Eyeing the Latest Trends in Tile

Even in the midst of a pandemic, tile innovations are trending strong, from anti-microbial glazes to cutting-edge digital printing capabilities.

authors Jamie Gold | August 13, 2020

This has been a challenging year for tile trend spotting – actually, most design industry trend spotting, to be accurate. KBIS and Cevisama, Spain’s annual tile expo, took place before the pandemic bit hard into the globe. Since then, however, Coverings 2020 was moved online, rather than meeting in New Orleans as planned. Cersaie in Bologna and Salone in Milan (with its biennial EuroCucina) shows were both canceled for 2020 after hopeful postponements. The Tile Council of North America, which introduced OB Expo for the large Mexican tile industry in October 2019, is skipping 2020 altogether because of COVID, and planning the next one for October 2021.

But just because expos aren’t happening right now doesn’t mean there aren’t trends to spot, innovations to cover or surfaces that need cladding in ceramic or porcelain. It simply means that there are no frequent flyer miles or convention calories to accrue while reporting on them. Following, then, are the hot takes from five industry pros, currently “grounded,” at the heart of this dynamic global industry. They are:

  • Alena Capra, Coverings ambassador, interior designer and TV host;
  • Cristina Faedi, spokeswoman for the Ceramics of Italy trade association;
  • Ryan Fasan, consultant for Tile of Spain trade association and a ceramic tile specialist;
  • Roxanne Morris, spokeswoman for the Tile Council of North America trade association;
  • Arpi Nalbandian, editor of the Tileometry blog.

Innovation echoes natural beauty in these
jewel-like porcelain slabs.
Photo: Courtesy of Infinity, a Ceramics of Italy member company

Pandemic Trends

“I think we have, as a global community, learned a lot from the first wave of this virus,” Fasan shares. “What [Cevisama] looks like will depend on the communal health of the global population.”

“Italy was the first European country to be impacted by COVID-19, and remains one of the hardest hit countries in Europe,” Faedi observes. “While the production and shipment of Italian ceramics was briefly halted between late March and early April, and production paused for roughly a month, the Italian ceramics industry has resumed production since April 27. Now, companies are responding to the needs of the market with new guidelines and precautionary measures to protect the health and safety of workers and visitors,” she adds.

“Digital connectivity has helped in dealing with this global pandemic and keeping the flow of information going,” Fasan says. “Time will tell how effective these counter-measures are, and we will continue to adapt our methods to leverage the content and education available to us. I think that tile has the potential to gain substantial market-share coming out of this pandemic as we collectively adapt to the new normal.”

There may be a silver lining for the industry. Morris observes: “Due to increased inquiries during the pandemic, the TCNA lab is expanding its microbiology-based services to include antiviral testing to determine the survival rates/duration of viruses on different materials, and the efficacy of common household cleaners to disinfect these surfaces. Viruses need moisture to remain active, and because ceramic tile is inorganic, impervious and water-resistant, it is inhospitable to potential host sources like bacteria, mold and mildew. This should put ceramic at the top of the list for designers choosing materials in a post-pandemic world. Its ease-of-cleaning and composition gives ceramic a healthy advantage over other flooring materials.”

Porcelain countertops and terrazzo looks are both trending.
Photo: Courtesy of Ascale by Tau Ceramica, a Tile of Spain member

Style Trends

“The top colors, patterns and style trends in the U.S. continue to be dominated by natural stone- and wood-look tile for flooring, while the appeal for timeless subway tile as a backsplash/wall tile remains high,” observes Nalbandian, who has been trend watching for more than two decades. “Additionally, glass tile, mixed material (stone, glass, metal) mosaics and bold colors and patterns continue to enjoy attention.”

Large format is a strong and growing trend, Nalbandian notes: “Gorgeous bookmark porcelain tile panels, as well as large format terrazzo, integrate beautifully with any kitchen or bath design.”

Capra, who speaks about trends on television and at expos, as well as in client homes, agrees: “As wood porcelain and blended materials – like wood and concrete looks – continue to evolve, there is an abundance of new colors and plank sizes. From warmer earthier tones like sage green and terracotta, to blush pink and classic blue, there is definitely a trend towards a great mix of tones, hues and moods.” She also sees mixing in geometrics, such as trapezoids, rhombus and diamond-shaped tiles, showing up in a range of interesting and eye-pleasing patterns. “Other trends include modernized marble looks on porcelain, semi-precious and gemstone looks, terrazzo and psychedelic colors and patterns.”

