Glass Tile: The Choice is CLEAR
 
May 1st, 2005

Glass tile’s eye-catching good looks offer stopping power in a marketplace filled with many more conventional ceramic and stone products.

May-June 2005

By Jeffrey Steele

In a rainbow of colors and textures, glass tile boasts a seemingly limitless number of potential applications. While some mistakenly think of it as fragile, today’s product is anything but. That’s why you can find it everywhere from floors and stairsteps to swimming pools and building exteriors.

In this issue of TileDealer, we offer a window on some of the best-known and respected glass tile manufacturers and importers, and the issues they face in this fast-growing niche market.

Some names to know

Among the leading providers of glass tile is OpioAmerica (www.opioamerica.com or www.opiocolor.com), which handles the distribution, sales and marketing of the product manufactured by its French-based parent company, OpioColor.

OpioColor was founded some 40 years ago, but 1-1/2-year-old OpioAmerica is relatively new to the marketplace, said the American company’s Los Angeles-based president Harvey Malloy.

“We specialize in the manufacture of high-quality glass mosaic,” he says. “We don’t make large sizes. We’re really a mosaic company interested in the fascinating applications of glass mosaic for architectural applications. And that can be anything: the facade of a high-rise building, the interior baths or kitchens of a home. It could be swimming pools.”

Malloy views his company as being part of a long and proud tradition in which mosaic has been used as decoration. That tradition goes all the way back to 6th Century Europe , where artisans began using mosaics in the interiors of chapels, as well as in building exteriors.

“The tendency today is to show glass as some kind of durable paint,” Malloy notes. “It goes far beyond the use of color. We use shape, we use movement, we use subtle manipulation to transform the architectural space.”

Even longer established than OpioColor is Bisazza (www.bisazza.com), a nearly 50-year-old Italian company with U.S. headquarters in Miami . Several factors combine to help make Bisazza a standout among glass tile, reports New York City-based spokeswoman Elisa Stocchetti.

“First of all, it’s the absolute best quality glass mosaic tile,” she says. “Second is the design. We always collaborate with important designers such as Marcel Wanders, Fabio Novembre and Alessandro Mendini, and architects such as Jurgan Meyer.

“Third, it’s the applications…Mosaic tends to be thought of as something appropriate for bathrooms. We want to make people understand that mosaic can be used as a wallpaper anywhere in the house.” Bisazza’s products are used in every setting from residential bathrooms and kitchens to swimming pools, upscale office building lobbies and building facades, she adds.

Another notable supplier is Chatsworth, Cal.-based UltraGlas (www.ultraglas.com), which was founded by CEO and president Jane Skeeter in 1987. At first, the company served the high-end residential, commercial and hospitality industries by providing decorative architectural glass and signage, or what Skeeter calls “architectural art in glass.” As the company evolved, Skeeter decided to expand her offerings by adding a heat-sculpted or “slumped” product.

“UltraGlas,” as she termed it, started out in the form of architectural panels, such as doors, walls and windows. But Skeeter discovered the product could be used in various other applications, such as tile, lighting, surface materials, flooring and staircases, she recalls.

“About six or seven years ago, we started making the pieces smaller for tile,” Skeeter says. “These were all hand-painted and very lustrous. But we had some issues with its permanence, or the adhesion of the backing to the glass. We resolved that by borrowing technology from other industries. What we do is use a high-fired glass material that becomes part of the tile itself, and fuses into the glass. This means we get a very permanent type of backing that can be used in all kinds of conditions, and won’t separate from the glass tile itself.”

In this process, sheets of low-iron glass completely devoid of green tint are cut into the sizes desired.

Coloration is then fired onto the back of each tile, resulting in an appearance that allows end users to look through the very clear, fluid glass and see coloration beneath.

“The pigment in the coloration on the back is very luminous and highly reflective, so it gives a soft glow to the glass, really enhancing the depth of the glass itself,” Skeeter says. “To make this even more pronounced, we put a low linen texture on the back, and that results in small surfaces from which the light will refract back through the glass. All this helps distinguish the tile from other glass tile that can be mistaken for ceramic tile.”

