Creativity & Durability Make Ceramic Tile a Favorite of Architects, Builders and Designers
November 1st, 2003

Architects, designers and homebuilders talk about what they look for in ceramic tile.

by Jeffrey Steele Nov-Dec 2003

TileDealer wanted to know who, what, when, why and how the other end of the supply chain – the architects, designers and homebuilders –use ceramic tile. And, we found, it’s a material that can meet their needs for durability and design.

Few experts are more knowledgeable about ceramic tile than builders. And many builders report it’s a rarity when they construct a house that doesn’t include some ceramic tile.

That’s the case at Buckingham Builders, a Plainfield, Illinois based builder specializing in semi-custom and custom homes in Chicago’s west and southwest suburbs. “Even though we offer sheet vinyl, we always encourage [buyers] to go with ceramic tile,” said Buckingham Builders president Al Darwin.

“And I have good reason for that. Aside from the look, it’s the durability factor and call-back related issues. When we do ceramic tile. . . if the trades drop something on it, drag something on it or walk on it, you just wipe it off and you’re done with it. You don’t worry about it as much as you would carpet or sheet vinyl. From our perspective as a builder, it’s less problematic.”


Interior designers are among those most attuned to customer wants and needs in ceramic tile. One of them, Mandy Brown, who heads Beaux Designs in Paradise Valley, Arizona, reports her customers are asking for ceramic tile in kitchen backsplashes to create a more custom and colorful look. Brown says she’s also using more ceramic tile in kitchen countertops, which results in a look far more distinctive than granite or marble. “If the person is not opposed to a little grout, they are very happy with the look and the wearability,” she says.

Brown recently used hand-painted blue and white Delft Tiles from the Amsterdam Tile Company as a fireplace surround. Each tile is painted with a different scene of children at play. The trick, she says, was not using tiles featuring the same scene twice.

Trends in ceramic tile preferences appear to be heading in two different directions at once, according to Brown. Some clients still want ceramic tile that looks like natural stone, generally in less expensive applications.

“Many manufacturers are doing fabulous things with porcelain tiles that are impervious to wear and tear,” she states. “I love them!”

The other trend Brown is observing is toward the classic look of beautiful, hand-fired, crackled tiles. This timeless look never goes out of style, nor do the matching cornice edges, she says, adding that 3×5 and 2×4-inch tiles laid subway style or in a brickjoint pattern are particular favorites.

“They are also true classics,” she adds. “You can’t go wrong.”

As for her personal preferences, Brown particularly favors hand-made tiles that offer dimensionality. “I love the look of a range backsplash using something of importance to the homeowner, such as an antique platter used for the couple’s first meal together, surrounded by field tiles. I did this in my own home . . . If on a budget, I favor good old Dal Tile in classic colors, but using a design for a textural interest.”

Glencoe, Illinois-based interior designer Cheri Lynn Friedman, ASID, reports that her clients generally aren’t knowledgeable enough to ask for brand names in ceramic tile. Instead, when they ask for her input in suggesting a bathroom decor, a fireplace surround or a kitchen backsplash, they generally insist that it be something timeless and classic.

Providing that look often calls for ceramic tile, says Friedman, whose experience with tile goes back to her high school years. A member of the student council at Niles East High School in suburban Chicago during its inaugural year of 1964-65, Friedman recalls the council wanted to leave the school a gift to commemorate the year, but rejected many ideas lacking durability.

“They were talking about all those things, and I came up with the idea of a mosaic tile Trojan, the [school’s] mascot, right in the center of the floor of the lobby as you enter the gymnasium. We put in a purple and white Trojan in mosaic tile, with a little beige and taupe to pick up the surrounding tile.”

Friedman calls ceramic tile “the best material to use” in interior design, noting that a designer can employ different styles and shapes, and then turn the tiles to create accents. “You can even take your little one-inches and create borders and designs,” she says. “There’s a plethora of things you can do with tile, because of all the various shapes and sizes it comes in.”

Her interior design business has been built, Friedman says, on providing customers with what she calls “unexpected beauty.” She prefers to stay neutral in her color tones, because tile is permanent and color preferences are constantly changing. Earth tones like whites, beiges, taupes, greens, mosses, celadons and khakis are among her favorites. “Pull from Mother Nature, and you create an image you’ll never get tired of,” she says.

Builders are also observing trends. Slate-like ceramic tile is very popular today, says Buckingham Builders’ Darwin, whose company builds 2,500 to 3,600-square-foot homes selling for $290,000 to $650,000 in Chicago’s west and southwest suburbs. Along with the preference for what Darwin calls “the stoney look,” his homebuyers are also showing distinct preferences for earth tones, particularly grays and beiges.

What’s working in homes purchased by typical Americans also has a place in the most upscale houses, say Patricia Baker and Jinny Ferrari, Worcester, Mass. architects – for the New American Castle, a 14,000- square-foot luxury showhome being built amid 75 wooded acres in Middlefield, Mass.

The residence is serving as a template for others building luxury homes, as well as a showcase for companies to display their latest products. Among the organizations working on the home will be artisan groups spotlighting their use of ceramic tile.

