Looking Into Glass Tile: Color and innovation are just the beginning
July 2nd, 2008

July-August 2008

By Zoe Voigt

Considering that glass has been around for thousands of years, the progress i­­n glass tile manufacturing in the last ten years has been dramatic. Today, glass tile is available in just about any size, color, texture or finish imaginable and it can be used pretty much anywhere ceramic tile is appropriate.

A colorful history that spans thousands of years

Around 3500 BC, humans were creating glass beads and using glass as a glaze for ceramics. By 1500 BC, all kinds of materials were being made with glass. Glass blowing began around 2000 years ago and within 100 years people were making clear glass for architectural purposes, including tiles. During the Byzantine era, small colorful tiles called smalti were made for use in mosaics. These consisted of melted silica with additives for color and were hand cut.

Because the several methods for manufacturing tile from glass all involve a lot of heat, the glassmakers of Venice were moved to the island of Murano in 1291 to prevent frequent fires from destroying the city.

Mass production was introduced during the industrial revolution and the technological advances continue to the present.

In addition to smalti tile, the Venetian-style glass with through-body color, there are also several other techniques for manufacturing glass tile.

Float glass is poured over molten metal, and gravity pulls it very flat and smooth. The glass is clear, but pigment can be added and the result is a translucent glass with embedded color. Once cooled, it can be cut into tiles and finished. Similarly, fused glass is often used to describe multiple sheets of float glass that have been fired and fused together.

Casting is another process. Molten glass is mixed with pigment and poured quickly into molds. After cooling it can be cut, etched or finished.

Terrazzo is traditionally made by adding marble to Portland cement, but these days several manufacturers use glass shards to replace the stone and sometimes they add pigment to the cement. The mixture is added to molds and hardened under hydraulic pressure.

Innovations in glass tile today

Until a few years ago, the selections of glass tiles were minimal. But today glass tiles have made the leap to high fashion, fine art, and technical innovations. They are far more than just light blue one-inch squares for use in showers and pools.

Both modern and ancient methods are used to create one-of-a-kind designs and gorgeous colors by artisans. Large production facilities make glass tiles that are uniform, which is desirable depending on the preferred look.

Crossville has been manufacturing eye-catching float glass tiles for several years. Their vibrant Color Blox line added several new colors this year. According to designer and color consultant, Barbara Schirmeister, “Color Blox is a candy box of colorful tile in brights, neutrals and blends.”

“I designed this line to coordinate within its own family and harmonize with the other colors in our lines,” she says. “We offer as many colors as we thought we’d dare. Now there are 44 colors including brights and neutrals. It is a push, but it makes designers happy to have all these delicious looks to choose from.”

At Coverings, Crossville introduced a new line of environmentally friendly glass tile using certified recycled content. Schirmeister says, “Our new line Echo Recycled Glass is made of cast, translucent glass that is textured front and back. It captures, refracts, and bends the light wonderfully.”

“It has a beautiful texture reflecting an elegantly muted but vibrant range of colors. Echo has a sophistication and urban chic with neutrals well represented. Certain urban homes have a lack of color palette, so with these 15 colors, we’re able to offer that option too. The use of glass means you get a depth of color you can’t get without reflectivity.”

Crossville’s third glass tile line, Illuminessence comes in nine colors each with three finishes, clear, frosted and iridescent.

Austrian glass tile manufacturer Villi makes a float glass tile with metallic pigments through an innovative patent process. This method creates a tile that is especially brilliant and, depending on the angle, creates a play of light that subtly changes the tile’s appearance and depth of color.

According to Gottfried Berger, managing director of Villi, “This process assures absolute dimensional accuracy. So you can use any combination of our formats with a very fine grout joint. We fire polish each tile to create a smooth finish with soft edges. The 8 mm thickness is designed to work with ceramic tiles and equally well with stone.”

Villi has gone to lengths to ensure that the tiles can be used on floors as well as in traditional installations such as walls and pools. The tiles have passed technical standard testing (ASTM c1028) for skid resistance through two different methods, etching and granular, where the tiles are coated with corundum powder, which is fused to the surface.