One of the best-known companies in this category is Oceanside GlassTile (www.glasstile.com), a Carlsbad, Cal.-based company founded in 1992. The company produces a range of glass tile products, its primary product being Tessera mosaics. These mosaics come in sizes from one inch to two inches square and are offered in 40 different colors and finishes. Associated borders, blends and field patterns are also featured in the Tessera line, says executive vice-president John Marckx.

The company also markets larger modules in sizes measuring four-by-four up to eight-by-eight inches. A broad variety of decorative pieces, such as liners and borders, round out the selection. “Those pieces have ocean motifs and nature themes applicable to different markets,” Marckx says. “Glass is a medium that allows for a whole range of tile products.”

The Oceanside glass tiles are cast products, meaning they begin as molten glass with color already added, and fired to about 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. When this lava-like glass emerges from the oven, all colors look the same: a glowing orange to red hot color.

After the molten glass is poured into individual cast iron molds and begins to cool, the individual color starts to slowly emerge. From the molds, the glass tiles and decorative pieces go into other coloring and heat-treating processes before proceeding to an annealing process, allowing slow cooling to room temperature.

“We actually start with recycled bottle glass as the primary materials,” Marckx says. “In a number of our products, the glass consists of up to 85 percent recycled bottles. That adds a lot of interest among people looking at sustainable products or green products.”

Also located in the San Diego area, Boyce & Bean (www.boyceandbean.com) is a 5-1/2-year-old Oceanside manufacturer of glass tile and metal tile, and also imports ceramic tile from Mexico . In addition to its Oceanside plant, the company also maintains a manufacturing arm in the traditional glass-making city of Ottawa , Ill. , said senior customer service rep Grace Kalina.

Boyce & Bean provides two primary types of glass tile. In its Oceanside operation, it produces Beach Glass. Made in a “cold glass manufacturing process,” this glass is sea green and is cut into mosaic pieces, deco tiles, field tiles and medallions. Meanwhile, the Ottawa operation uses a cast glass process, in which molten glass yields Water and Light Glass, a Boyce & Bean mosaic product that is offered in three colors and finishes of clear, frosted and iridescent.

“Another type of glass tile is dichroic moonglass,” Kalina says. “These accent pieces can be used with our Beach Tile and our other tile lines. It comes in five different colors, and has a very magical appearance, changing colors throughout the day with changes in light.”

Up the coast, Marshall Malden founded Hakatai Enterprises (www.hakatai.com), an Ashland , Ore. importer and distributor of glass tile from China , about eight years ago. Importing glass mosaic from Chengdu , a city in the Sichuan Province , Malden sells to dealers throughout the United States . The mosaic tile ranges from 3/8-inch to two inches, with the most popular sellers the 3/4 and one-inch tiles, which are mounted on sheets about one square foot in size.

Hakatai’s glass tiles tend to be found most often in backsplashes, walls, showers and tub surrounds in residences, as well as in swimming pools, condos, hotels, restaurants and offices.

Growth of the glass tile market

Quoting The U.S. Ceramic Tile Market (Market Studies, 2004), Malden reports glass mosaic tile has been growing more than 40-percent per year since 2001. Anecdotal reports suggest the remainder of the glass tile market is also growing swiftly.

Nonetheless, the market for glass tile remains a small fraction of that for the much longer-established ceramic tile, Marckx reports. He estimates the ceramic tile market at about $2.5 billion annually in the United States , compared with the glass tile market’s approximately $100 million. “Glass is a nice niche in the overall ceramic and porcelain industry,” he says.

But many glass tile experts believe the market can grow much larger. “What are we limited by?” Malloy asks. “We’re limited by the imagination and conservatism of the public, designers and the dealers. They think of this as a very modern sort of cladding, and think of it only in terms of color.

“They don’t really understand the potential glass mosaic has for truly transforming a space and bringing in new light and new artistic vision.” That said, he adds his conviction that the market for glass tile is potentially as large as the one for ceramic tile.