The owners of the home chose ceramic tile for the kitchen, laundry center and guest bathroom walls, with much of it being Marazzi, an Italian ceramic tile that exhibits an earthy, warm appearance, and features a smooth texture. “The latest and greatest tiles are like artwork,” Baker said. “They’re much more textured than they used to be, and add a lot of character and warmth to the entire environment. It absolutely upgrades the entire interior . . . The tiles are matching the level of luxury you find elsewhere in the [residence].”

The maintainability and versatility of ceramic tile also has impressed those associated with the New American Castle. “It’s easy to clean and maintain, and you’re talking about designs that add so much,” Baker comments. “And it allows designers to use their artistic ability to create.”


While many residential designers, architects and builders choose ceramic tile for its versatility, functionality and beauty, those specifying for commercial and institutional applications tend to like ceramic tile for its timelessness and durability.

The brand new, 2-million-squarefoot, $1.1 billion Northwest World Gateway at Detroit’s Metro Airport is a perfect example.

Northwest Airlines, the building’s owner, placed a priority on creating a maintainable facility that would retain its welcoming appearance over a long period of time, said Jim Luckey, design architect at Detroit-based Smithgroup, the fifth largest architectural firm in the United States, and the designer of the Northwest World Gateway.

“Northwest was proactive in wanting timeless, durable finishes,” he adds, noting that 24×24 and 12×12-inch through-color porcelain tile was used on many concourse walls to provide that durability. “They’re a warm, neutral color. It was a design parameter that we wanted the design background to be passive, warm and neutral . . .but relatively passive.”

Also utilized in the Northwest World Gateway was Pewabic tile, a tile that is hand-made, features handapplied glazes and has been manufactured in a Detroit studio since its inception in 1917. Serpentine walls at the entrance to each restroom feature these 4×4-inch Pewabic tiles. The tiles were chosen because they reinforce the “Made in Detroit” symbolism of the building, and because they are particularly beautiful tiles, Luckey observes.

The Pewabic tile is repeated at the serpentine entrance of every restroom, helping to announce to visitors the function of the rooms.

Within the restrooms, through-body porcelain tiles are used from floor to ceiling across each wall, featuring a warm and neutral but slightly darker color than the tiles on the concourse walls.

Through-body tiles were chosen because clients are more willing to spend money to achieve easy maintenance, Luckey reports. In contrast to glazed tiles, the color goes all the way through a through-body tile. That means that if they chip, the chipped area will still be the same color as the tile surface.

“So we’ve used tile for two almost diametrically opposed reasons,” Luckey says. “It’s easily maintainable, giving a timeless, durable, very pragmatic finish. And then at the other end of the spectrum, we’ve used tile as the highest artistic expression in the building as well.”

Ceramic tile’s advantages go beyond easy maintenance and beauty, he says. One additional benefit is the chance to use a decorative element symbolizing the place or the company with which the building is associated. Because tiles are manufactured, designers have the opportunity to specify tiles that are produced by local companies or feature colors associated with the building owner or occupant. Moreover, tile affords a wide range of size, color and texture choices, he says.

“It gives us a huge range of design opportunities, all with the use of a modular building material,” Luckey notes. “You can size the tile to the scale of the surface it’s going on, you can get up close to a tile and see the size of the tile, and then as you pull back see the wall with many tiles and begin to understand the scale.”


Friedman has several favorite recollections of working with ceramic tile. One centers on an indoor swimming pool at a home on suburban Chicago’s exclusive North Shore. The inside of the pool house featured stainless steel and honed granite, leaving Friedman with the desire to add color. The single best place to do that was within the pool itself. There, she used one-inch mosaic tiles of blue, yellow and green to create an abstract design on the pool floor and steps.

“They loved it, because it was different, unusual and something not everyone had,” Friedman said of her clients’ response to the design.


Builders, architects and designers use building and design materials with which they’re familiar. But that begs the question: What would it take to get them to choose a new tile for a project?

In choosing a tile not familiar to him, Darwin says seeing the product in an actual application is helpful, but not essential. Homeowners, on the other hand, aren’t as experienced as builders in visualizing how a new material will look finished. Seeing the tile installed, or glimpsing a section rather than a single tile is helpful in triggering their imaginations and visualizing the finished product.

“Price is an important factor, and some ceramic tiles are much more expensive than others,” he says. “That’s because not as many of those tiles are produced and the price ends up being extraordinarily high. It’s really shipping and handling costs more than manufacturing costs. So price is a factor in whether we use a new product.”

For Brown to specify a new product, the interior designer says she has to like it aesthetically, and has to be convinced it will work in a practical manner. “I love to try new things, as long as they are in good taste,” she observes. “I prefer to lead a trend rather than follow one.”

Delivery and accessibility don’t influence her choices, she adds. She usually orders tiles well in advance of needing them, and requisitions those tiles needing a special order extra early.

When Friedman is considering a new product, she wants to know not only about the tile, but its accessories. “I need to see it, feel it, see how the back of the tile was made,” she says.

“I have to see the tile itself, the colors it comes in, the sizes it comes in and most importantly, I have to see the toys. The toys are the crowns, the liners, the moldings, and the relief pieces. They get my juices flowing. I’ve got the dress on, the heels on, but in order to be a finished product, I need the necklace, the bracelet, the earrings. It’s the same with a ceramic tile installation.”


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