The company offers metallics, borders, and dozens of striking and fashionable colors and textures. “Our method of fusing a white layer behind the color layer stablizes the color and makes it uniform despite the substrate,” says Berger. Villi USA is a stocking warehouse and is located in Georgia. The tiles are manufactured in Austria and Croatia.

Interstyle Ceramic & Glass Tile has been manufacturing glass tile in Vancouver for 25 years and ceramic tile for 30 years. “We’re the first company to develop glass tile using this method,” says Robyn Brown, architectural sales manger for Interstyle. “We pioneered the production of modern fused glass tiles.”

At Coverings, Interstyle showed three new products. According to Brown, “Stratus floor tile has textured lines and floral patterns. Ore has rich metals hues in lots of sizes and in brick shapes. Icetix comes in matte, glassy and iridescent.”

“We also have monochromatic and custom blends,” she added. “Barcode is still doing well, as are textured and combinations of textures. We carry two lines of 100% post-industrial recycled tile and Aquarius tile which is 85% recycled.”

Color Mirage is a new company that launched a unique glass product at Coverings 2008. The glass appears to change color depending on the light or the angle. According to President and CEO, Andy Pomeroy, “Applied Coatings Group was started by Bausch and Lomb.”

“We manufacture a dichroic optical thin coat designed to transmit or reflect specific wave lengths. The tiles will appear to change color as the viewer’s perspective shifts. This coating reflects one color and transmits another,” says Pomeroy. “We manage the wave lengths and create patterns or shimmer on the surface. These are the industry’s first glass blocks and decorative glass tiles treated with dichroic thin film technology. Modono is the company’s designer line.”

Character of glass expands its design qualities

Glass can reflect light, making a room seem brighter. According to Schirmeister, “This color and brilliance is a combination you can only get with glass because of the qualities of the material.”

Raffi Jacobson has been making handmade glass tile using the casting method for ten years. He learned the art in the South of France as a hobby, but the art consumed him and eventually it became a business.

“I love glass and I take risks in doing wilder colors like orange or lime. All kinds of colors bring a brightness to any room. There are such wonderful materials on the market today,” he says. “I sell matte, shiny and pebbles which are wonderful to walk on.”

“Glass and water look so beautiful together. It is bright and cheery. If you see brightly colored tile first thing in the morning, you start your day with a smile. Who wants to wake up and see stone that looks like it came from a graveyard? You can lighten up a room the way you would add throw pillows in the living room.”

“All glass tile that is a true color has to start with clear float glass, not recycled. For darker, through-body colors you can use recycled materials,” says Jacobson.

“Metallic colors cannot be used in water. They are not fused with the same heat, or the metal would turn black. They’re strong enough for use on a wall, but not in the water all the time,” adds Jacobson. “Still, metallic glass tile is wonderful. People will take a chance on a whole wall of silver and it looks wonderful with stone. Stone often has specks of metal, so the metallic tile works wonderfully as a backsplash in the kitchen.”

Seneca Tiles offers several lines of glass tile. The Adriatic collection has rhomboids and diamond shapes as well as two sizes of squares. According to president Jim Fry, “This tile is made for us by Italian manufacturers in custom color blends. It comes in clear and metallic, and it has a wonderful stained glass appearance.”

The crystal gold is really 24 carat and the crystal silver is 99.9% pure platinum. “Our newer series is called MicroMosaics. This is a traditional Venetian glass also made in Italy using ancient methods. It comes mesh mounted as a single sheet.” The tiny pieces of glass are just half-inch squares and a single 12 x 12 sheet has 484 pieces.

Glass mosaics

High-end mosaic company, New Ravenna was formed in 1991 by president Sara Baldwin. Baldwin was a painter in graduate school and turned that art background into a mosaic design company that now employees 140 people. “I was a painter, but I realized that people will spend more on functional art than on a painting or a work of fine art. So I decided to make functional and useful products for high-end clients. Somehow it is easier for them to spend on that, sneak the art in that way.”

Baldwin’s mosaic designs are very complex. “This peacock design will take three people a week to put together,” says Baldwin.

“With custom mosaics, and our vast array of materials, any option is available, and some [clients] become paralyzed with the unlimited possibilities. So we almost have to be psychologists to unearth what aesthetically turns them on,” says Baldwin. “We need to, so we can reflect their personalities. A designer can draw it out of them. It is a real interactive process not only with the client but also the designer.”

