Driven by some significant advances in tile manufacturing technologies, notably continuous pressing, digital inkjet decoration, and new glaze formulations, the technical and aesthetic evolution of ceramic tiles has accelerated significantly over the past five years.

This has manifest itself in the widespread introduction of ultra-large panels, the surge in sales of 20mm exterior-grade tiles, and the large range of new creative designs made possible by inkjet and overlays with effects that deepen the impact of graphics or traditional glazes. At the same time, alongside massive tile (or panel) formats – up to an awe-inspiring 4.8m by 1.6m – the past year or so has also seen the profile of small format glazed wall tiles grow greatly. This is a retro trend that still faces forward.

While it the sheer size of today’s gauged ceramic panels tends to hog the headlines, an equally significant revolution is happening at the micro scale.  Perhaps the most significant advance after digital inkjet may prove to be reactive inks that either sink through the surface glaze creating relief, or rise up to create structure.

However, today’s tile buyers should also pay close attention to lustre effects, which can now be offered in multiple colours. The latest generation of metallic glazes that far surpasses all that has gone before in terms of sophistication. And the new kid on the block – inkjet glue – can be used to adhere granular frits or dry glazes, offering vetrosa and other alluring surface effects.

When it comes to modern metallic, Grespania’s new Avenue range of porcelain tiles is fairly typical. Richly textured with hints of metal, its applications extend beyond the home and into the commercial realm. The range comes in three formats – 800 by 800mm, 600 by 600mm and 300 by 600mm – and four colours: white, black, Marengo and grey.

But let’s not get carried away. Beneath the surface skin of these latest designs, the dominant trends – the volume sellers – remain fairly predictable and conservative. Grey, white, and black remain the top three colours for both floor and walls. And the fourth? A neutral choice: greige.

In wood-effect tiles, classic wood tones still reign supreme with oak dominant but now challenged by lighter woods that have a clear Scandinavian influence.
When it comes to marble-effect tiles, classic white marbles with subtle yet deeply realistic veining are still king: carrara, statuario, calacatta, thassos, etc.  Classic marble gains in value with every season and remains a go-to material for architects and interior designers.

Charming, elegant and with beautiful veins running through the pieces, the Altai range from Grespania is typical, offering a touch of modernity with its original design. The collection, in polished and natural finishes, is available in 600 by 600mm and 300 by 600mm formats, plain or rectified. Noble, bright and warm, the Altai range proposes discrete hues: from white to grey, through a range of ivory and beige.

Planks and other fashion formats

In terms of tile formats, planks are huge and no longer confined to wood-effect tiles. Stone-effect, metallics and even cotto tiles are all now working planks formats with some success. The dominant format appears to be 200 by 900mm, but longer planks, up to 1,200mm, are gathering momentum.

The 300 by 600mm and 600 by 600mm sizes which have dominated square floor tile sales in recent years, appear to be being increasingly challenged by sizes from 450 by 900mm up to 1,200 by 2,400mm or square formats of 900 by 900mm and above. And multi-format ranges, offering many pattern options, are very prominent, driven by the growing adoption of continuous pressing technology.

In small format wall tiles, the key size appears to be 75 by 300mm, a kind of elongated subway shape; but 200 by 200mm, 150 by 300mm and slim rectangular sizes up to 100 by 750mm are also abundant. There are more 100 by 100mm tiles on the market now than at any time in the past 20 years.

Exterior tiling has truly come of age, with many manufacturers now offering 20mm thick tiles in a range of slip-resistance finishes for both domestic and commercial applications. The design options have increased, with wood-, concrete-, and stone-effect tiles, now sitting alongside more decorative options.
Once limited to 600 by 600mm, external tiling also now comes in many more sizes like 400 by 800mm and 600 by 1,200mm, as well as 200mm and 300mm wide plank formats in many lengths.

Terrazzo and stracciatella

Terrazzo-effect tiles have strutted the tiling catwalks over the past 18 months.  Some of the better versions pick out the chips (inclusions) in gloss glaze; some have uniform chips, others multi-sized inclusions. Then there are versions with imperfect spacing or chip coverage.