Production and Innovation Trends

“What I think is exciting for product development is the employment of digital inks to refine effects, rather than printing color,” reports Fasan. “This creative use of digital is allowing for the most nuanced tile we have ever seen.”

Fasan is also bullish on the hygienic potential of tile, noting, “Perhaps the most exciting, given the global situation currently, is the advent of using catalytic oxides in the glaze for their anti-microbial properties. These oxides have the added benefit of increasing water’s surface tension to make them easy cleaning (or even self-cleaning on vertical surfaces).” This is definitely a powerful wellness design story to share.

Faedi adds, “Tile manufacturers are now producing porcelain stoneware slabs in 6mm and 12mm (less than quarter- and half-inch) thicknesses specifically designed for kitchen countertops, bathroom sinks, vanities, shelving and furnishings. They are also able to control the layering of minerals during the production process to create highly compact and resistant full-body porcelain stoneware with patterns extending throughout the entire tile. It’s the latest step forward and a new frontier in porcelain stoneware production technology.”

Usage Trends

The most common design applications for tile in the U.S. have been floors and walls, though it’s expanding into more spaces here. Other countries use this versatile material in many more ways, which manufacturers are hoping to expand here, too. “With industry standards coming into place, we are seeing great adoption rates in the large porcelain panels for counters,” Fasan comments.

“Kitchen and bath designers should consider tile as decorative screening or integrating large porcelain tile panels to construct furniture – the possibilities are only limited by the imagination,” notes Nalbandian.

“Porcelain tile panels and slabs can clad walls, whether in a shower or as an accent wall in a living room. They can also be used for the fronts of cabinetry. These panels and slabs have so many uses and are so beautiful!” Capra exclaims.

Distribution Trends

“Due to tariffs, Chinese tile imports are down 98 percent from Q1 2019 to Q1 2020,” TCNA’s Morris reports. While that’s significant news for the North American and European suppliers, it’s not the only distribution trend that’s worth noting.

“Some manufacturers with strong market penetration are opening distribution centers and offering just-in-time drop-ship capabilities for a broad array of their catalogue,” Tile of Spain consultant Fasan comments. “It used to be thought that the U.S. was far behind Europe in its taste, but it’s becoming clear that was more a factor of availability than preferences,” he remarks. Quick-ship programs from Europe are accelerating this availability. Many distributors are introducing them, Faedi adds, making them more readily available for designers on tight project deadlines.

“I think in the future we will see less inventory, and more of a focus on design and architectural specification knowledge provided by distributors,” Capra predicts. COVID-19 is having an impact too, she notes. “Distributors during the pandemic are delivering presentations using virtual meetings incorporating video. This is popular at the moment, but it’s certainly possible this trend could continue as we move forward.”

Sales Trends

“Online direct customers like Tile Bar are a growth category,” Fasan points out, adding, “Collectively, more so now than ever, we are used to shopping online. So, if we can easily get reference samples sent to make selections and have great online tools at our disposal, why not tile, too?” He also observes the growth of tile at large chains. “Big boxes like Floor & Décor and even Costco are getting into the tile game and can offer some surprising deals as they bypass the independent distribution model. You lose out on some expertise perhaps, but the perceived savings on material can be a deciding factor for some clients.” Does that describe any of your buyers?

“Since the pandemic began, a lot of brick and mortar retailers and showrooms offered curbside pickup of samples and materials,” Capra shares. “Online retailers were also able to send out samples and select orders. As things reopen, some new measures, such as appointment-only showroom visits and social distancing, are part of the safe shopping experience.”

Last Words

“Traveling to other countries allows me to observe and take note of what designers and architects are specifying in that part of the world. It is always eye-opening!” Nalbandian declares. She attends tile shows from Istanbul to Italy, Las Vegas to Spain. “Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, all industry shows were canceled or postponed,” she laments. “I’m looking forward to 2021!” Aren’t we all? ▪

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