Bejeweled, speckled and shimmering with flecks of gold, the newest tiles are going way beyond the backsplash, brightening living spaces all over the house.
Improvements in the past 20 years in firing, glazing and cutting technology have made tile easier and, in some instances, less costly to manufacture while creating a new luxury category of visually appealing high-gloss finishes, textures and designs.
American consumers last year laid 3.3 million square feet of ceramic tile, boosting sales of the $3.3 billion tile market 3.2 percent in 2006, according to data from the Tile Council of North America provided by Coverings, the recent international ceramic and natural stone tile trade show in Chicago.
"The most interesting thing in the market, and what defines tile today, is the glaze and the way it's used to give tile a striking appearance, reflecting light and in multiple colors," said Artist Tile's Nancy Epstein, herself a tile designer and the principal tile buyer for her company, which has showrooms in New York and New Jersey.
"The glaze really makes the piece. If you put a matte, shiny, crackle or glass-like glaze on the tile surface, it's going to totally change the look of the tile no matter what its shape or size."
Relatively new is a single-fire technology for glazing porcelain with textures, grooves and patterns that give tile a three-dimensional feel, such as the weave of a linen suit, or the ridges in a sisal rug, Epstein said.
Additionally, stone cutting machinery has evolved so that tile slabs are now cut thinner from rare stones normally found at the top of quarries. Mosaics can also be customized in all different sizes and shapes, Epstein explained. "They can take any color marble and combine it with any other color, they can add glass to it, they can add metal and put it all together and have it mesh mounted or tape-faced ready to be installed."
These versatile surface coverings can convey personal style and glamour. They are becoming a main visual attraction, or an art element, on high-profile walls, ceilings and flooring, perhaps in a foyer or bedroom, designers say.
Designers are combining contemporary and antique tiles in eye-catching textures, intricate designs and vibrant colors, and also offering bold colors and shapes.
You can choose metallic or mosaic glass, semiprecious stones or menswear-fabric finishes, gold leaf, porcelain and stone surfaces. There's a modern kind of ceramic that boasts a glossier finish, a three-dimensional look, expanded color palette, and crackled and beaded textures.
Prices vary widely, ranging from $20 per square foot to as high as several hundred dollars or more per square foot.
The effect could start at the front door.
"Homeowners are hoping to make a major creative statement by bringing tile into the entryways of their homes with a wall design that's the focal point of the room, and helps to connect the entry with the rest of the home and the floor," said Maxine Lauer, principal of Sphere Marketing, a retail-trend forecasting firm in Waterford, Mich.
"The global influences are huge," Lauer added, noting that Spain has been at the forefront of the new tile trend. She was a speaker on tile consumer and design trends at Coverings.
Tile is also entering the master suite as homeowners aim for a personal zone in the home that evokes peace and a special sense of space, Epstein said.
"The master suite is becoming more spa-like, with heated floor tiles and customized mosaic walls and flooring that combine glass, stone, metal and ceramic tiles in all different sizes and configurations," Epstein said.
Laurel True, founder and director of the Institute of Mosaic Art in Oakland, Calif., said many homeowners who attend her do-it-yourself workshops want to create designs with tile that personalize their homes and reflect their individuality.
"They want to give their homes more of handcrafted feel," she said, citing clients who commission from her True Mosaics studio mosaic pieces including murals, funky backsplashes, fountains, entryways and bathrooms for their homes.
One client asked her to create a mosaic mural of the solar system as a kitchen backsplash - and a koi pond surrounded with elaborate fountains using travertine marble and ceramic tile.