With digital decoration, tile designers can interpret terrazzo in many different ways. As well as the classic look of Italian colonnades, designs now span the trencadis broken tile style through to “salt & pepper” surfaces peppered with miniscule particles. The stracciatella or conglomerate stone effects can also have virtually any base colour, as well as multi-coloured inclusions.

The natural world

Nature figures strongly in today’s designer wall tiles, with an exotic interplay of birds, flowers, plants and wildlife in a riot of colour. Providing strong design impact, they would suit feature walls or a subtler detail decoration.
While floral designs have been around since decorative tile was invented, what is new now is the touch of tropical modernism in the form of palms, cacti and similar exotic looks.

Also on the natural theme, wood-effect tiles remain popular. Grespania’s Cambridge range is one of many to offer multi-formats: 295 by 1,200mm, 195 by 1,200mm, 145 by 1,200mm rectified and 150 by 800mm, as well as four colours: Caramel, Coffee, Midnight, and Moon. It typifies how the current generation of wood-effect tile can help create warm and welcoming environments.

Surface sophistication

Tile designers are constantly seeking new ways to add movement and volume to the flat surface, whether by texture, pattern, or tromp l’oiel effect. Some of the most cutting edge have deconstructed familiar shapes to transcend the traditional rectilinear format of a tile. A ceramic take on Cubism, perhaps?  From the more design-led brands, 2018 will see more and more kaleidoscopic patterns, floating geometric shapes, trencadis-style fragments, and Modernist-inspired art tiles.

This is not to say that tile designers have turned away from more obvious and familiar sources of inspiration, such as oriental carpets. However, these are now fused with more eclectic influences, such as Indian ritual tattoos and Kolam rice floor decorations.

The hand-drawn look is key, with a sense of the artisan’s own personality sketched into a durable design. Chalk, pencil and paintbrush effects are all being used creatively in a variety of tile choices for use either over a large scale or as a feature section.

Fusion is another theme. For instance, cottos, earthenware tiles, cement and moulded pieces come together to create Grespania’s Gea range – an adaptable collection that combines nature and modernity, architecture and the avant-garde, to create cosmopolitan urban environments as well as rustic, natural spaces.

The Gea series comes in three large formats – 1,200 by 600mm, 800 by 800mm and 600 by 600mm – and a choice of colours: white, pearl, cement, taupe and anthracite. And the finish typifies so much that is good about today’s tiles: a soft spatula-effect relief that triggers an elegant gloss/matt interaction.

Beyond the copy

It may never prove to be a volume seller, but the most striking and potentially influential tile design of the past year or so has to be Pop Job, created by Studio Job for Mirage. This striking collection explores an alternative graphic, coloured and provocative style.

The shiny, smooth surface is obtained through a “twin-surface” technique, that sees thick glass applied onto the porcelain stoneware surface. There are seven shades available, ranging from more neutral tones such as white, beige, grey and black, to more vibrant colours such as green, pink and blue.

“What we did with Mirage was professionalise the idea of a grungy old wooden floor but in ceramic. We always work with icons, so for us a floor in an interior conjures an image of an oak, parquet fish-bone floor. It is the most iconic type of floor you can have. We didn’t want to do it too literally,” explains Job Smeets, art director at Studio Job.

“We exaggerated it, so you see immediately that it is not real wood. We just used the structure and looked at this material from a more graphic angle, intensifying it to the greatest possible extent to obtain a parquet with the Pop style in brilliant, bright colours that are totally detached from reality.”

Pop Job is the most extreme example of an emerging trend. While some companies recreate the look of wood or stone to an impressive degree of realism, others mix different materials or handpick certain characteristics to form a whole new typology. This fusion of material-looks and themes result in a surreal, imaginative interpretation of tile and a potential new language for interior design. Other good examples are Nextone by Lea Ceramiche which combine stones from four different quarries; or Sicis’ Vetrite range that infuses marble designs with metallic veins to create unique materials that can’t be found in nature.

Other current influences appear to be the design style and palette of the 1950s such as iconic cartoonists and artists, like Guido Crepax. There are also hand-painted patterns, sketches and illustrations, marbled effects and watercolour designs.

