and claims almost 20% of the total world market for ceramic tile. Fittingly, then, the International Exhibition of Ceramics for the Building Industry and Bathroom Furnishings, or CERSAIE–the world’s largest trade fair for ceramic tile–is held annually in the Italian city of Bologna. In 2001, the 19th annual CERSAIE exhibition hosted 1,072 exhibitors from five continents and attracted some 100,000 visitors to the five-day event. In Bologna’s region of Emilia Romagna, the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia, known as the “tile belt,” boast 80% of total Italian production. Italian companies manufacture more than 630 million square metres of tiles per year, representing an industry worth approximately $14 billion in sales.

The exhibition showcases a wide variety of products for numerous applications, from the decorative to the durable, features that have ensured the material’s enduring popularity as an architectural finish, especially in Europe’s public spaces. Colourful mosaics alleviate the potential subterranean gloom of major Underground stations in central London; terracotta adorns the exterior of the Leonardo Museum in Vinci, Italy; shiny porcelain tile reinvigorates Rome’s Fiumicino Airport; and the floor of Milan’s Stazione Repubblica Metro stop is finished in hard-wearing clinker tile.

All images courtesy ARCHIVIO EDI. CER. SPA/Assopiastrelle