Windows of Opportunity in Glass Tile
 
November 1st, 2006

November-December 2006

By Jeffrey Steele

Not long ago, Rita Levine was discussing glass tile’s rapidly growing acceptance in the design community. Levine, the marketing director for Diamond Tech Glass Tiles, observed that in the eyes of both design professionals and end users, glass had become “credible” as a viable tile alternative to ceramic, porcelain and stone.

Of course, as Levine and others who create, install or simply love looking at it know, glass tile isn’t just credible. It’s also incredible. The looks, colors, shapes and textures of glass tile are just about limitless. And the ways glass tile can be used are as big as all outdoors—or indoors. It’s beautiful as an accent in a field of other tile, and just as exquisite in fireplace mantles, kitchen backsplashes or showers, pools and spas.

No wonder Levine says, “Glass tile is really luscious stuff.”

This issue of TileDealer takes a close look at some of the big and small tile makers helping to ensure glass tile’s many attributes are visible to everyone.

Levine’s company, Tampa-based Diamond Tech Glass Tiles, was founded by Dan Daniels who started out as a manufacturer of power and hand tools to create stained glass, as well as his own unique stained glass creations. About four years ago, he and Levine simultaneously conceived the notion of creating their own stained glass tile selection.

The flagship line was the Stained Glass Series, Levine recalls. “We took the sheet stained glass, and molded it into 2-by-2s, 4-by-4s and 2-by-6-inch tiles with soft beveled edges,” she said. “It looks like a ceramic tile, but is made out of glass. And it has the same colorful swirls and streaks of actual stained glass.”

The response from customers was so favorable that the company soon added more lines. After many requests for a smaller-format tile, Diamond Tech unveiled its Mosaic Series of ¾-by-¾-inch tiles. Next came the Dimensions Series, which features transparent glass above fused enamel color in an 8-millimeter tile that appears three-dimensional once it’s mounted. “With our Stained Glass Series, the color is throughout,” Levine reports. “But with the Dimensions Series, you almost get the sense that you’re looking through a magnifying glass at the color.”

Diamond Tech Glass Tiles’ products are used primarily in residential bathrooms and kitchens, she adds. But growth is taking place in commercial installations, where designers are becoming much more creative and adventuresome with glass tile.

“People in the commercial side are finding funky and unusual ways to use glass tile,” says. Levine, who recently visited a restaurant in Tampa’s exclusive Bayshore Boulevard area and found its designer had utilized Diamond Tech’s glass tile in an unusual way. The tiles had been mounted upside down, revealing the hash marks on the back of the tiles. The result was a unique, opaque look like a basket weave, Levine recalls. “The more people see glass tile, and the more familiar they are with it, the more they want to use it, whether it’s in their foyer, as room dividers, wherever they use tile… Even though glass tile has been out there for at least 15 years, it hasn’t yet been widely used. So there’s no familiarity yet. But thanks to wonderful magazines out there finding applications and promoting glass tile, it has been validated as a credible alternative to ceramic and stone tile.”

Another Sunshine State provider of glass tile products is Clearwater-based On the Wall. Founder and owner Tracy Kowalchuk entered the tile industry as an employee of a large flooring company after graduating from the Art Institute of Philadelphia, where she earned an architecture degree.

Her immersion in the tile industry led her to gain an understanding, she says, of “what was missing.” That insight, along with her extensive design background, spurred her to start her own company, whose most recent introduction has been glass tile.

“The concept of On the Wall is we have a little of everything,” she says. “It’s not handmade, it’s not that level, but it’s not so factory-made that it looks like everything else. It’s made with our specifications, and our designs.”

Kowalchuk’s creation is a shiny and matte-frosted, four-

millimeter-thick glass tile in 1-by-1, 1-by-2, 2-by-2 and 4-by-4-inch sizes that boasts a Core-25 palette.

“In glass tile today, a lot of the factories in China have 200 colors available, but no one knows what to do with them,” she says. “Core-25 is the best 25 colors for the U.S. market, ranging from soft taupe to sage, as well as a gorgeous red, a vibrant purple and pastels like cobalt blue and turquoise.”