A softer, industrial aesthetic

Although minimalist, urban-edged, cement-coloured floor tiles are still popular, tile manufacturers are exploring the softer side of concrete tiles, with chalky stucco effects, care-worn decor, and concrete greys with a hint of colour; as well as polished and semi-polished surface treatments. Narrow plank formats with surfaces are also moulded to look like shuttered in-situ concrete.

Manufacturers currently offer concrete-effect tiles in many shades, tones and textures. And concrete-effect tiles have broadened to encapsulate spatulated plaster finishes, distressed stucco looks, aged hydraulic tile decors, concrete/timber and concrete/metal composites.

Concrete-inspired designs have taken industrial chic in a variety of fresh directions. The best of these have exquisite surface detailing, like Trame by Lea Ceramiche. This has three different surfaces – Plaster, Matter, Canvas – and a neutral and harmonious colour palette.

Plaster recreates a soft and spatula textured surface. Matter is rougher and opaque with the grainy finish of real concrete. Canvas has a linen texture with a delicate graphic relief. Each of the three material surfaces come in six different colours.

In the Dwell collection by Atlas Concorde, porcelain floor tiles, and white-body wall tiles, deliver surfaces inspired by brushed concrete and synthetic resins. Ideal for contemporary styled venues and avant-garde architectural spaces, the colour palette includes natural and neutral colours, co-ordinated for floors and walls, and two synthetic nuances, for daring flashes of colour on walls.

Grespania’s Avalon range offers urban-themed colours enhanced by a touch of the patina typical of cement surfaces exposed to the bustle of the city and the passage of time. And, with a 603 by 603mm format with a thickness of 20mm, it is one of many ranges out there to explore the concept of inside-out living.

Petitot, from Novoceram’s Charme collection, also explores the design possibilities of cement-effect tiles. Petitot can evoke plaster, cement or metal, depending on which part of the design you are looking at. The range pays tribute to the work of Ennemond A Petitot, an eclectic French artist of the XVIII century.
Casalgrande Padana’s Resina is one of the more complex designs from the concrete-effect stable; with surfaces distinguished by flashes of light, brushstroke markings and splashes of colour interspersed with a body of neutral tones inspired by the homogeneity of resin. This collection of porcelain stoneware transcends the modular nature of tiles to create contemporary, original flooring.
Cement also works well with other influences. Grespania’s Palace New York range combines cement and metal with the Corten colour featuring a rusted effect, achieving a combination of light and texture that enhances each piece.  Intended for use as a floor tile throughout an entire house, it is accompanied by original Broadway decors.

Also sitting alongside the concrete look, are interlocking curving shapes and mid-century patterns and palettes that have been given a modern edge. In flat or relief, matt or glazed, neutral or colourful, these tiles breath personality.
Whether as the subtlest suggestion or as more visibly linear ridges, a number of new tile collections embrace a motif of fine lines. Running closely parallel or criss-crossing at angles, this textured effect can add a hint of fascination to otherwise neutral schemes, and work particularly well over large walls.

Piemme proposes

To select just one company, digital decoration proves its great versatility in Ceramiche Piemme’s three tile ranges: Uniquestone; Fleur de Bois and Lithostone.

Uniquestone recreates natural effects resembling stone, granite and marble.  The dual-purpose designs both enhance the spaces in which they are laid, while simultaneously guaranteeing products that are extremely easy to install and maintain.

The natural finish recreates a detailed copy of the textured effect of the stones that inspired the designs, while the polished version adds elegance and brilliance.
Fleur de Bois is the new timber-effect tile collection inspired by walnut. It features a visual mix of American and Italian walnut, that is made even more naturalistic by the application of advanced digital decoration technologies.
The range highlights the characteristic longitudinal veining of walnut, evident in the American walnut design; as well as several special effects, such as a subtle artisan planed look, and an aged care-worn look typically found on old floors.
Finally, Lithostone takes Ceramiche Piemme into the large format tile sector (1,200 by 2,400mm and 1,200 by 1,200mm) for the first time. The range has four stone inspirations: Burlington, Lavica, Limestone, and Beola. The result is four very different shades, ranging from white to beige, grey and anthracite.