LARGE Format Tile
September 1st, 2005

September-October 2005

By Christy Stadelmaier

Prepare for the revolution

As we entered CERSAIE in the fall of 2004 from the back entrance, we were immediately struck by the number of metal plates used as flooring in various booths. “Why would tile manufacturers show metal on their floors?” was the first thought that came to mind. Had we entered the front door we would have been struck instead by the incredible 2′ x 4′ slabs of porcelain finished to look like weathered metal—Corten by TAU. It was such an attention-grabbing look that it was difficult to walk away.

Large format tile is definitely a part of the future of ceramic tile and Corten with its natural metallic look is the perfect example of a compelling product that will capture the consumers’ imagination if used in the appropriate setting.

It is truly a paradox; as the popularity of hard surface finishes grows, consumers have fallen in love with metals and a range of natural materials with soft “visual” aesthetics—limestone, sandstone, quartzite and others considered “natural” like glass and concrete. By simply enhancing the raw materials a little more than for the standard commodity product, glass and concrete have moved beyond function and become “aesthetic materials.”

Porcelain tile falls into a special category—made of natural raw materials, it is often hard to tell the difference between it and many of nature’s much-loved materials. However, porcelain’s functional properties improve on Mother Nature, while offering an endless array of visual aesthetics in natural neutral palettes. Large or small, in unique or natural aesthetics, porcelain tiles fit today’s consumers’ wants and needs for a beautiful, easy to maintain, eco-friendly surface finish that offers great value.

Fast-forward several months after your own trip to CERSAIE, where the new technologies captivated your attention and you have container-loads of “love at first sight” materials arriving. Your sales strategy for all the new large format porcelain tiles should consist of more than selling your customers on the idea that “large tiles make your small spaces look bigger.” This is ultimately a self-defeating concept; you want to sell large format tiles in expansive spaces rather than selling several pieces for a powder room. (Monolithic surfaces expand a space—that is the appeal of the large format material. In a powder room a mosaic tile with matching grout creates a more monolithic and sophisticated look than do large format tiles in any small space.)

Selling Large Format

With today’s knowledgeable consumer, you don’t really “sell” them anything at all—you inspire them and guide them towards the right choice for their home and lifestyle. You would be doing a disservice to those consumers who want to recreate a Tuscan or Provence look in their home by trying to sell them larger formats. Whether it is limestone or one of the porcelain look-alikes, the charm is in the grid for these traditional aesthetics. They want a farmhouse look. If they wanted their home to look like an Armani store, they would tell you that.

So where will these large format tiles sell? Betty Sullivan president of Architectural Ceramic, Inc. in the Baltimore market says her “customers find plenty of compelling reasons to like large formats tiles; they like them for their sleek lines, less grout joints, and their classier, more expensive look.”

If the housing stock in your marketplace consists of large homes of single level slab construction where homeowners enjoy indoor-outdoor living, your sales strategy is obvious. Your customers will not take much convincing to move from 16″ x 16″ to 24′ x 24′ and larger, especially after seeing them in an upscale shop or restaurant. If you offer the appropriate inserts and decorative elements that allow them to define and customize their spaces, larger formats will easily translate to these homes.

From the fashionable urban Milan look, popular in lofts on the East Coast to the continuing popularity of Asian minimalism on the West coast, the design trends are also lining up in favor of larger formats. Both aesthetics focus on floors that are monolithic and inspired by smooth stones or concrete. Now visually, the grout joints appear to be expansion joints in concrete, rather than mere grout joints. The larger format porcelain tiles are particularly suited for this look, and functionally more so than concrete itself.

Demographics will also give a boost to the potential of large formats. According to Census reports and newly analyzed buyer preferences data from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), households headed by Generation X-ers and members of the so-called “echo-boom” purchased 55 percent of all newly built homes sold in 2003 and are fast becoming the trendsetters in U.S. housing markets. They want homes that are 50% larger when they trade up. This compares to seniors and baby boomers, who want only 17 percent and 22 percent more space, respectively. “In all, we find that the preferences of younger buyers tend toward greater space and more sophisticated amenities than those of their forebears,” says NAHB Executive Vice President and CEO Jerry Howard.