A “greeny-white” Coke-bottle color is also a part of the palette, as are two darker shades to create blends. “And things like the sage and taupe, you have color options down the color scale from those,” Kowalchuk says. “Everything works in tandem with everything else in that Core-25. We’re going to add glass liners in the core colors, and in that color palette we will continue to add blends. So at all times, you can use a blend as an accent or a deco, but you always have your base line to work with as well.”

Trikeenan Tileworks, a highly-respected artisan tile company founded by Kristin and Stephen Powers more than 15 years ago, is yet another glass tile innovator. The Keene, New Hampshire, firm has established a well-earned reputation for developing cutting-edge products.

In 2002, Trikeenan pioneered a new glass tile technology known as glass-fused ceramic, says spokeswoman Ola Lessard. The company’s Glass Windows line uses the technology, which features fused glass above a high-fired stoneware back to create a crackled, highly refractive glass base that throws off considerable light.

“What we hear back from dealers and designers is that this is a very different tile, one that is unlike other glass tile,” Lessard reports. “A lot of light refracts back from the tile, so [Glass Windows is] aptly named. And it’s a beautiful tile.”

Glass Windows tile comes in five sizes, ranging from 6-inches square to as small as a 1-by-6-inch liner. Some 15 recycled glass colors are offered, from milkweed, a soft, grainy color, all the way to a stunning red color called poppy. What’s more, the tiles are modular in nature and are designed to fit together to create larger patterns.

The 37 available modular patterns help make this a “very designable” line, Lessard observes. Customers can take the palette of glass colors, and use designs to create as large or as small an installation as they want, in whatever configuration they choose. As a starting point, they can utilize the free pattern book on the Trikeenan Web site. Glass Windows is being used in both commercial and residential applications for large installations of glass tile or as a decorative insert or liner.

Meanwhile, a chance discovery in Italy led to the establishment of glass tile maker Domani U.S.A., based in Minneapolis. Co-founder David Spencer travels to Italy annually to buy plastics for his OGI Frames business. Touring a Milan plastic manufacturing plant two years ago, he was shown a plastic that unfortunately could not be used for eyeglasses because its PVC base reacted poorly with skin, but it boasted exceptionally vibrant colors and featured an almost three-dimensional look.

“He called me and said, ‘You’ve got to see this plastic!’” David’s brother and company president Craig Spencer relates. “We developed a process of laminating [the plastic] onto a single piece of glass. The Italian plastic is on the bottom, the glass on the top. We then started manufacturing glass tile in various sizes.” The process for lamination the Spencers developed for the single-layer process is patent pending. “No one else out there can duplicate what we’ve done,” he says.

The company primarily uses iron-free Starphire glass by PPG in its tiles. The tile is devoid of a green tint, and also benefits from higher light transmission, allowing the three-dimensional characteristics of the Italian plastic to shine through.

The Italian line of glass tile features 24 colors, and in a custom line of glass tile, Domani U.S.A. offers more than 100 colors. Standard sizes are 4-by-4 and 8-by-8 inches, but custom sizes can also be manufactured in any size larger than 4-by-4. In addition, the company can offer rectangular or subway tiles, or squares up to 20 inches.

Ultraglas Inc. was founded as a provider of stained glass in 1973, and in 2002 transitioned into full production of hand-made glass tile. CEO Jane Skeeter reports the move was a natural line extension for Ultraglas, and allowed the company to bring color to glass tile.

Ultraglas tile uses glass pigments that are fired into the glass, rendering them integral to the body of the glass. As a result, colors don’t separate, chip or fade, won’t react to setting materials and are resistant to chemicals. Tiles are offered in 31 standard luminous colors, with custom colors available for a nominal fee. The tiles’ standard thickness is 5/16-inch, making them ideal for use with ¼ and 3/8-inch materials. In addition, they’re versatile enough to be utilized in interior and exterior applications, and are perfect for pools, spas and showers.

