ATLANTA -- What could be new about something that has been around for more than 4,000 years? When it comes to tile, a lot. During Coverings 2013, the largest tile and stone trade expo in the country, the buzz was about baking technology, science and great design into modern ceramic tile.
Held in Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Center earlier this month, the expo featured 900 exhibitors from more than 50 countries.
"Technology has been one of the tile industry's inspirations," said Ryan Fasan, tile and stone consultant for Tiles of Spain.
Innovations over the past several years have included super-thin, extremely light tile that can be applied to cabinets or counters, very thick and anti-slip tile that can be used on uneven outdoor surfaces and tile that can resist wide temperature fluctuations. Anti-bacterial tile is a smart option for bathrooms, hospitals, schools or any public place. Some tile even cleans the air and itself.
American-based Crossville teamed up with Japanese company Toto to create ceramic tile that purifies the air and destroys stains. A special coating that is baked onto the surface of the tile is activated by light. Crossville, which uses recycled content in its products, supplied tile for the Fairmont hotel, Downtown.
Italian company Casagrande Padana is turning out its own self-cleaning ceramic that works like trees, removing nitrogen oxide produced by car exhaust from the atmosphere. This is tile and technology at its best.
Digital ink jet printing revolutionized the manufacturing of ceramic and porcelain tile.
"One of the great things about this process is we can reproduce the look of stones that are extinct or which are not environmentally responsible to harvest," Mr. Fasan explained.
Tile makers in Spain, Italy, Mexico and beyond are embracing environmentally friendly practices and adopting the Tile Council of North America's Green Squared certification for porcelain tile as the industry's watermark for sustainable practices. Since tile is a natural product made of pyrolized red or white clay, it's the grout, sealants, adhesives and manufacturing and installation processes that are constantly being evaluated in terms of the environment.
The biggest style trend now is the look of wood, with reclaimed wood being a favorite for wall and floor tiles. Like pre-washed jeans, it's not enough to imitate natural materials such as cement, stone and wood. They must also have a time-worn patina.
Florida Tiles showed Magnolia, a printed wood look that comes in a variety of colors. Fioranese's Old Wood series is nearly indistinguishable from the real thing; even wood's texture is replicated. Aparici, which does great ink jet designs, showed several of its Sonar collection of ceramic wood flooring options together for an impressive display. Viva Made's Street collection of ceramic planks was an urban-inspired design. For a very dramatic effect, Over by Cerdomus combines black and white wood-style tile planking. The Maderia Collection by Keraben was another example of tile imitating wood that would be perfect for mudrooms and kitchens.
Del Conca and Cisa Ceramiche are just two companies that have re-created the look of petrified wood on tile. Del Conca, an Italian manufacturer, is building a plant in Tennessee to produce porcelain stoneware tile. Del Conca Fast is a high-tech tile installed without joints, adhesives or grout. It's basically a floating ceramic floor.
Fiandre's large-format, man-made Precious Stone collection uses the best of ink jet printing to create porcelain wall panels that are as artistic as they are architectural. And Emil Ceramica introduced Stone Box. Each box has 36 tiles representing different stones such as marble, granite, onyx, etc., but the color palette is the same.
"We are seeing large tiles trending in both matte and polished finishes," said David Lang, vice president of Emil America.
Chis Abatte, who has tracked the Italian tile industry for more than 20 years, said large-format tiles are growing in popularity along with playing with grout lines and texture.
"The industry is not satisfied with making a great flat tile. They have been twisting, bending and warping tiles to create amazing architectural surfaces," she said.
Porcelanosa has created textural tiles that look and feel like fabric, waves or fallen leaves. They are so skilled at imitation that Porcelanosa USA holds a Royal Warrant from the Prince of Wales.
As far as color, mid-tones, neutrals, beige and far more than 50 shades of gray were being offered in all tile categories. Red and green remain popular accent colors, but as Mr. Fasan explained: "Our product is designed to make other elements look good."
Interceramic introduced Moods, a concept that uses specific palettes incorporating glass, ceramic and other tile combinations.
Exterior tile on buildings is more popular in Europe than the United States, but that could be changing with products such as Cooperative of D'Imola Ceramica's wood-like ceramic siding. The color and texture say wood, but it resists the elements with ease.
So why choose a porcelain or ceramic tile over real wood, stone or concrete? Because tile is all about easy maintenance, high performance and durability. Tile's design possibilities have attracted architect and designer Philippe Starck, who has teamed with Sant'Agostino, and singer/songwriter Lenny Kravitz, who is working with Lea Ceramiche, to add their creative vision to wall tiles.
"Tile is very personal. It is forever with an almost infinite lifespan," Mr. Fasan said.