Skeeter agrees. “I think we’re just scratching the surface,” she observes. “It’s just in its infancy. If you look at the size of the ceramic tile industry, there’s no reason glass can’t be equally large. Glass has more applications and a greater range of size and thickness.”

How should dealers sell glass tile?

In selling glass, dealers should keep in mind several considerations, say experts. One key is recognizing glass complements other natural materials. “If you have a glass liner or glass field tile, it can be a great complement to natural stone,” Marckx says. “Whether it’s an accent on the floor, a decorative band or just a component of an overall design.”

Malloy agrees. “I think we have to show [glass tile] more in combination with other mediums, because it can be integrated well with stone or ceramic surfaces,” he says. “The general preconception is that it’s very modern. But the reality is it can be modern, antique or reflect the style of any period. However, you have to bring to the material itself a knowledge of style and design. So I think one of the challenges in the dealer’s world is how to show the material not just as a series of color swatches, but as a fundamental building block to create design.”

The idea of creating greater design possibilities also resonates with Skeeter. “Ceramic tile has been around for a long time, and it’s pretty accepted,” she points out.

“Glass is able to still add an element of surprise. For instance, with our embossed and textured tile, you get a much greater tactile and visually more interesting surface.

“You can’t NOT touch it. It invites the touch.”

Dealers must also trumpet the tremendous versatility of glass tile, Stocchetti believes. “The array of color is amazing,” she says. “The main argument I would use is its versatility. It really goes with anything. It matches with natural color, with fabric, with wood.”

The bottom line on selling glass tile is that dealers must have support from distributors and manufacturers, experts maintain. Glass tile requires more sales support because it’s an inherently higher-end product, Marckx says. He recommends distributors make design tools, architectural books and sample products available to dealers, end users and trade clients.

Malloy also emphasizes the importance of sales support. Glass tile, he notes, takes more time and effort to sell, and many dealers don’t have the time or the focus. Some dealers have design professionals on their staffs, but most don’t. To maximize their ability to sell decorative materials and use space efficiently, dealers must look to the manufacturers for substantial help.

“That’s something we do,” Malloy notes. “For example, I’m working on several swimming pools with intricate hand-cut designs. The rough concept has been developed by the dealer, but the actual implementation of that concept is done by us.”

When dealers take time to ensure glass tile is used as effectively as possible, the rewards are enormous, he adds. Jobs are bigger, margins better, business development much more lucrative. “You create something you can take out into the world and show your real creative ability,” he says.

Today’s most important trends

The trends impacting today’s glass tile marketplace are in some cases the same ones affecting ceramic tile. A good example is the increasing tendency of customers to embrace not just the traditional neutral colors, but more vibrant colors such as oranges and grassy greens. “I think this is fostered or precipitated by the clothing or fashion industry,” Skeeter says.

“We see the color trends starting there, and then trickling down to the home fashion. The lag used to be several years; now it’s a much shorter time.”

Marckx agrees stronger colors are coming to the fore. He believes that’s particularly true of reds, both in primary reds and in wine-colored reds such as burgundy. In addition, metallic colors have won increasing acceptance. Bronze has received the most attention, but Marckx says his company also is witnessing demand for pewter and copper.

Along with interest in new colors, demand is also increasing for iridescent glass tile, Malden reports. Iridescent glass tile changes appearance with changes in light, something difficult to convey in typical marketing materials, he says. “We have a challenge trying to show it in a brochure or Web site, and you even have to be careful at trade shows to display it in changing light.” Iridescent glass tile, he adds, is growing very popular in kitchens, bathrooms and pools.

For his part, Malloy believes one of the trends is growing interest in glass tile lined pools. “People are becoming more vested in their homes, and there’s a willingness to do these fully clad swimming pools, where the glass will be there for the life of the pool, virtually maintenance free,” he notes. “A typical pool will have to be redone every so often. A glass pool doesn’t have to be.”