Glass Art Tile Companies

A substantial and growing portion of the glass tile produced in this country is the product of upstart glass art tile companies from New York to suburban Seattle.

Among them is Boulder, Colorado’s Adagio Art Glass. Founders Mary and Rick Barron parlayed Mary’s 30 years of experience in glass and fine arts and Rick’s marketing skills to create a commercial line of products that includes fused glass tiles, knobs and pulls, mirror frames and sconce lights.

The Barrons started making glass tile with the idea every customer would want typical sizes ranging from 1½ to 6 inches square, but soon realized they would be more likely to serve their customers’ needs by making every order a custom order.

One of Adagio’s first lines was Rhapsody, which features layers of glass fused together to form a variety of color combinations and shapes. The other was Fantasia, characterized by a more random array of fractures and streamers, resulting in tiny chips of glass of indeterminate shape being embedded within the tile.

“One thing that makes our tile quite distinctive is you can see each layer of glass on top of one another,” Rick Barron says. “In other words, we maintain the definition of the glass. When you fuse glass, you normally melt it in a kiln. But we don’t melt it completely, but only to the point where you can still see the definition between layers.”

Adagio’s glass tiles are often used as accents within a field of other tile, such as onyx or slate, Rick Barron says. Another frequent use is as a liner that crowns the top of a field of tiles. They are also used as any other tile would be utilized, in bathroom walls, in kitchen backsplashes, as fireplace mantle accents, in exterior décor and in swimming pools, he adds. And even though each order is custom made, every one is shipped within two weeks.

Glass tile now represents about one-third of the product line at six-year-old Scottsdale, Arizona-based Arizona Hot Dots. With a background in jewelry, metal design and sculpture at Miami of Ohio, Kristin Traynor was well equipped to establish a company focused on pewter accent pieces.

About three years ago, Traynor located a Phoenix-area artist skilled in specialty glass sculptures and with her developed the Immersion line of glass tile. This line of hand-made, kiln-fired glass tiles in 2-, 4- and 6-inch squares has grown steadily, and today boasts a palette of 30 different custom colors. Its versatility has made the two-inch tiles most popular with customers, who use them as diamonds and borders.

Speaking of her product line, Traynor says, “We have decorative accents we call halos, created with an air bubble in the middle of the tile that produces a kind of tunnel. Then we have matching field tiles corresponding with those halos. And in addition, we also offer matching liners or borders.”

Suitable for both residential and commercial applications, the Immersion line is most often used as accents to create a focal point in a residential room, Traynor says. “Typical applications are kitchen and bath, but we have noticed installations are going beyond the traditional, moving into borders for mirrors, borders for fireplaces and around the edges of swimming pools.”

The story behind seven-year-old Art Effects Glass, based in the Buffalo suburb of Lockport, New York, is as intriguing as any in the glass tile industry. Company president Catherine O’Connor began her career as a math teacher, but gave up teaching to become a potter. After about 15 years in that field, she developed an allergic reaction to the mold in clay.

“I then read about adding heat to glass, and experimented with my kiln, making tiles and wall art,” she remembers. That led to producing custom glasswork for a wide variety of design professionals, among them architects and decorators.

Today her company’s primary line is glass tile. Design professionals provide her with specs, and she produces custom tile for their projects. After these custom pieces have been created, she adds them to her existing standard line of products.

“You would be amazed at the different varieties I have,” O’Connor says. “I create different patterns, textures and colors. And we add precious metals to the tiles—such as gold, silver, palladium and copper—as well as stainless steel.”

She also performs sculptural casting. Castings begin as wax or clay sculptures, from which molds are created. After the molds gain customer approval, they are, she says, “tweaked.” The sculptures are then turned into glass tiles.

Her creations are often used in spas and pools, and as accents in residential and commercial settings. “We do custom coordinates for the various types of marble and stone,” O’Connor says. “And I’m now working with a local lighting company to create tiles that are specially backlit, for use in swimming pools.”

Calling Art Effects Glass “part of the boutique movement in the tile industry,” O’Connor notes that because the company is small, it produces all its products to order, and also handles “a lot of specialty work.”

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