Designer Briefing: Maximizing design potential with large format No longer your mother’s 6- by 6-inch white squares, today’s large format tiles re-define design.
September 1st, 2004


By Patti Fasan September-October 2004

Then: form followed function

In the late 80s wall tile was 6- by 6- or 6- by 8-inches in solid colors or decorated with whimsical serigraph designs such as flowers and fruit and used as protection from water, around the tub or shower. Floor tile was equally unpopular-a few square feet of unglazed, brown quarry tile used at the back entry. Utilitarian in purpose, brown toned quarry tile was either six-inch square or the classic four by eight inch brick format. Higher end homes occasionally selected wall tile for kitchen counters or backsplashes or tiled the main bath or the kitchen floor using a glazed “fashion” tile. Durability, not fashion drove most choices.

In the 90s, however, research and development revolutionized the potential of ceramic tile. Technology placed a dizzying array of designs in the hands of mainstream consumers. The days of flat, non-dimensional tile with a single repetitive image were over.

Now: high function & high fashion by design

Today ceramic decorating techniques include: roto-drum screening; matt textures; raised and bas-relief molds; luster and metallic glazes; tumbling; polishing; and rectification. Tile moved into the world of high fashion. Mass production replicated the look of hand artistry while reducing the cost. Tile came out from behind the shower curtain and went from the back hall to the front foyer. Even modestly priced homes began to incorporate and feature ceramic tile in more areas.

Buoyed by consumer acceptance, manufacturers competed for market share by introducing newly inspired programs annually. Size and shape defined high quality, high fashion ceramic programs. The new screens printed larger, more intricate patterns. Utilizing the maximum extent of the screen gave each tile more variation, fluidity and therefore a more realistic stone appearance. Along with the beauty of the design on large tile came additional benefits the consumer quickly recognized. Large tile reduced the number of grout joints making maintenance easier, matched the size of quarried stone slab, and visually expanded the size of any room.

Large dimensional tile became an integral part of successful ceramic lines. An important element for the design community is the ability to combine tile in unique and interesting layouts reflecting the architectural details of individual spaces. For the designer, modular tile programs with a variety of sizes, shapes, trims and borders are indispensable.

Interior designers want to create subtle visual separation in areas where tiling extends throughout adjacent rooms. It is now more common for homeowners to use ceramic tile as the main flooring material. In an open concept home, tile may flow from the foyer through kitchen, family room, dining room and out onto an exterior patio. These large spaces demand a tile sized to match the scale of the space. Subtle interesting divisions between rooms can be accomplished by setting one area on a 45 degree angle; bordering square format tile with a coordinating rectangular tile; duplicating the shape of a coffered ceiling plan using a decorative accent tile; using a polished tile to define an area tiled in a matt texture or inserting a dramatic focal point such as a custom mosaic “carpet” of tile in a foyer. Technical knowledge and the ability to design with tile are what really define the ceramic tile expert.

Large format wall tile is still in its infancy. To a certain extent, the quality of general home construction has hampered its growth. Walls are more difficult and costly to plumb and level. Without a true surface, the ceramic installer magnifies any deficiency in the walls by using large format tile. Often a smaller tile is substituted to minimize the poor accuracy of the framing or drywall installation.

The benefits of selecting a ceramic over stone, especially in a bathroom, should not be sold on cost savings alone. The large format 1-foot by up to 3-foot ceramic tile produced today is virtually indistinguishable from the natural stone it is replicating. These glazed ceramic slabs are impervious, virtually stain proof and never need sealing or refinishing. The surface is unaffected by lime, rust, calcium or other mineral deposits. They are unaffected by moisture and vapor penetration that can lead to mildew or mold growth. Rectified tile has been factory cut on all sides, removing the pillowed edge, allowing a hairline grout joint and a perfectly planed surface identical to natural stone.

Although the aesthetic qualities are on par with stone, tile’s technical characteristics make it more suitable for use in any wet area installation. Several manufacturers have added even more value to specific large format rectified programs by concentrating on specialty or rare marble and natural stone designs. Rather than duplicating some of the more common marbles, these factories are producing fabulous tile mimicking lapis lazuli, book matched Verde Serpentine or other ultra expensive stones. In this case, selecting the ceramic tile format over the natural stone alternative will add substantial savings to the enhanced performance.

The last few years have likely been the most exciting period in the long history of ceramic tile production. Ceramic tile use is destined to continue with the focus on natural products, sustainable design, healthy material choices, durability, the environment and maintenance saving alternates that fit our hectic lifestyles. State of the art producers can guarantee the technical and artistic quality of their ceramic tile. For anyone in the industry, this is as good as it gets.

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