International correspondent Joe Simpson reports on Coverings and finds a unique American spin on the tile market.

With Coverings in Atlanta (USA) following fast on the heels of Cevisama in Valencia, and running only six months after Cersaie in Bologna, I was not expecting to see any radical shifts in tile design trends. However, digital technology and continuous pressing means that the cycle of product development has speeded up in the tile industry and now incremental changes are made in weeks rather than years. As a result, Coverings was able to throw up a few surprises, as well as reinforcing the over-arching trends in the tile sector.

So, what were the lessons to be learnt at Coverings? Well, the first has an obvious US slant and concerns colour. As we all know, greys have dominated the tile palette in recent years. And there were still plenty of grey tiles at Atlanta. However, the colour palette has definitely been warmed up, with beige and greige hues very much to the fore at Coverings. In part this reflects long-established US taste, but also signalled something more pronounced; with lighter earth tones now emerging more strongly across all design segments.

Regarding accents, the must-have hues at the moment are inspired by Le Corbusier and Modernist architecture of the 1930s, and the optimistic post-war palettes of the 1950s. Here we are mainly talking about rich pastels with an added depth of grey. Companies like Tonalite really brought this trend to the forefront, with well curated palettes of fashion colours.

The accent colour of choice at Coverings was blue. Everything from the deep saturated blue of Trafalgar, through bold cobalt blue, to lighter blues in the Duck Egg arena. Blues were often combined with greens, in a nod towards the popularity of “natural” interiors; while there was also great use of deep wine red at the opposite side of the colour spectrum.

Style directions

Terrazzo remains the leading theme in new tile design. Coverings saw some avant garde interpretations of the stracciatella vibe with bolder colours, larger inclusions, selective lustre highlights and much more. Here, companies like Ornamenta really led the way. There were also many excellent examples of more commercially-focussed terrazzo looks that drew the visitor back to the period in the 1960s when this material dominated in supermarkets and commercial interiors.

White marble effects, often in XXL formats, were hard to avoid at Coverings. The quality was superb, especially in book matched installations. Two range enhancements really caught the eye. One is the use of sinking inks to add depth to vein patterns. The other was subtle use of metallics, particularly gold, and lustre, to highlight and emphasise the grain. There were plenty of finish options as well, from mirrored gloss, through restful satin to more tactile leather effects.

Coverings also saw some really dramatic saturated black marbles. Digital technology means that tile companies can now produce XXL slabs of black marble that are all but impossible to quarry, because the seams are too thin, or the material too friable. I think this is an area that more and more manufacturers will exploit in the years ahead, as the results are so striking, opulent and decadently stylish.

Wood-effect tiles remain prominent, which is hardly surprising as they currently account for around 30% of tile sales in the USA by volume. Here the trend was towards more subtly aged affects, the recycled look, featuring woods like oak in different colour options, and lighter woods with a clear Scandi vibe.

Regarding formats, planks are getting longer, up to 2.400mm, and wider, up to 600mm and beyond. Herringbones and chevrons remain popular, but what really caught the eye were tiles with a butcher’s block look featuring thin wooden staves in contrasting colours. This may well prove to be a developing trend.

Cement and concrete-effect tiles continue to be a staple in the major manufacturers’ portfolios. There were many different takes on this ubiquitous construction material, from the heavily variegated post-industrial reclaimed look, through to very light grey tiles with just a ghost of a texture. However, the emerging trend is for composite designs the mix concrete, wood and stone effects in one tile. This could be inspired by shuttered concrete or developed as something original with the colour of concrete, the grain of wood and surface texture of stone. The aim is to create a neutral and practical backdrop for the widest possible range of interior styles … and it works.

Another welcome development in the tile sector is the trend for manufacturers to use the same colour palette across several different ranges. Many companies at Coverings had wood-effect ranges, concrete-effect ranges, cotto-effect ranges and stone-effect ranges in identical formats and identical colour palettes. This means that different surface finishes and patterns can be mixed and matched with confidence, significantly increasing the design options while allowing retailers and distributors to simplify their inventory control.

Small is good

Geometric shapes and other interlocking small formats continue to gain traction in the marketplace. As well as 200 by 200mm, 100 by 200mm and other smaller rectilinear sizes, there were, of course, hexagons and the new flavour of the month, fish-scale tiles. But there was also a place for triangles, diamonds, elongated hexagonals, and many more shapes.

One that is starting to feature prominently is the rhombus, as seen at Cevisama in Spain earlier this year. This featured in several eye-catching displays, and can create really dramatic features, with a virtual 3D look achieved by combining light and dark tiles.

For some readers, the return of small format tiles may seem an unwanted throwback to the 1970s and 1980s. For others it represents a reconnection with tiling’s heritage. My take on this trend is that it presents a great opportunity for retailers to offer consumers choice and options. And today’s small format tiles have the benefit of digital decoration technology, and so can produce tiles with a visual complexity and range of designs unthinkable when small formats last ruled the roost. One company, Colorker, really made the case with a fresh take on the classic metro tile that breathes new life into a popular and timeless classic.

It was also interesting to see new 300 by 300mm floor tile ranges placed centre stage at Coverings. In an era when 600 by 600mm had become almost the entry level for floor tiles, this retro format seems like a breath of fresh air. The 450 by 900mm also proved popular; while there were also plenty of 900 by 900mm, 1,000 by 1,000mm and 1,200 by 1,200mm tiles for aficionados of modern XXL tile slabs.

The 20mm exterior tiling and ventilated tiled façades were granted a lot of stand space at Coverings but the most significant development is the use of gauged porcelain panels for kitchen countertops. This, surely, will emerge as the key sales battlefield for tile manufacturers in the decade ahead.

There is no doubt that they already have a superb product. The question is whether they will have suitable commercial structures in place to take on the combined might of the natural stone, wood and composite material manufacturers. Only time will tell; but I am optimistic that gauged porcelain panels will gain significant market share in the years ahead, led by pioneers like Iris Group’s Sapienstone.

Looking to 2019

I will finish with a brief word about Coverings itself. Say what you like about the Americans, but they know how to put on a great trade show. The seminar program was fantastic; and offered great free education across a broad range of design and business topics. The venue, as ever, was first class, with masses of catering, good signposting, and easy circulation.

While visitors number on Atlanta appeared down on the 2017 show at Orlando, the turnout was still impressive. And there was even an area in the middle where rescue puppies played around 12 fully-tiled dog kennels that were donated to animal charities after the event. Ahhh!

With a wide range of superb natural stone exhibits, led by some quite breathtaking exclusives on the Antolini stand, a good representation of the USA artisan tile manufacturers, plus a plethora of adhesive, grout, sealant, tool and surface prep companies, Coverings really had it all.

It amounted to four very enjoyable days that left me anticipating next year’s event, when Coverings returns to Orlando before heading off to New Orleans in 2020.