Each September our leading tile importers make their annual pilgrimage to Italy to view the latest products displayed at Cersaie – the world’s premier ceramic tile expo, which is staged in Bologna.

Many local importers of tile buy the bulk of their products from China, but when it comes to getting a glimpse of new and cutting edge offerings, Italy is the first port of call.

Design is Italy’s strong point. Much of the inspiration flows from the partnership that exists between leading manufacturers of machinery and tile makers, who work hand-in-hand to create and refine new technologies to improve the performance and appearance of tile.

Ceramic World Web has confirmed that the Italian tile industry is performing strongly, with large export volumes and a steady increase in selling prices as evidenced by the findings published in the inaugural Financial Statement Analysis of World Ceramic Tile Manufacturers. The report concluded that the price increases could be attributed to a shift towards high value products.
This fact was highlighted in Peter Halliday’s report on our tile imports in Issue 86 of Tile Today, which confirmed that the average price for a square metre of Italian tile had risen to $23.22. In spite of the escalating cost, imports from Italy soared by 22% in 2014. These figures indicate why there will always be a market for truly innovative materials. Italy leads the way in the field of Advanced Ceramics.

The aforementioned report states that: “Two distinct business models exist”. Some producers focus on “production processes that make intensive use of low cost labour (predominantly in Asia and non-EU Europe) with medium to low end product ranges sold mainly on the domestic market and operating in cost leadership conditions”. The second business model, largely consisting of Italian and some EU companies, “focuses on differentiation, a limited workforce, large investments and high levels of productivity, resulting in comparable unit labour costs to that of Asian competitors”.

The term Advanced Ceramics is a tag that is used to define those products which are produced for a specific structural project or purpose, using novel technologies. For most of us the term can be applied to the radical shifts that occur in tile design, decoration and surface finish: in other words, the appearance of the finished product and the literal ‘wow’ factor.  There are anti-microbial tiles, which literally clean the air and luminous tiles, which can be used to light the way for those stranded in dark or dangerous places. Then there are the lightweight tiles and panels, which can be used on virtually any interior or exterior surface. These products can be used to create louvered, climate control panels which can control the temperature of a building.
Let’s examine some of the remarkable new products that have emanated from Italy in recent times.

The Metro look

Tile manufacturers are intently focused on faithfully replicating the appearance of natural stone, timber and concrete surfaces that we constantly encounter in our built environment.

Metropolitan or Metro look frequently captures traces of all of those surface finishes on the surface of one tile. Some pieces look more like a particular piece of stone whilst others appear more like timber or concrete. Careful blending of these carefully crafted, digitally decorated products can produce a floor finish that is subtle but variable.

Photo 1 features Xtreme by Cercom, a contemporary metro interpretation of concrete, which is produced in six sizes and four neutral colours, two of which are manufactured in a 19mm thickness for internal or external use.
Unika by ABK (Photo 2) displays traces of ancient natural stones mingled with vague highlights of urban concrete. The collection is available in no less than nine formats ranging from 200 x 200mm to 600 x 1200mm, in natural and antique finishes for internal use and bush-hammered for external applications. The multiplicity of formats encourages the creation of modular laying patterns that can feature several formats.

Decoration, design & shape

Beyond the Metropolitan look there are innumerable designs that faithfully replicate the appearance of every kind of surface finish or material including fabrics, carpet and metal. In addition there are the utterly compelling imitations of stone, wood and concrete, which are produced in a multitude of colours, surface finishes and formats for internal or external use.
Tempo by Eco (Photo 3) is a brilliant replication of timber, which accurately marries the appearance of wood with the durability and low-maintenance of tile. This enticing design is created using Smoke, a 200 x 800mm inlay, with Cassetone, a 400 x 400mm accent tile.

The relatively recent emergence of ‘cement tile’ has inspired the Hex series by Etruria Design. Photo 4 depicts Rombo, a 120 x 210mm product, which is just one of numerous colours and shapes which encourage designers to create compelling designs.
Photo 5 presents Visual Design by Ceramiche Supergres, Atlas Concorde. These stunning white body resin inspired tiles are produced in a number of formats and colours, which can be combined to produce an inspired aesthetic.

Some tiles are tougher than others

All of these products can be used in residential settings and some of them are appropriate for light commercial and hospitality projects. Inevitably, there are whole ranges of tiles designed for use in the toughest industrial environments where spills of acid or oil might occur and where specification of a slip resistance surface is a must.

Architects can turn to products like Hi Tech by Cipa Gres. This acid resistant, full body porcelain product is designed for industrial floor applications and manufactured in a number of colours, in natural and textured finishes. A non-slip surface finish is available (Photo 6).

In reality there are no commercial or residential spaces where ceramic tile of one kind or another cannot be used. The Stark collection by Verde 1999 S.r.l. is produced in modern, classic, rustic, concrete and wood finishes in numerous sizes, and six colourways (Photo 7).

Many of the illustrated products benefit from the application of high-definition digital technology, which makes it possible to render virtually any image on the surface of a ceramic tile. Rapid advances in this field continue to be made and replications of other surface finishes are becoming increasingly authentic. Importantly, the ceramic imitation will inevitably outperform the material it resembles.

Slimline tonic

When we consider the most remarkable advances made in the field of ceramic tile technology, the advent of slim tiles and panels produced in thicknesses ranging from 3mm to 7mm for walls and floors, and 11mm for benchtops, stands out.
A decade or so ago a couple of Italian manufacturers pioneered the technology introduced by machinery manufacturer System S.p.A which permitted production of slim 3mm porcelain products. The main Italian protagonist was Cotto D’Este. Today, they have been joined by a cast of international manufacturers, including RAK and Kalebodur, and a growing number of Italian producers such as Iris, Fiandre, Ariostea, Cerdisa and Marazzi.

Little by little architects and consumers are gaining an appreciation of the merits of these remarkable products. which can be mechanically fixed to facades, laid on benchtops, or walls and floors. These slim, lightweight products are easy to handle, cut and manoeuvre in comparison to heavy slabs of stone or regular thickness porcelain tiles.

Importantly, slim tiles can be adhered to sound, flat existing wall and floor tiles, which saves the time and money and mess associated with removal and replacement of existing tiles.

These large format tiles and panels provide manufacturers with a big canvas on which to render their vision, while practising the arts of digital decoration. Photo 8 illustrates the results of this experimentation. Ava by La Fabbrica S.p.A. is a giant 1600 x 3200 x 6mm porcelain panel that is described as being “suitable for all spaces on walls and floors”.

Last, but by no means least, Photo 9 depicts Infinity by Ceramica Fondovalle. This particular product consists of 11 different graphic designs printed on 1200 x 2400 x 6.5mm-thick panels that can be adhered to flat floors and walls in three finishes: gloss, matte and natural.

These striking replications of marble share very low porosity, which means that they will not stain or etch when spills of cooking oil, red wine, lemon juice or other contaminants occur.

With high levels of sustained investment, the Italian tile sector leads the way in the development of advanced ceramic products.

(Pictured:  Visual Design by Ceramiche Supergres is a white body resin inspired ceramic wall tile, which is designed to encourage creation of designs that exhibit a sophisticated aesthetic.)

Click here to view magazine article with photos.