Kalina takes that observation one step further, remarking that the public seems to be more and more aware glass tile can function well in many settings. Glass tile seems to work whether it’s used indoors or outdoors, on floors or walls.

“People are starting to understand glass isn’t this fragile material,” she says. “It’s now being used in an architectural sense… We’re doing a lot of swimming pools, fountains, spas. People use our stuff on floors and a lot of bathroom applications, because it can be used in any kind of environment—wet or dry.”

Stocchetti reports glass mosaic is increasingly replacing wallpaper in some upscale residential settings. In this vein, one trend is baroque, with glass mosaic creating the feeling of a fabric or flower decoration. The other is minimalist and decidedly understated, with the mosaic reproducing stripes, tone on tone or white on white. “It’s very elegant,” she says.

The cost efficiency of glass tile

While they acknowledge glass tile’s higher costs, industry experts make a compelling case for the cost efficiency of glass tile. Marckx estimates glass tile ranges from $10 to $40 per square foot, compared with ceramic tile’s $2 to $10 per square foot. But 80 percent of glass tile is in the $20 to $30 price range. At that price, glass tile can be a viable field tile solution. If it’s factored into overall construction costs, the incremental cost of glass tile is not cost prohibitive, he asserts.

“When you break it down as a decorative element or accent material, it can be very cost effective,” he adds. “It adds a lot of visual excitement…without adding a lot to project cost.”

Malloy maintains that the cost of glass—when compared with some other popular materials—is within most budgets. Contrast glass with Japanese or Taiwanese mosaic, for instance, and there is little cost differential, he notes. He argues that the vast majority of glass mosaic falls within the $7 to $25 range. “And so from that point of view, I don’t see it as all that much different in costs,” he remarks. “Where it does get pricier is in installation. And that’s partially because it takes more care and more time to install it. But the price of installation is also driven by the fact there aren’t as many experienced installers. Many of the guys are afraid of it.”

Skeeter’s philosophy is that in many applications, the additional cost of glass tile is well worth the investment. Being a new and highly distinctive product, glass tile offers an eye-catching alternative to other products that have been around much longer. “You can get a look that’s much more unique and customizable,” she comments. “When you’re doing a high-end custom commercial, residential, hospitality or health care project, people are looking for something that’s out of the ordinary, something that’s unexpected. And glass offers that opportunity.”

The best applications

Marckx echoes the feelings of many when he observes that glass tile can be used in virtually any tile application, whether indoors or outdoors. The glass tile his company sells tends to end up most often in bathrooms, followed closely by kitchens and rooms with fireplaces.

“People want some sanctuary and are interested in creating a different feel and look to their bathroom,” he says.

“So we see a lot of sales there. The kitchen backsplash is a no-brainer. It’s a small area, and it’s right near eye level. Kitchen backsplashes are great candidates for glass tile. Fireplaces are also a focal point in a home, and a fireplace surround can be a really fun area for a feature wall or some other focal point.”

Asked what she believes are the best applications for glass tile, Skeeter responds by saying, “All kinds of surfaces.” Glass tile offered by UltraGlas can be used anywhere, including in the floor and as stair treads, she reports. That’s because they’re manufactured with a high coefficient of friction, which is imparted by the surface texture.

The texture also conceals scratches, marring and other wearing, as well as dirt, grease and grime. These tiles can be used in horizontal or vertical configurations.

“It’s great as furniture cladding, in tables and cabinetry,” she adds. “We can increase the thickness, depending on where it’s used. The larger the piece of glass, the thicker we make it…It can also be laminated, to give it additional strength when it’s suspended.”

Calling glass tile a very warm product, Stocchetti believes glass tile is most appropriate for the private interiors of homes. The material has the capacity to soothe the spirit, relax the soul and make people feel protected and comforted within their homes, she says.

Asked to forecast the future of glass tile, Skeeter says, “I really think it’s here to stay. It’s really a durable material, and as other products get more expensive, glass will retain its price in the marketplace. It’s got legs.”

 

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