However, if the housing stock in your marketplace is not so obviously suited to large format tiles, put your resources into cultivating your commercial customers for these products. Unless someone is furnishing a loft space, a tile like Corten is much more suited to the latest fusion restaurant or Harley Davidson boutique than the average remodeling job in a traditional foursquare house that has probably settled over time.

Betty Sullivan finds that architects are her best sales people, “they love rectangles and rectified tiles.” No one would have ever thought of using the wildly patterned Chinese slates in their homes if they had not seen them first on the facades of the original “Nature Company” stores—slate up until then had been a solid, subtle color material. Tile until recently was a stretch at 16″ x 16″. Once consumers grow comfortable with larger formats by seeing them in intimate commercial spaces, it will not take long to translate to their homes.

Evolution and Revolution

Evolution sneaks up on us—suddenly a new generation is taller than their parents. It is no wonder that “eco-boomers” want larger houses than their parents did. Moving up in size from 12″ x 12″ to 24″ x 24″ is an ongoing evolutionary process and if home sizes continue to grow, so will the size of tile. In markets where this is not the case, consumers will look for the “new” in other ways.

Revolutions change everything. At CERSAIE 2004, Cotto d’Este and Provenza quietly introduced a truly groundbreaking technological revolution to the industry. They introduced porcelain tiles of extraordinary proportions: 1M by 3M by 3mm (39 by 118 by .12 inches)—slabs so thin they will bend to fit the curving walls that architects now love to design on their CAD systems. The possibilities are as Endless as the name that Provenza gave to their new material. Provenza is also partnering with Fantini, a faucet manufacturer and Davide Groppe, a lighting partner to create fully integrated interior finishing systems for walls, floors and countertops. (One future scenario holds monolithic finishes interrupted only by large colorful screens for decoration.) Cotto d’Este enriches their material called Kerlite with Zirconium particles to reflect a subtle shimmer of light. (As applied patterns disappear from the interior finish vocabulary, the way that materials interact with light has become as important as the materials themselves.) Endless is available in four neutral colors and Kerlite in five neutral colors plus a water inspired aqua called Lake .

ICFF (International Contemporary Furniture Fair) annually introduces the latest concepts in home furnishings and finishes to the American design community. This Spring COVERINGS ETC, recognized throughout the design industry as a unique and sophisticated slab and tile source, introduced Eco-Gres Ultra™, an eco-friendly porcelain slab in the 1M x 3M dimension in a palette of 24 solid colors. Jennifer Ryan, in charge of business development for the company, says: “the large slabs are already selling in the hospitality industry, where the functional properties of the material are the most desirable.” COVERINGS ETC also offers various collections of cement based engineered slabs for interior finishes.

All these thin-slab materials were originally engineered for exterior cladding systems where weight (approx. 44 lbs./sheet) is a factor. The requirements for exterior use have created a material that makes it suitable for many interior uses as well. The products have similar technical properties; they are all exceptionally resistant to water, chemicals, fire, scratching, are frost proof and do not release toxic substances or smoke. This makes them versatile design solutions for high traffic flooring, walls, ceiling, countertops as well as the original intent—exterior cladding. These materials are ideally suited for the expanding hospitality industry especially in large wet areas such as health clubs, spas and the elegant home spas.

Even though Europe has such a strong historic architectural heritage, (or maybe because they enjoy so much history) they choose modern monolithic interiors for their shops and boutiques. In today’s hyper-competitive retail environment, store designers introduce consumers to a wide range of new interior finish materials in the effort to distinguish a brand. Last summer, London ’s brand new Bond Street Max Mara store was the talk of the town. The store’s monolithic sand color is the perfect backdrop to each new season’s fashions, but the monolithic finishes were a mystery even to those of us “in the business.” At CERSAIE, we figured it out—it was the beginning of the revolution.

So join the revolution today! Prepare your marketing plan, devise a sales strategy and like Betty Sullivan, be sure to include the design community in your plans for larger format tiles. Architects and designers love the new, the innovative and will find ways to use exciting new products in ways that will quickly make them irresistible to your consumers.

Christy Stadelmaier, principal of Motif Marketing, is a designer who specializes in product development, marketing and merchandising of interior finish materials. In today’s over saturated marketplace, she finds that less is often more and from her years as the tile expert on “This Old House,” that a good story trumps everything. She can be reached in Boston at 617-436-5933 or

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