Baldwin says, “This work is exciting and it is real fun creating these mosaics.”

Oceanside Glasstile has been in the handcrafted glass tile business for 16 years. Their tile is made by pouring molten glass into molds, cooling them, and then hand-cutting the individual pieces. They reuse the trimmings and use recycled glass in many of their products. Because they are handmade, the tiles have slight irregularities, which are desirable as they catch and reflect light.

Oceanside introduced new colors and shapes at Coverings 2008 in Orlando.

They added 12 new dimensional pieces with organic and geometric motifs. Blink, a new addition to the Casa California line, is a curvy diamond with a raised ridge. It was shown in shadow, an intense dark grey. They also expanded the offerings that are available in matte finish.

According to Johnny Merckx, Oceanside’s executive vice president, “We’ve been playing around and breaking the grid. Before, everything was square and rectilinear; now we’re bringing in curves and bevels.”

“Feras Irikat, who is our new product designer and has a background in color theory, and I worked together on this new line. We’ve seen glass used in so many combinations with concrete and metals, so we focused on adding warmth. We’re continuing to create palettes that are neutral and incorporating more modern hues. Our colors are cosmopolitan neutrals—earthy and neutral, but more intense and punchier earth tones. These new colors are not a full departure from our other lines.”

“We added three new colors,” says Merckx. “Henna, which is an amber that shifts to more reddish copper undertones. Truffle, a taupe range that straddles grey. And Shadow, a cool grey liquid with gem-like qualities as it gets thicker.”

“Glass is beautiful by itself. When you add the three finishes, you can have one color but the installation is not monochromatic. The trend is textures and finishes. It is dynamic because you have more movement with one color and with three finishes you get the play of light,” says Merckx. “Matte finish is new for us. It extends through product families being embraced as a neutral. Matte adds to earthiness and makes glass more appropriate for more applications.”

“Updated modern can be integrated into any architectural style. There is limitless fun to be had with these product offerings.”

Hakatai is an eleven-year-old glass mosaic company based in Ashland, Oregon. President Marshall Malden says, “We’ve had a great response to our new products. We’ve been adding new colors and expanding our current lines. We’re launching a new line this summer with mixed materials. It’s called the Horizon series. We’ll have glass and metal blends and glass and stone blends. It will be monotone, with mixed matter and a slightly irregular finish.

“Another new line coming this summer is the Emperia series. It will have blends of stone and iridescent mixed together,” says Malden.

“Our recycled line has expanded and we’ve seen more interest in environmentally friendly products. We’re working with our suppliers to use more recycled glass. It is a balance with the fashion side because, of course, it has to look good, too.”

Marketing associate Amanda Casserlly says, “The Ashland-E uses approximately 70% recycled material. We’re adding new colors and expanding current lines. Our Adventurine series has 14 new colors.”

“We have a new product committee and no lack of stuff to choose from. It is selecting what we do and what we think will work and if it fits us,” says Malden. “In this economy, it is important to be flexible, so we’re staying competitive and staying current. To do that, we support our distributors with dealer display programs.”

Where can glass be installed?

Glass tiles work in most installations where any other tile is appropriate. For use on floors, one must consider the slip resistance, as with ceramic or porcelain tile. Frequent grout lines also add to the coefficient of friction, so smaller tiles work well on floors. Some floor tiles are etched or finished with a rough surface. If you plan to use large format glass tiles, ask the manufacturer for ANSI testing data to find out if the tile can be used on the floor. Manufacturers such as Crossville, Oceanside, Interstyle, Hakatai, and Villi can provide exact figures on their products.

“Glass is s a hard surface and is easy to use anywhere,” says Raffi Jacobson of Raffi Tile in Los Angeles. “Of course, it can scratch with heels, so I wouldn’t recommend using a glossy finish on the floor in a high-traffic area. But in the shower, bathroom, kitchen, it is great,” he adds. “I love the translucence and vibrancy of color and the glass itself, it is such a beautiful material. There’s nothing more cheerful than waking up in the morning and walking into a shower with bright turquoise glass.”

According to Oceanside’s Merckx, “Glass tile is art that is both attainable and user-friendly.”

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